This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching Hope Kidz perform in concert, celebrating the release of their first album. I felt such excitement, joy, and pride watching those kids even though none of them are mine. I wanted to sit down and tell each one what made them amazing as individual artists, but I had to settle for talking to them briefly as a group. Although much went unspoken, I was grateful for those few moments.
In psychology, there’s an unfortunate little thing called Social Comparison Theory. Proposed in the 1950s by Leon Festinger, it basically states that human beings are driven to evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others. We can compare laterally (against those we view as similar), upward (against those we view as superior), and downward (against those we believe are inferior). These comparisons happen mostly without us thinking about it and are arguably at least as damaging as they are helpful. While they can give us a sense of what is normal and encourage us to strive for improvement, they can also destroy individuality in the name of uniformity, steal our joy, and kill our self-image.
Think about what you’re really saying when you compare yourself to another person. If you hold yourself higher than your opponent, you’re saying some pretty ugly things about them. If you hold the other person higher than yourself, you’re saying some pretty ugly things about yourself. That’s commentary and judgement on an original creation of God the Father and either way, it’s ugly.
My terrier is smarter than your honor student. My life is better than your vacation. My state is bigger than your state. My kid’s college is better than yours. I support more troops than you do. My dad can beat up your dad.
When I was a kid, my mom taught me that there would always be someone out there who was prettier, smarter, or more talented than me. She also made sure to tell me that I was unique and that no one could do things the exact way that I do them. I suspect that’s the best balance we can hope to achieve; an understanding that while we can’t be the best, we are the only. It’s for that reason we should work to improve; not to outdo someone else, but to be the best possible version of ourselves. That’s what I want each member of Hope Kidz – and really, everyone I love – to know: there’s no need to compare because each of us has something unique and beautiful that makes us amazing and we can continue to grow in that until we take our final breath.
Since the impulse to compare is already there, I’m trying to be more conscious of the language of comparison. I want to use my words to reward people on their own merits, speaking specifically about who they are as individuals. It takes more creativity and thought, but it addresses the heart of that person’s identity. No more “you may think you have the best husband/dad/baby/brother/boss/pastor, but you’re wrong ’cause I do.” No more statements that indirectly put down others while implying I’m scoring a competition. Instead, I’d rather call out the specific things that make my husband/dad/baby/brother/boss/pastor an amazing, one-and-only, totally unique and wonderful human being, shout it proudly from the rooftops, and encourage them to walk more fully in their God-given identity.
What power our words can have. May we always wield them wisely.