How to Stop Comparing Your Business And Start Living Confidently

The Me vs. Them Problem

Neuroscientists have been looking at how our brains respond to envy and what the field terms schadenfreude or gloating. Often, these studies are conducted using interactive games of chance. The emotional consequences of social comparison in our brains are well documented, and very interesting. One study found that when participants lost money, they still gloated if the other player had lost more money — in other words, at relative gain. The more alarming flipside of that neural response is that when participants actually won money, but the other players had won more, they expressed envy, negating any positive emotional consequences of the initial win (Dvash et al., 2009). Other evidence suggests that our brains compare us to others as part of our reward processing (Qiu et al., 2010). In fact, that interaction between our brain’s reward system and social comparison may be the reason why we are so keen to judge, assess and compare ourselves to others, all the time (Kedia, Mussweiler, Linden, 2014).

From a psychological perspective, social comparison theory states that we compare ourselves to others to determine where we fit in our society, and how we determine our personal worth. Social comparison is a way to find motivation, evaluate your success and improve self-esteem — provided you’re engaged in downward comparison (comparing yourself with those who have less than you) or you feel non-threatened by the upward social comparison (comparing yourself to those who have more. I’ve noticed that to be motivated by these people, they need to have way more — that’s why motivational speakers talking about their million-dollar businesses inspire more often than knock us down). We compare ourselves to others to help us determine how to act in a particular situation. Failure to compare ourselves correctly can be detrimental. Imagine you are being challenged to a deadlift competition by someone you judge to be much stronger and bigger than you. The correct judgement call would be to politely decline the challenge because you’ll probably really hurt yourself in the process. Comparing ourselves to others also helps us understand how good we are at something. That is how a fast runner knows he’s fast or a slow reader knows he’s slow — and each is able to play to their strengths.

Social Comparison on Steroids

The trouble with social comparison is that in the world of social media, it’s hyper-engaged. Normally, social norms and impulse control allow us to reason ourselves out of envy and to continue operating without succumbing too much to the feelings of guilt, remorse or despair that often accompany envy. On social media, we are constantly exposed to the life highlights of our family and friends and even complete strangers. That is why seeing Instagram models may make us feel inferior, all the time. That is also why we take extra pleasure when we find out these people feel lonely (and we’re not) or have terrible luck with relationships (and we don’t). But even that is a stretch — we much prefer to compare ourselves to people closest to us in age, socio-economic status and role. That’s where our ability to reason our way out of envy is compromised. The weird thing is that social algorithms are tailored to prioritize these kinds of ‘human’ posts under the pretence of helping us ‘connect.’ So you are constantly witnessing your peers at their best and it skews your ability to accurately draw your comparison and assess how your own life is going. And not just life.

B2B Comparison is Alive and Well

The very same comparison happens with business as well. Business owners are constantly comparing themselves to other business owners — how many clients do they have; how much do they charge; are my services as good as theirs; are my clients as satisfied? Because entrepreneurs usually have a lot of skin in the game, these comparisons feel unavoidable — they become easy-access indicators of your own success (or failure).

The problem in business is the same as it is in any other social situation — specifically, the lack of contextual information to make an actual assessment. What’s more, the comparisons that we value most are usually the sorest spots in our own business — cash flow, client acquisition, scaling, etc. So the things that trigger our anxiety the most are the ones we notice most in someone else’s business, continuing the downward spiral of the painful envy-driven emotional response. Our faith in our abilities and the success of our ventures is compromised when the gaps seem unbridgeable — “He has more clients than I ever will,” or “Her services are far better than mine will ever be.” We get lost in the comparisons, idealize a foreign situation and forget how much our own efforts have achieved. Comparison feels like a slippery slope that ends in despair and business catastrophe…but it doesn’t have to be.

The Way Out

Psychologists suggest that the best way to combat the negative effects of upward social comparison is to have a stable sense of self. In other words, to survive comparison, we must be strongly rooted in who we are and who we aren’t, and have a healthy relationship with our self-esteem, backed by real accomplishments that align with our values and beliefs systems. Social reward that feeds our envious brains and fuels comparison is a flaky beast. A strong sense of identity and healthy, nourishing relationships are a much more reliable source of dopamine (the neurotransmitter in our brains largely implicated in the brain reward pathways).

The Mission is the Mission

So what is the business alternative to a strong identity? You could say a strong brand is a way to root your business and feel confident that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be. I would argue that it’s worth digging deeper and really nailing your business mission statement. Not some ambiguous sentence that looks good on paper, but something that penetrates the core of your business. A good business mission is clear, simple and something you can achieve for every customer. A hair salon owner might have a business mission of “Leave each customer loving their hair more than before.”

If this is their mantra, no amount of comparing to the shiny salon down the street will leave any lasting negative impact. Their only concern — how a customer leaves feeling about their hair — will be such a tremendous rock in the stormy ocean of comparison that no negative emotions will actually stick. “Did my client leave loving their hair?” — if yes, then great. If no, then there is a very real metric to assess the performance of the business i.e. — the business’ ability to fulfill its purpose. In this example, the mission goes beyond the ability of the salon staff. A skilled haircut will leave a customer happy, but so will the knowledge of the staff about hair treatments, care tips, trends and more. Good light in the salon and even salon bathrooms can make a huge difference (that’s where I always take my ‘after’ pictures — vanity loves closed doors).

As a business owner, your mission should bring you joy. It should motivate, infuse with hope and deliver satisfaction. When you have a business mission that works, comparison becomes meaningless because the only meaningful metric is how well you are fulfilling your business mission. Comparing your business to your competition will stop making sense — you have your mission and they have theirs: who cares if you’re in the same niche?

Focus on the mission. Focus on the why. Find what grounds your confidence as a business owner and as an individual, and embrace it. The rest will come.

Inna Morgan