In the work I have been doing with men over the years, I have noticed one of the great struggles we have is how we compare ourselves with others. We may or may not be aware of this struggle, but we would never want anyone to know about it, particularly the feelings of inferiority we might experience from the comparison.
Dennis Prager shares a very enlightening illustration of how this might play out in our lives:
Two couples leave their homes to meet for dinner at a restaurant. Couple A have a big fight on the way to dinner, as do couple B. But when the two couples finally arrive at the restaurant, they all act as if everything is fine.
“Hi, how are you two doing?” they both ask one another.
“Fine, great. And how are you two? They both reply.
During dinner neither couple utter a word about their fight. Driving home, couple A say to each other, “Did you see couple B—how happy and in love they are? Why can’t we be that happy?” Meanwhile in their car, couple B are saying the exact same thing: “Did you see couple A— how happy and in love they are? Why can’t we be that happy?”
Not only were the couples unhappy from their respective fights, they are now even more unhappy as a result of comparing themselves with the other couple! They suffer from what can be called compound unhappiness—just as compound interest is interest on interest, compound unhappiness is unhappiness over being unhappy. Such are the dangers of comparing ourselves with others.
The unhappiness of these two couples was unnecessarily compounded by comparing themselves with the other couple; but even their original unhappiness over their fighting could have been reduced. How?
Had the two couples not put on a happy act and opened up to each other, each couple would have left the restaurant happier when they entered it. All one couple had to do was respond to “How are you guys doing?” with something like, “We’re all right, but boy, did we have a fight right before coming here tonight.” The odds are overwhelming that if these couples were at all close, the other couple would have responded, “You did? We did too!”
Then, instead of acting as if nothing had happened and everything was wonderful, the couples would be free, thanks to one couple telling the truth, to talk about their respective fights. And if the fights were within the normal range of marital arguments, opening up and finding out that virtually every couple has fights, often about the same things, would have brought everyone closer together. In fact, much marital grief would be avoided if married people talked about their marriages to other married people. In most cases, learning that virtually every marriage has its share of problems, many of which are universal, and then talking—even joking—about them lead to a genuine reduction in marital stress.
I think this illustration reveals two important truths. First we should recognize that in all areas of life our joy and happiness would increase if we stopped comparing ourselves with other people. Particularly those whom we always imagine to be happier than us. Remember, everyone in life is fighting a battle of some kind, no one’s life is trouble-free.
Second, I would remind you the power of being transparent with others. We all have this natural tendency to hide ourselves from others and we do this by wearing certain masks. Bill Thrall, in his book TrueFaced, states eventually all our masks will crack and inevitably your true selves will be exposed.
Thrall, however, offers us an interesting, deeper view of life’s difficulties. He suggests that the struggles we face could be the best things that could ever happen to us. If our masks succeed and help us to remain hidden and protected, who would ever really know us? We would be totally inauthentic, living only to perform for and impress others. Most significantly, we might go through all our days missing out on the life God intended for us.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.