Some comparisons can be fun, even funny, to make. We do it all the time. A couple of times we both entered a Wisconsin cheese contest expecting to win because each of us thought ours was the best. Sadly, neither of us won.
Most recently, we decided to hold a baked apple cider doughnuts bakeoff and were able to get together to sample each other’s effort. Barbara felt Margaret’s tasted better but were too sugary and Margaret didn’t care for the cakey consistency of Barbara’s doughnut, but it otherwise tasted great. These doughnuts have become a popular fall staple. Then, we took our recipe to the next level and baked a chocolate iced doughnut (Margaret) versus a lemon one (Barbara). We didn’t sample each other’s, but we both agreed that the recipes we followed were mediocre and results were not tasty enough for us.
We do this competitive cooking thing from time to time. Throughout the 33 years that we’ve known each other, we’ve also baked our versions of our favorite chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cakes and one of us will joke, “Mine are soooo much better than yours because I use the best ingredients.” The other will try to one up: “Well, I made mine with brown butter or put sea salt on each!” Then, we taste and laugh. Nothing heavy here. And as Barbara’s younger daughter, a child psychologist, said when told about our latest baking venture, “Love it. Best way to deal with nervous election energy.”
We enjoy comparing results in this funny sort of way. We never get jealous or envious in any situation that one of us did something better than the other. Instead, if it’s about cooking, we share the recipe or reason for the better result. In doing so, we improve our baking prowess. And we’re complimentary for sure.
However, each of knows that certain kinds of comparisons can send people down a slippery slope, such as when it’s about the other person’s appearance, personality, families or something more tangible and maybe not attainable such as a cute sports car or big yacht that you love but which isn’t in your budget. Then, the green-eyed monster might rear its ugly head. As the late President Theodore Roosevelt put it, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And it certainly has cratered many people’s spirits.
Let us lay this out for you with some hypotheticals to help you better understand what we’re trying to say. Sure, it’s great to know that Susie always can eat more and never show the extra pounds on her thighs or stomach than you do. (Was it those apple cider donuts?) Or you might feel that Marty always plays tennis so much better than you do—and seemingly so effortlessly. Of course, he does. He’s been taking lessons forever, plays every chance he can get, is a far more natural athlete, and, oh, he’s always switching to the best new racquet, too. You figure you’re out of his league.
Then, there’s the envy of the folks who simply have so much more money than you do. Not that you’ve studied their bank accounts, but you know they inherited gobs or were promoted to a fabulous job that put them into the 1 percent category, according to chitchat among your friends. You know they do well, because they’re living the good life in a gorgeous home or apartment, with a second home that’s equally stunning, by taking fabulous vacations, sending their children to the “best” camps and colleges, and so on. You get the drift. They seem to have it all based on their many Instagram and FB posts. We don’t think they do so to show off, but really enjoy their stuff and want to share their joy.
We think it’s fine to be a tad envious and express it in a tongue and cheek way. “I am so jealous that you have a great beach house right by the ocean,” you tell a friend. When we think it crosses the line into trouble is when you compare yourself about this or that and bad feelings start to surface. It can affect your mood and actions, gnawing away at your happiness as President Roosevelt suggested. You long in a discontented way for their advantage, which is how the Meriam-Webster dictionary defines “envy,” or you feel an unpleasant rivalry toward someone else and what they have, how the dictionary defines “jealousy.”
Maybe, your feelings start causing you to resent the person to the point where you don’t want to be around them. You complain to your partner, spouse, grown children or closest friends and question why that person is so lucky and you’re not. You might even badmouth them to others or directly to them! Ouch. Not smart or kind. You do know better.
Equally unpleasant, you start to feel terrible about yourself and what you lack, take pity on your bad metabolism, lack of coordination or much more modest bank account. You might even play victim, poor, poor you.
Why waste your energy? Here’s why comparisons are so bad all around. The reality is that you never really know what someone has, especially when it comes to the intangibles and important parts of life: their health and happiness or that of their loved ones. What they have on the outside does not necessarily reflect what’s really going on behind closed doors.
Case in point is Jennifer Farber who fantasized about the life she’d like to have and then seemed to have it all—the money and a rich gorgeous husband, five children, a good education, the lifestyle and all the trappings—and then she suddenly disappeared. Jennifer was quoted in a “Vanity Fair” magazine piece (November 2020) as having written at one point in her young life, “I am the kind of person who looks at other people’s lives and wonders if I could have what they have.” Here’s where we say, “Be careful what you wish for.” Farber’s husband, Fotis Dulos, was charged with her disappearance and murder. One month later, he committed suicide. Her body has never been found.
Which gets us back to the point, even if the person we perhaps envy seems happy and emotionally healthy, are they really? We hope they are, but do you know for sure that they’re not seriously depressed or living with someone they barely tolerate? And regarding their physical health, even if they appear to look in good shape, do you know for sure they are? Not everybody shares all the details. Some are very private. A prime example is the late writer and author Nora Ephron who seemed like she had it all, including a very happy third marriage and at least she got a movie and book from a prior failed one. However, she didn’t tell anyone outside her tight innermost circle that she had myeloid leukemia. That diagnosis led to the pneumonia that killed her.
Right now, with so much stress in the world, it’s best to focus on ways to boost our psyches and health. How do you chuck the bad habit of comparing yourself to others? Here are four strategies:
Practice stopping yourself. When you feel yourself starting to make any comparisons—"Mom always liked you better” with a sibling or “Your wrinkles are so much less discernible than mine; what’s your magic potion or was it surgery?” Stop dead in your tracks and switch to thinking about how lucky you are that you just received a wonderful doctor’s report. Not easy but keep trying. Or at least acknowledge and try to find the humor in it. Humor diffuses stress.
Avoid believing everything on social media as the be-all-and-end-all. Social media ramps up comparisons, from stuff pictured like houses and cars to the number of friends. Regarding friends, it’s easy to add to these numbers, but ask, are they really friends or just acquaintances? Dr. Susan Biali Haas suggests ignoring social media in this and other ways in an article in “Psychology Today” magazine (March 5, 2018). Better to use our benchmarks: What kind of friends are they on the friend meter? Do they simply “like” something you post? Or do they go far beyond and bring you chicken soup when you’re sick (with matzoh balls puts them higher on the rung). show up when you give a talk or call you daily when they know you’re going through a rough patch? Each of us has our own system for considering friends but certainly it’s not wise to make it based on a social media standard. And it's fine to take a break from social media.
Pay heed to your triggers. This is another way, Dr. Haas, says to stop since there may be certain factors that really are your hot buttons, such as vacation, toys like cars and boats or number of shoes. Back when we were in high school, we know some compared and envied those with more of those candy-colored Pappagallo shoes (today’s equivalent would be Chanel ballet flats). Instead, Dr. Haas suggest turning triggers into motivators. You want a pair, do something about it by saving your dollars and then buying them.
Celebrate what you have. Positive feelings do wonders for your psyche and physical health. Start by feeling grateful every day for waking up, being able to get out of bed, for those people you love and like who are in your life, that you have a roof over your head, warm blankets, food, good health insurance, work or hobbies you enjoy and even that you got to vote recently, even if you didn’t like some of the results.
Again, be happy about what’s in your control and make the most of your blessings. As Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress (think “Wonder Woman”) says in another “Vanity Fair” (November 2020) piece, “’Say modeh ani, which [in Hebrew] means, I give thanks. So every morning I wake up and step out of bed and I say, Thank you for everything thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. …Nothing is to be taken for granted.’”