The more we compare, the more we deny ourselves. To compare we need to start from a common point, generalizing, and every act of generalization always implies an impoverishment of the individuality. The act of comparing is, by antonomasia, an act of denial of the richness of oneness. Comparing yourself to others is denying yourself.
And despite that, we compare ourselves. We compare ourselves continuously because we grew up in a competitive society in which each person is not worth for what he or she is, but in relation to the others. We don’t seek our value inside, but outside, comparing ourselves to others. And we accept – with more or less reluctance – the yardstick that society happily gives us.
Then we fall into the death trap that the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard glimpsed in his book “Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits” in the early nineteenth century: the comparison oppresses us and makes us deeply unhappy.
The comparison as a source of vain concerns and artificial needs
“The worldly concern always seeks to lead the human being towards the petty uneasiness of comparisons, away from the haughty calm of simple thoughts […] A human being compares himself to others, the other generation compares itself to the other, and so the stack of comparisons that overwhelms the person is growing.
“Meanwhile naivety and hustle increases, and in each generation there are more people who work as slaves all their lives in the underground zone of comparisons. Just as the miners never see the light of the day, these people never see the light: those first thoughts, simple and happy about how glorious is to be a human being. And in the high regions of comparison, the smiling vanity plays its false game and deceives the happy ones in such a way that they don’t receive any impression of those haughty, simple first thoughts”.
Kierkegaard thought that comparing ourselves to others traps us in the web of dissatisfaction, distancing us from our essence and preventing us from being authentic. To explain it he resorted to a simile.
A bird got its food and builds a nest to shelter. It’s all it needs to live and does it naturally, without worrying. It could live happily. Until the day it compares itself to a “richer bird”. Then it begins to worry about building a bigger nest and looking for more food, even if it doesn’t need it. In that precise moment, the natural gives way to the artificial and satisfaction becomes dissatisfaction. A happy life transmutes into a miserable life.
The same thing happens to people. Kierkegaard was convinced that usually aren’t our real needs that generate worry, anxiety and unhappiness but the constant comparison, which is also what leads us to desire and consume much more than what we need.
“The comparison generates concern for making a living, but that concern for making a living is not a real and urgent need of today but the idea of a future need […] It doesn’t reflect a real need but an imaginary one”.
Comparisons create needs that we didn’t have originally. In fact, Zygmunt Bauman warned us about this danger in a society dominated by social networks: “The driving force of behavior is no longer the more or less realistic desire to maintain the same level of the neighbors but the idea, nebulous until the exasperation, to reach the level of celebrities.”
In practice, the longer the yardstick is, more badly disappointed we’ll get out and more frustrated we’ll feel. And that will lead us to embark on an unbridled race in an attempt to satisfy those new “needs” that should make us happy, but that really end up consuming our lives with the flame of permanent dissatisfaction.
Kierkegaard already said: “The more he compares himself, the more indolent and miserable the life of a person becomes. […] The comparison can lead the man to total discouragement because whoever compares himself must admit to himself that he is behind many others.”
How to escape from the need to compare yourself to others?
The solution is realizing that comparing ourselves to others is not a problem but a symptom. The symptom that we don’t love, like or value enough ourselves. To eliminate that symptom we need to go a step beyond comparison.
“The person who goes beyond comparison can focus on the relationship with himself as a unique individual”, wrote Kierkegaard. When you give up the need to compare yourself to others, look outside for points of reference with which estimate your value, you can look inside yourself.
By connecting with our essence we’re able to understand what we really need and want. Authentic needs and desires, that come from us. Not the ones that impose us the comparisons.
In this process of self-acceptance we also begin to discover, like and value ourselves for what we are. We start thinking about how we want to live and what changes would make us really happy. And that is an act of reaffirmation and personal freedom.
Kierkegaard, S. (1993) Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Nueva Jersey: Princenton University Press.