contemplating social comparison
Thursday, November 6, 2008
We all do it. No, don’t argue, we do. Upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who are somehow considered better than us, downward is the opposite, of course. We probably all do both. We do a little upward and that makes us feel bad, then we do a little downward to cheer ourselves up. But then we feel bad about thinking ourselves better than someone else so we do a little upward to put ourselves in our place. And then we feel bad and do a little downward….
I had opportunity to do a lot of social comparison at the writers’ conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. Nothing like being tossed into a group of other writers to get me thinking about my place in the food chain. I see-sawed up and down madly in my own head, from cocky to cowed, cowed to cocky. It was the hardest part of the conference.
Social comparison is not fun but it can be useful if you use the upward social comparison for motivation, to set goals and to fine-tune your ambitions.
At the conference I had to cycle through feelings of inadequacy before I could think rationally about the comparisons. Once I stopped feeling chopped livery, I started carefully considering the careers of the more successful writers and figuring out whose careers I would want and who spent their time doing work that is unappealing to me. This is helping me figure out in what direction to ratchet up my career.
One writer in particular is published all over the damn place and I have suffered terribly in social comparison with her. But when I started looking closely at what she does, I realized that while I envy her income, I would not particularly enjoy doing the kind of work she does. This was a nice epiphany because it allows me to now admire her success without envy. And it helped illuminate the path ahead for me.
Social comparison can be brutal because no matter how successful (or pretty or thin or rich or whatever) we are, there will always be others who are more so. That can be discouraging if we let it. I try to find motivation in social comparison. “I want to be like that!” It's not easy to take the positive route but I try.
Oddly, I have found myself making social comparisons with Barack and Michelle Obama. It sounds silly, but I am fascinated by them—by their intelligence, their ease with their social and professional stature and by what they have that I don’t (aside from Ivy League educations).
I guess social comparison is what draws some voters to people like Sarah Palin. The ego is soothed to see someone we can relate to in a position of power, whereas an elite intelligence makes us feel thick and slow. (Palin is clearly an elite politician, but that’s a different kind of smarts.) Some people resent any sort of conversation they consider highbrow and interpret it as some sort of personal insult. That is the destructive side of social comparison and it’s tiresome. I have no patience with pretension, but I don’t mind struggling to lift myself up. The payoff can be big.
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