If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Upward comparison is a universal experience. It is one way that we determine where we stand among others. There will always be someone more intelligent, funny, interesting, or accomplished to compare ourselves against. Others appear to have figured it all out when we feel we don’t have a clue.
The effects of these comparisons can hit us hard, influencing our emotions and our self-perception.
It can be painful to compare ourselves to those we perceive as better, especially in meaningful areas. Under these circumstances, we can tell ourselves how we should be. This process can be damaging, but perhaps not always.
For me, graduate school was an environment teeming with comparison and all that comes with it: anxiety, frustration and envy. I experienced a shift in my perspective of myself vs. others when rehashing the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy with a close friend. Two of the main characters were in the familiar situation of comparing themselves to their seemingly more accomplished peers. They made a pact — they would be doers, not watchers.
This moment in the show resonated with us, and it seemed possible to become like those we compared ourselves to. The situation was suddenly within our control.
That moment is more than just a lesson about how Grey’s Anatomy may have helped me survive graduate school. It is a lesson about moving through envy to motivation. I was indeed envious (though I can’t speak for my friend), and I was also motivated to change this.
Envy is born from comparison to another’s superior achievements, possessions or skills. It certainly has a bad reputation, which is well-deserved. Envy can be destructive. It can create feelings of shame and frustration and push us to complain, gossip and sabotage.
We can try to get rid of the painful feelings created by comparison by tearing others down or hoping for their downfall. We may tell ourselves that that should have been us. However, such malicious envy has a much more constructive counterpart: benign envy.
It is true that upward comparison is not for the faint of heart. We can feel inferior and view ourselves as responsible for our perceived inferiority. We are also driven to get rid of these painful feelings one way or another. These feelings can prompt us to change, however.
Research suggests that perceiving the target of our envy as deserving of their success and perceiving ourselves as having some control over our success makes all the difference. We have no sense of injustice or resentment with benign envy.
When we experience benign envy, we are motivated toward positive change. In fact, it seems that the frustration resulting from our comparison is the driving force behind this motivation.
With benign envy, we are inspired. We tell ourselves, “That could be me.” When we can identify what we need to do to improve and feel empowered to make that improvement, we are more likely to work hard to attain it.
Below are four ways to move through envy to motivation:
- Compare mindfully. If you compare yourself to others, do so with the intention of improving yourself rather than bringing others down. Focus on similar others and realistic goals. When you compare, notice urges to complain or gossip. Notice thoughts about whether or not you can change your situation. Be mindful of your inner critic without believing every word it says.
- Compliment. As research suggests, complimenting the target of your comparison is beneficial to you. Discover what you like about this person. Compliment their hard work. You may feel more inspired to make a change for yourself when you view the other person as deserving and in control of what they have.
- Focus on concrete steps. Perceived control over your situation goes a long way toward motivation. Identify the steps that will take you from watcher to doer. If whatever it is you want seems like it is too far out of your reach, break it down further. Like steering a ship, it is the small adjustments that help you reach your destination.
- Know when to stop. While there is nothing wrong with achieving your goals, constant comparison to others can take its toll on you. If you find yourself consumed with perfectionism or malicious envy, take a step back from the situation. Appreciate what you have. Acknowledge your skills. Reassess whether your comparison and expectations are realistic.
Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2009). Leveling up and down: The experiences of benign and malicious envy. Emotion, 9, 419-429. doi: 10.1037/a0015669
Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). Why envy outperforms admiration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 784-795. doi: 10.1177/0146167211400421
Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2012). Appraisal patterns of envy and related emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 195-204. doi: 10.1007/s11031-011-9235-8