Somewhere in the Rat Race

“Who was the first man to step on the moon? Neil Armstrong, obviously! We all know that, but who was the second man? Don’t waste your time. It’s not important. Nobody ever remembers the man who came in second.”

“A cuckoo bird never makes its own nest. She lays eggs on other birds’ nests. And when her babies come to the world, what do they do first? They kick out the other eggs from the nest. Competition over! Their life begins with murder. That’s nature. Compete. Or die.”

“Remember – Life is a race. If you don’t run fast enough, someone will overtake you and move faster.”

These dialogues by Virus (Boman Irani) in the film 3 Idiots very well struck a chord with the masses. And, why not? We all relate to the hard-end competition they encase. However, when we hear the song “Give me some sunshine” in the same film followed by the suicide of a young engineering student who gave up in the face of this never-ending pressure to succeed, our hearts melt away.

Competition is cruel, yes. But that is the only way forward that we humans know. And what is wrong in being ambitious? Of course, being on the top feels great! Yet, on the way to the pinnacle of our life, we often muddle the word “our” for “the” i.e. we no longer want to achieve our fullest potential; rather, we join the “rat race” to achieve the socially prescribed ideal of a successful life. Competition essentially paves way for comparison. And most of us fall into this trap of comparison some time or the other.

Self esteem refers to our personally evaluated feelings of worthiness.*

Unfortunately, the condition applied by the asterisk mark here is that our personal evaluation is always tinted by the benchmark that comparable others provide. All of us are guilty for engaging in some amount of self depreciation after drawing comparisons with others in regards of at least one thing—looks, money, social connections, status, intelligence, romantic partners, job profile, our child’s grades, etc. However, we risk lowering our self esteem when we put ourselves down by making such upward comparisons with ideals that are unrealistically high to achieve for one’s standards. For instance, as a new Blogger, if I am to compare myself to the authors on the blogs of Psychology Today and wish to obtain the kind of readership they have immediately after the two blogs that I have posted, then I am likely to look forward to dejection.

The opposite of upward comparison is downward comparison whereby we try to boost our self esteem by drawing comparisons with those who have less of something that we have. Don’t we all have those pesky relatives who would call you the moment your Board Exam result is out to brag about how well their kid did in comparison to you? This is their psyche compelling them to give in to the human instinct to compare and feel good about their success in a competition. As mentioned in my first blog, anything that is scarce is regarded as valuable by us. Thus, as the no. 1 position can be filled by only one person, all of us compete to obtain that position.  Anyone who does better or worse than us then becomes the target of comparison.

Very often when we become preoccupied with people who do worse off than us, we may not feel invigorated enough to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Downward comparison gives birth to over confidence in some cases. It may even make us feel so superior to others that we lose the empathic touch with those who are underprivileged. However, an inflated ego is just as dangerous as a deflated one. Deflated ego may make you feel undeserving, incapable, paralyzed and depressed. Similarly, an inflated ego creates the sense of entitlement in a narcissist and is the driving force of a bully’s mind. In both the cases, there is a severing of social ties as withdrawal is a common symptom of both upward and downward comparison.

How to fight against this urge to compare?

  1. Mindfully choose what and how much you see on social media

Out of sight, out of mind! However, it would be unrealistic to wish that social media didn’t exist. We feed ourselves humongous amount of information that can be used to make envious comparisons by mindlessly scrolling through our Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat feeds day in and day out. There is no point in deleting these apps because their spread is so wide that you will somehow, anyhow land up staring at a screen into an edited version of a friend’s life. What you need to do instead is to consciously decide on the content you watch, the amount of time you invest in doing so, reflect on your feelings related to the content, and actively change your perception about the consumed material. We all know that only the happy snippets of our life find their way onto these platforms because we ourselves don’t let others peer into the dark parts of our life. Hence, no one is perfect. Try to find your own perfect without external validation.

  1. Use yourself as a yardstick:

Making comparisons is inescapable because of the positive feedback it provides to our brain every time we turn out to be better off than others. Thus, instead of comparing yourself to others, turn inward and compare your current self to your past self or your ideal self. If you’ve been able to lose those extra 10 kgs due to your sheer dedication to exercising and diet then look at an old picture of yourself than that of a super model. You’ll feel better and justifiably rewarded. Also, if you happen to change for worse, then it is much easier to accept this downfall when you draw comparisons to your previous self than an outside other. This is because such a comparison will provide you hope that you definitely have it in you to revert back to that already achieved ideal.

  1. Upside to upward comparison:

Try to find inspiration in those who do better than us. For instance, among other things, one of the motivators for me to start writing this blog was seeing my friend Nabila Damra start her own food blog, SnackoMeter. I had the alternative of sulking over how others are doing what they wished to do after graduation but I chose to take pride in my friend’s success and use it as a source of inspiration to take action on my own long desired contemplations. Also, research has found that we are encouraged by looking up to those who do slightly better as opposed to those whose achievements seem out of reach for us.

  1. Count your blessings:

Unleash gratitude each time you find yourself doing better than others because you might complain about not having shoes but look around, there are people who don’t have feet! Also, it is important to remember that not everyone can be good at the same thing. So, you might not be a straight A grade student, but you definitely have other talents to discover and furnish. It is only foolish to compare apples to oranges.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Now knowing the tricks to keep this thief at bay, neither steal nor let your joy be stolen by it.

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About the author

Vrinda Ruparelia

She is a Psychology Graduate with certifications in the Robert Carkhuff model of counseling, graphology, gender studies and first level of hypnotherapy. Vrinda has coauthored a research paper on ‘Procrastination, Perfectionism and Test Anxiety: A Perilous Triad’, which has been published in the Indian Journal of Mental Health.

Intrigued by the subject right after school, Vrinda has stayed passionate as ever towards the study of human mind to help people challenge the roadblocks created by their mental health. She can be reached at unravellingpsychology101@gmail.com