Apr 18, 2015

Ego Threat Level — Low or High?

"The essence of self-esteem is comparison." — Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson

Comparison. Our brain does it all day long, usually without us knowing. We compare ourselves to friends, co-workers, spouses, the people ahead of us in line, the driver in the carpool lane, celebrities, and all the other humans we know about. The product of these comparisons is our self-esteem.

"Generally, [self-esteem] comes from a nearly continuous stream of conscious and unconscious comparisons — how am I doing compared with other people?"

This process is described in detail in Halvorson’s new book No One Understands You and What to Do About It. The whole book is incredibly insightful, especially Chapter 6: The Ego Lens. There’s one thing in Chapter 6 that I found particularly interesting. It begins with this observation:

Some comparisons matter more than others. Some much more.

Most of us aren't as attractive as Brad Pitt or Louis CK. Most of us do not have moves like Jagger. If we let ourselves make these comparisons, we're bound to come up short.

But does it matter? Will we be crushed? Halvorson would say no, probably not. There’s simply not enough Closeness nor Relevance to the object of comparison to make the outcome matter that much.

Closeness and Relevance

Closeness refers to the social, or psychological, distance between two people. Friends and family are closer to us than acquaintances, and distant strangers are far, far away. The greater the closeness, the higher the stakes when it comes to how comparisons will make us feel. Some student across the country might have gotten a perfect test score, but our self-esteem hinges more on how our best friend did.

Then there’s Relevance. A famous science fiction author isn’t threatened by the success of a skyrocketing pop star. But what if a second sci-fi author pens the next in-a-galaxy-far-far-away bestseller? The original author’s ego will take a hit, and his or her self-esteem along with it. Relevance is all about the domain of achievement — writing, athletics, medicine, law, gardening or programming. When someone in your realm of expertise hits a home run, or loses a big deal, your ego notices.

The Closeness and Relevance of the individuals we compare ourselves to predicts how threatened, or gratified, our ego will be by the result. Both characteristics affect the ego threat zone simultaneously but independently. This diagram from Chapter 6 depicts this nicely:

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Combine high relevance and high closeness (upper right) and the ego threat zone rises accordingly. Anecdotally this makes sense. Can you imagine facing your very own sister in a grand slam final? If you lose, how long will that next family dinner seem?

"When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you." — Lao Tzu

Question or comment?