Picture this scene: Little Johnny's mother places a large piece of chocolate cake on his plate. He's pretty happy with it -- until he glances over at his brother's portion and notices that it's even bigger than his own. Suddenly Johnny is no longer satisfied with what he got. He starts to pout and complain, and may even resort to throwing his cake on the floor.
Sound familiar? If you didn't have this experience growing up, you have surely observed it in others. And it's not only kids who engage in this sort of comparison. Adults do it too.
Suppose you get a 10% raise at work. "That's pretty good," you might say to yourself. But a few days later you find out that someone else got 12%. Now you're not so pleased. Your inner brat starts grumbling about your raise not being fair, or not being nearly enough.
The actual dollar amount of your raise hasn't changed, but your attitude toward it has. Why?
It's a result of what psychologists call "social comparison." Humans are social animals, so it's natural to view ourselves in relation to other people. It's not necessarily bad, either:
- Much of our helping behavior and charitable giving come from comparing our own circumstances with those who are less fortunate.
- Social comparison is useful in situations where we're not quite sure how to act. Let's say you're attending services at a house of worship whose rituals and procedures are unfamiliar to you. You'll probably look around and see what everyone else is doing so that you can follow along.
- Social comparison contributes to order in society. When people dress, behave and speak in similar ways they feel a sense of belonging and loyalty within the group.
BUT THERE IS A DOWNSIDE TO SOCIAL COMPARISON. Routinely comparing yourself to others -- especially when it comes to money, talent, recognition and material possessions -- will invariably lead to dissatisfaction, even if you come out on top.
Research has shown that people who make a habit of such comparisons are generally less happy than are those who base their success on their own internal standards.
When you compare yourself to people who have more than you, your inner brat gets into gear. Just like little Johnny and the chocolate cake described above, your inner brat dwells on what's missing, which makes you feel victimized. You'll never be satisfied, no matter how much you have, as long as someone else has more.
This is the same mentality that fuels the huge salary demands by top athletes, actors and CEOs: "I'm making $20 million, but that's not enough because the other guy's getting $30 million."
If comparing yourself to people who have more than you makes you feel worse, should you instead concentrate on comparing yourself to those who have less or accomplished less? Actually, no. While it might be comforting for the moment, it could backfire in the long run.
You could end up feeling even less secure, worrying that you'll lose what you have. Or you might feel guilty for having more than others, such that you subconsciously sabotage your future success.
It's best not to compare yourself to anyone. Other people's achievements don't diminish your own, and their misfortunes do not improve your lot.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't compete, nor that you shouldn't strive to improve. However, do it for the right reasons -- not because your inner brat is whining, but rather to develop and grow. That way, you'll enjoy your accomplishments so much more.
Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2004) She is also a life coach.
Visit http://www.innerbrat.com for more information, and subscribe to her free, monthly Inner Brat Newsletter.