The Comparison Game: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem

In the background of existence, beyond our mindful awareness, most of us participate in a constant comparison game; measuring ourselves against our fellow man and woman in a race towards the coveted grail of high self-esteem.  Perhaps some of the following thoughts will appear familiar.

“I make more money than him.  I own a home and he doesn’t.  I still have my hair and he’s losing his.  I drive a Lexus and he drives a Camry.  I have advanced further in my career than him.  She looks older than me.  I have kids and she doesn’t.  I have a husband and she doesn’t.  I don’t like the wedding dress.  I wouldn’t have picked those flowers.  My kid has a 4.0 GPA and her kid struggles.  My kid was admitted to better schools; got a scholarship.  My kid is a better athlete.  My kid is smarter.”  

It goes on and on.

Much of the dialogue occurs mindlessly, part of our everyday lives, unconsciously affecting our mood and our personalities.  The comparison game works well for those who are smart, beautiful, and athletic; those who excel in the categories that culturally we prioritize.  However, those who are less intelligent, attractive, and athletic often struggle with confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth based on the comparisons.

The Comparison Game Impacts our Lives

The counterargument is that these categories of personal qualities are too limited; that everyone has their own set of unique strengths that balances and equates; everyone is valued equally; through our shared humanity we are all worthy and deserving of love.  While I agree wholeheartedly, these admirable sentiments are in part born of an aspirational ideal that reflects the best version of ourselves; rather than the less romantic cultural reality where some qualities are more highly prioritized.

For example, we don’t equally value academic achievement and emotional selflessness; even if we believe and say that we should.  Academic success is greeted with tangible recognition; public praise, degrees, and awards, while emotional generosity is acknowledged more quietly.  While we may believe and say that emotional generosity is of equal import, we more actively validate other strengths like academic success, athletic achievement, wealth, power, and beauty. In other words, belief is separate from action and here they are misaligned.    

Synchronizing Beliefs and Actions

In addition, if belief and action are asynchronous, emotional states of individuals with different strengths will separate based on how we act.  The marginalized can’t be intellectually bargained out of their self-image based on our collective words and beliefs; as their current emotional wellbeing stems from years of numerous signals teaching them to feel less valued.  In other words, if we want to validate, value, and recognize the emotionally selfless, we need our actions to match our words through the same tangible recognition we grant to talented athletes and students.  They need to feel equally recognized from our collective actions; lending credence to the familiar adage that actions speak louder than words.  Once our actions align with our beliefs and words, the scales of elevated emotion will balance between individuals of varying strengths.     

The mindless comparisons within our heads, along with how we culturally prioritize certain character traits, create an emotional divergence among the participants; some feeling elevated while others deflated along a seemingly infinite spectrum of self-worth and self-esteem.   Each comparison influences our emotional world.  When we compare favorably, our emotions elevate.  When we compare unfavorably, we feel slightly worse.  While mostly occurring in the background of existence, the impact on our daily moods and even personalities is immense.  

The Comparison Game: The Dark Side

The dark side of the comparison game stems from silently elevating ourselves at the diminishment of others.  We inflate our egos through the depreciation of our fellow human beings.  For example, learning that another student performed less successfully on an exam will probably inflate our emotions while deflating theirs.  This is not to say that we play the game maliciously; far from it.  We don’t consciously and brutally believe that the outcome of these comparison dictates our respective value and importance; as that path can lead to narcissism.  

However, value determination as a result of a comparison is likely a belief that we hold silently and comfortably beyond our awareness; allowing us to feel elevated without facing the inherent cruelty behind it.  The dark side is subtle, but its impact vast and equal to the magnitude of our unconsciousness.  For example, in its most gentle form, the motivation behind merely asking a comparison question is accompanied by the hope, no matter how slight, for another person’s failure; or at least, a success that doesn’t exceed our own. 

The Dark Side to High Self-Esteem

When we measure ourselves in any category to another person, we inevitably hope that the other person won’t exceed our own level of perceived success; the results impacting our self-esteem.

To offer an example from my own life; a colleague, who I hadn’t seen in years, recently visited me.  Through our conversations, I learned that he had not reached the same level of professional success and personal achievements.  The conversation felt good; as it reminded me to appreciate my own success.  However, my colleague mentioned that he felt envious of my achievements.  While I felt elevated by the comparison, he felt deflated.   My higher self-esteem was at the expense of his.  However, if his professional and personal successes had exceeded mine, the scales would have perhaps tipped in the other direction.

Therefore, we not only mindlessly wish and work toward our own fortune, but we silently hope that the results exceed those of our peers; creating an unconscious mindset that wishes unwell unto others. This is often the unrecognized cost of elevating our cultural advocacy for high self-esteem; it has become a symbol for emotional wellness and health; so important that we have transformed and created institutions with the mandate to foster and develop it.  Perhaps we should begin to question the primacy of high self-esteem as the beacon of mental health; to at least consider the dark side of the constant comparisons it encourages, as well as how we might be able to achieve better wellness through healthier forms of elevated emotion.    

Comparisons Create Isolation and Separation

Western societal mental health has been significantly influenced and developed by these silent comparisons.  Inherent to elevating ourselves at the expense of others is separation and isolation.  For example, when my ego inflates at the favorable comparison of my career to another, I am separating myself from him or her by determining that I have something that he or she lacks.  My attention is drawn to our differences, rather than the fusing tissue of our shared humanity.  Instead of recognizing and connecting to our commonalities, I have focused on where we diverge in order to achieve an inflated ego at his or her expense.  Individually and culturally, we remain largely unconscious to the invisible poison of endless comparison; rotting our connections while amplifying isolation.    

Compassion instead of Self-Esteem

We do this in the mindless pursuit of high self-esteem; blind to the inherent deflation of others and the potential development of narcissistic tendencies in those that compare favorably.  Perhaps we need to reframe our notions and derive positive mental health by elevating the connective tissues of empathy and compassion.  When we turn our attention to another’s plight and truly feel the magnitude of their suffering, we become them and they become us.  When we leave words behind to focus on actions equal to our overwhelming love and compassion, we connect; reducing isolation through the unity and recognition of our shared experience. 

In directing our focus toward the development of compassion, we may better achieve our goals for better emotional health with the potential for everyone to participate; instead of the fractured emotional wellness derived from a process that separates people based on the comparison outcomes tied to self-esteem.  While comparisons drive awareness to our differences, compassion directs our minds and hearts to our commonalities.  While one separates, the other connects.