Tyranny of the Comparing Mind

tomEric tries on a new shirt and looks at himself in the mirror. “I don’t like the way I look in this,” he tells his partner, Jason. “You look fine,” Jason replies. “Oh great,” Eric says. “I’ve always wanted to look fine.

In our competitive culture, we don’t just want to be fine. We want to be special. For most of us, self-esteem means feeling above average in some way. In Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Everywhere else, though, it’s mathematically impossible for all of us to be above average all the time, so most of us constantly airbrush our self-images by creating self-serving distortions that allow us to think of ourselves as superior to others.

Studies show, for instance, that fully 85 percent of students think that they’re above average when it comes to getting along with others. Ninety-four percent of college faculty members think they’re better teachers than their colleagues. Ninety percent of drivers think they’re more skilled than other drivers – even when they’ve recently caused a car accident. Other research shows that people tend to think they’re funnier, more logical, more popular, better looking, nicer, more trustworthy, wiser, and more intelligent than others. And, ironically, most people also think they’re above average in the ability to view themselves objectively.

But reality has a way of breaking through our self-deception. When life forces us to notice some imperfection in ourselves that we can’t overlook, the common result is merciless self-criticism. Much of the anxiety, depression, and insecurity to which so many of us are prone is directly due to the habitual self-attacks that are inevitable by-products of the “comparing mind.”

The comparing mind not only distorts our self-perceptions, but also our perceptions of others as well. If I have to feel better than you in order to feel good about myself, how clearly am I going to be able to see you? If my sense of my worth and value depends on maintaining an unrealistically positive self-image, then I’ll do whatever I have to do to avoid seeing myself in a negative light.

When I have conflicts in my relationships, I’m going to be inclined to see the fault as yours, not mine. It can be hard to admit that we’ve behaved badly because our egos feel safer when we project our shortcomings onto others. Even when we know, deep inside, that it takes two to tango, we cling to the need to be “right” as if our lives depended on it because, in a sense, we do believe our lives depend on it. When looked at in this way, it’s easy to understand why the comparing mind is such a notoriously unreliable foundation for happiness.

Is there an alternative? What if we could stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether? What if we could replace the habit of self-judgment with the habit of self-compassion?

Recently, researchers at Duke and Wake Forest Universities reported the results of five studies on the trait of self-compassion, which they defined simply as the ability to treat oneself with kindness when things go badly. They found that people with higher self-compassion had fewer negative reactions to bad events, and that self-compassion made it possible for people to accept responsibility for a negative experience, but had fewer bad feelings about it. They also concluded that self-compassion seemed to protect people better than self-esteem. That is, the positive feelings of self-compassion didn’t seem to involve “the hubris, narcissism or self-enhancing illusions that characterize many people with high self-esteem.” It appears that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the storms of shifting positive and negative self-judgments.

One of the leading researchers in this area, Dr. Kristin Neff, believes that there is growing evidence that self-compassion is a form of emotional intelligence that we can acquire and strengthen like any other skill. In her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, she teaches techniques based on solid empirical research that are very effective in strengthening this vital trait. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to escape from the tyranny of the comparing mind.

Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.