Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more How to be Human here.
I'm a 17-year-old boy who hasn't finished school yet. How can I stop criticizing and comparing myself to others? When I accomplish something I mostly end up thinking, "It's ok, but the majority of people could have done it better. I have to improve that." Or when I fell in love, I believed the girl wouldn't choose me, because there are countless other human beings who would suit her better.
I often just see the difference between myself and others. Maybe that's like that because I see only the strengths of my friends and not their faults. Maybe I don't accept my faults and flaws or see my strengths. But then, aren't there always gaps, differences and problems that ensure that people are going on with their lives, making progress, trying new things?
Maybe I'm writing this so I can be sure that insecurity is something everyone has and the only difference is how a person deals with it. I believe getting to know other people's approaches can be very helpful.
PS: Do you think that everyone has a free choice? (Just if you're interested, I'm quite philosophic sometimes.)
You sent me this letter a few months ago. I read it and wanted to respond to it, but there were other letters in my inbox that felt more urgent, so I set it aside for the time being. Lately, what feels urgent has changed pretty significantly. It’s time to talk about the questions you asked me.
Many of the columns I’ve written over the past year or so have addressed the questions in your letter in one way or another. Nearly every person who’s written me has expressed some kind of insecurity. Because yes, insecurity is something most of us deal with. Maybe not everyone! But we can assume that most people you know and most people reading this column have experienced at least a little bit of insecurity.
Sometimes insecurity is a matter of perception. It might affect you more intensely than someone else. Plenty of people struggle with feeling good about themselves or just feeling good, period. Others are barely bothered by even big things and take most everything in stride. It’s a mix of brain chemistry and learned behavior. Maybe you grew up in a supportive family but you still feel crippled by insecurity. Maybe you grew up in a terrible environment but are deeply resilient. Maybe it’s a combination. But your assumption is right: Insecurity depends a lot on how a person deals with it, both in terms of emotions and actions.
Insecurity is something most of us deal with
At the center of emotional security is a person’s ego. I don’t want to get totally Freudian here, so I mostly mean a person’s self-esteem and self-worth as well as their sense of self-importance. But it’s important to consider the psychoanalytic definition of ego too, because the ego is the part of your personality that deals with things like defensiveness and perception. It’s the part that has to balance your deep instinctual drives with the weird rules you’ve learned from family and society, all with some regard for reality as you perceive it.
Now, I bet you know someone who seems to sail through life with ease, despite being wildly mediocre or even outright failing at things. If you don’t, just wait — you’ll meet these people eventually. There are people out there who have an outsized sense of their own capacities and abilities, and a sometimes stunning lack of self-awareness about their own faults and weaknesses. As the internet loves to remind us, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who are incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent and thus have a wildly inflated sense of their own abilities. Competent people think they’re much less competent than they are, and also assume that if they did something well, it’s because it’s easy, or at least easy for everyone else. As Dunning and Kruger put it, "The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."
The Dunning-Kruger effect strikes again
It all starts to make sense, right? Ego and self-importance. Our levels of resilience. How we perceive reality. What we do when we fail to recognize either our own competence or our own incompetence. How we behave when our reality, self-image, and self-worth are threatened. What we do when insecurity makes us angry or afraid, and whether we turn this against ourselves or others.
Like you, Critic. Thinking a girl won’t like you because there’s someone better for her, or minimizing an accomplishment because you don’t see your own value. Sure, your friends have their strengths and skills, and it’s important to recognize and celebrate those. But that’s not what you’re doing — you’re using their strengths as a way to feel bad about your own perceived weaknesses. That’s bad for you, and it’s bad for your friendships. Constantly comparing yourself to others leaves little room to make real progress in your own life. Competition can be healthy, and having friends who push you to be your best is wonderful. But comparison, as the saying goes, is the thief of joy. It robs you of happiness, as well as your friends, and by extension any community you’re a part of.
Comparison is very human. It’s disingenuous when people say “don’t judge others” because everyone judges all the time. That’s part of survival: Judging a situation, deciding whether it’s safe, learning from it, tucking away the knowledge so you can more effectively judge future situations. Even judging other people is normal. We’re all wandering around with our ids and egos and super-egos, our brain chemistries and cultural experiences, our very different realities. We compare and judge. We feel scared and insecure and threatened. Not everyone who experiences this writes a letter wanting to understand it better.
Comparison, as the saying goes, is the thief of joy
It’s like you said, Critic. There are always gaps, differences, and problems. People are going on with their lives, lives that aren’t simply reflections of you and what you’re capable of. Lives that have their own experiences, and often lives that experience different realities than yours. I love that you see this, and that you understand it on a fundamental level. I love too that you can see how comparing yourself to other people isn’t working. You know that what you need to do is find a way to strengthen your self-image while recognizing that other people have their own struggles, strengths, and weaknesses.
So how do you do that? There are lots of ways to try. Some people like daily affirmations — looking at themselves in the mirror every morning or every evening and saying positive things out loud. Some people like to publicly acknowledge their accomplishments and encourage others to do the same, like on Facebook or Twitter, to mutually reinforce and celebrate. You can try therapy to change your outlook, or exercise to get yourself out of your head and into your endorphin-fueled body. You can consider a spiritual practice. Or, since you have an interest in philosophy, you can see if Kierkegaard or Sartre or Adorno have any resonance for you (maybe hold off on Heidegger).
Me, I like yoga. I’ve written about it before, but I’ll repeat it again and again: I love having a practice that’s not about anyone but me. It’s not about comparison — it absolutely does not matter if someone else is more flexible or stronger than I am, because that has zero impact on whether I can do a pose. I love remembering that when I do compare myself to someone else, I usually make a mistake because I stop focusing on my own work. I love learning there’s a range of possibilities between “total failure” and “absolute perfection.” I love recognizing that when I stop beating myself up and let myself just practice, I’m actually more competent than I think. I especially love that, as I become more self-aware and less insecure, I become much more understanding of people around me. I don’t feel as threatened, and when I do, at least I know what it is and can try to address it productively.
Have you considered yoga, perhaps?
Which brings me to your PS about free choice, by which I think you mean free will but I like the combination and inclusion of choice. I think a lot about choice, as you may know if you read my columns. I think all we have is choice, which we mistake for control. So you can choose to learn new ways of coping with insecurity. Maybe you can’t control it, but you can get better at how you react, right?
But your question is about free choice specifically. This makes it trickier. Because I don’t believe we have complete free will. People’s choices are constrained by a lot of things. There’s brain chemistry, like I mentioned earlier. Then there are circumstantial and cultural constraints. We can’t assume everyone has access to the same options that we have or are able to make the same choices. It’s like the example a Sociology professor of mine used in discussion the fundamentals of Marxism: “You can have any beverage you want, from this range of Coca-Cola products!” In other words, you can choose anything you want from the menu, but who constructed the menu? Yes, you have agency but just how free is it? Whenever possible, try and understand the menus other people have access to. How are their choices constrained by opportunity, oppression, religious or cultural belief, fear, a totally different perception of reality? When you learn about them, what does it do to your own sense of security?
As for your insecurity, I have a strong feeling you’ll get a handle on it soon enough. You’re ahead of the game, both in recognizing it’s something to work on and in recognizing that other people are having their own separate, similar experiences. In the meantime, keep having experiences, learning new things, asking smart questions, and thoughtfully examining yourself and the world you live in. A lot of us could stand to do more of the same.