When I was in high school, I read an article in a men’s magazine on how to most effectively compliment a woman. The advice was simple: tell her she is better than other people she knows. Tell her she is the most beautiful of all her friends. Tell her she has a better sense of style than anyone else in the office. As a young kid, I was impressed by the simplicity and power of this strategy—even if part of me knew that it looked ripe but was rotten inside. I started noticing these compliments everywhere. One night driving back from my girlfriend’s ballet performance, her mom told her that she was more poised than any of her friends on stage. I knew her friends, of course. I was glad they weren’t in the car.
Comparisons are usually made at someone’s expense, and I call this the violence of comparison. Even a heartfelt compliment can have unintended consequences when it is formed as a relative evaluation. When we want to offer someone a meaningful compliment, it is natural to want to tell them how much they stand out from others. After all, one of the most gratifying compliments to receive is being told that we are the best. These words speak to the part of each of us that needs reassurance and that thinks in terms of being better or worse than others. But when someone is the best, all others must be relatively worse. A compliment to one person can inadvertently be a criticism to many others. Even for the recipient, this kind of compliment can reinforce the tendency to think in terms of relative position—perpetuating the implicit belief that our value depends on being more or better than others.
Much of the time, the violence of comparison gets directed at ourselves. It shows up whenever we compare ourselves to those who have something we want. Unfortunately, this often means that the people who can teach and inspire us also tend to trigger our self-criticism. And the violence of comparison is especially pernicious because we can make highly selective comparisons to only certain aspects of another person. This was memorably illustrated to me by one woman’s experience in a yoga class. She would find the one person in the room with leaner arms and feel insecure by comparison. She would also find the one person in the room with a better downward facing dog. And the one with a more stylish outfit. In a room full of people, it’s easy to find at least one person with more flexible hamstrings. No big deal. Yet because these relative comparison are deeply ingrained in our thinking, we can get trapped in dissatisfaction anytime anyone has more than we do. If you hadn’t noticed, someone is always going to have more.