The Compulsion to Compare
Shannon Popkin, author of the book "Comparison Girl," talks about her ongoing struggle to compare herself to others. Popkin remembers how the need to compare started and explains how insecurity often fuels the desire to have more. Popkin reminds us what Jesus says about comparing ourselves to others and gives us the steps for overcoming this annoying practice.
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Shannon Popkin talks about her ongoing struggle to compare herself to others. She reminds us what Jesus says about comparing ourselves to others and gives us the steps for overcoming this annoying practice.
The Compulsion to Compare
Bob: Comparison is a trap. It can cause us to think poorly of ourselves or, as Shannon Popkin points out, it can also lead to self-righteousness.
Shannon: In the church especially we have this habit of looking at others with this sense of disgust: “I’m so disgusted with my son for this,” or “I’m so disgusted; look, that is so…” We have this tone when we look at other people. We cannot communicate disgust without also communicating something about ourselves—without communicating a sense of superiority/ this “Me first,”—me elevating myself. This is so opposite of what Jesus calls us to, isn’t it?
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, May 18th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Are you someone who is prone to comparing yourself to others, and do you recognize the dangerous potential of that? We’ll talk more about it today with Shannon Popkin. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You guys are on social media; I follow you on some stuff. You’re on Twitter®, right?
Dave: We’re all over it, Bob, aren’t we? [Laughter]
Bob: You’re on Twitter.
Dave: We’re on Twitter, Instagram®, Facebook®.
Bob: Are you on Instagram? Yes; you’re not posting a whole lot.
Dave: Oh, come on.
Ann: Aw, thanks, Bob. [Laughter]
Bob: How many times a week do you think you put something on Instagram?
Dave: Three or four times a day.
Bob: No you don’t!
Ann: No, he doesn’t! [Laughter]
Dave: No, I’m kidding; I’m kidding; no, a little bit.
Bob: Yes, so maybe—
Ann: —maybe a few times a week.
Dave: Honestly, we never did this; and then when Zondervan was getting ready, they said, “You have to.”
Bob: You wrote a book; your publishers said you have to be on social media.
Dave: Don’t you feel the same way every time?—like, “Who really cares what I’m doing right now?”
Bob: Well, but there are people—
Ann: —they do care.
Bob: —oh, they do care. In fact, the thing about Instagram—
Dave: I know where you’re going, Bob.
Bob: It ties exactly into what we’re going to talk about today. Last week, we talked with Shannon Popkin about the issue of control, and how that can be an issue for men and women, but particularly for wives and for moms. There’s a second issue, and Instagram is fueling it in our day.
Dave: Oh, boy.
Bob: That’s the issue of comparison. So, are you on Instagram? Do you check Instagram once a day, at least?
Ann: Yes, at least; yes.
Bob: When you’re looking at all these other pictures, what are you thinking?
Dave: I can tell you what she’s thinking.
Dave: She’s thinking, “I wish my husband would do that to our kitchen!” [Laughter] “Hey, honey, look what Joe did to his wife!” I don’t even know who Joe is and this woman, but “Look at that kitchen, and he did all this!”
Ann: You can’t look at it without comparing—
Ann: —everything—whether it’s your house, your home, your kids, your husband—all of those things.
Bob: Well, and recently—back last fall, I think it was—that Instagram said, “We’re going to hide from your followers how many likes you got.”
Ann: —which I think is smart.
Bob: They were recognizing that this was a drug; it’s to the whole issue of comparison, which we’re going to talk about this week.
Shannon Popkin is joining us again; welcome back.
Shannon: Thank you.
Bob: Shannon wrote the book, Control Girl, which we talked about last week. She has a band-new book out called Comparison Girl. It wasn’t Instagram that drove you to this book, but you know what we’re talking about here.
Bob: Are you on Instagram?
Bob: When you look at it, does that same comparison thing—
Shannon: Oh, yes.
Bob: —well up in you? When did you realize that you were a comparison girl?
Shannon: You know, I think I’ve always struggled with comparison. My earliest childhood memory has little threads of comparison in it. They say that your first memory kind of says something about you/if that’s what sticks out. My first memory is being in church. I was sitting in the row ahead of my parents—that may say something too—I wanted that independence. I was standing tall, and I was holding my hymn book, and I was singing out really loud. Then there was this woman, who kind of leaned forward from the row behind me, and she took my hymn book and she flipped it right side up.
Bob: You had it upside down.
Shannon: Yes, but I did not like that—that she pointed out that I was doing something wrong. I took my hymn book and I flipped it back the other way, like, “This is the way I like it! Thank you very much.” [Laughter]
I think: “Why would a four-year-old be concerned about being exposed as illiterate?”—right?—“What is it in me that I don’t want anyone to point out any way that I am ever inadequate?” My heart is just bent on this perfectionism; I want everyone to see me as perfect.
The threads of what was in my little four-year-old self are still in me today: “You know, why is it that I feel so exposed that someone would think that my house isn’t perfect or that my marriage isn’t perfect?” I’m a middle-aged woman, who—I struggle with my weight—but I don’t want anyone to know that. I mean, isn’t that kind of normal? [Laughter] Isn’t that—I mean, these things that I struggle with, aren’t they just kind of the normal things of life? Yet, I’m bent on perfectionism and being seen in the eyes of other people as having no flaws.
Ann: I identify with everything you’re saying. Here’s the crazy part—is that all of us, as women, have usually struggled with this in some form or another—and what it does is it alienates us from one another. It’s so sad; because I look at women and I think, “Look at the power and the strength that we have if we could lock arms with one another.” Yet, we’re hiding from each other and really hiding who we are.
Do men struggle with this?
Dave: I was going to say, “Of course, we do.” I mean, think about this—as a preacher—
Dave: —both of us preach at our churches. We’re old enough to know, back in the day, when we would preach, nobody compared us/to very few other people.
Dave: They didn’t hear anybody else, unless they went to another church, and they came back and said, “Hey, this guy’s really good.”
Now, they’re looking at me like, “We have to listen to him when we could listen to Piper and…?” You know, they can go through a list, and you’re competing with that every day. You talk about comparison; you never measure up.
Bob: Here’s the thing that I’ve found for myself. I’m comparison-aware in areas that I really value. In areas that I don’t value, it’s like, “No big deal.” I look at it and I go, “If somebody is a better ping-pong player than I am,”—right?—[Laughter] I go, “Well, that’s nice; that’s cool”; I can cheer him on. But if I aspire to be a really good ping-pong player, that’s where, yes, I do get down to the minutiae.
I had a situation, not long ago, where I was hearing about a guy, who had been invited to be an emcee at an event. I was thinking, “Why didn’t they ask me to be the emcee?” [Laughter]
Ann: —because you are a really good emcee.
Bob: It’s kind of what I do, you know. [Laughter]
Dave: I wondered why they didn’t ask you.
Bob: But the point is: “Yes, in those situations, where you do aspire to be good at something, the comparison monster shows up.” It’s true for both men and women. I think, though, again, for women—we talked about this with control last week—I think there’s something about a woman’s psyche, where she may be more bent and more prone toward this comparison issue.
Shannon, you say it’s like a drug; the more you taste it, the more competitive/the more you want it. You can get sucked in really easily; and now you’re reading Martha Stewart magazine and going, “Why doesn’t my kitchen look like this?” You’re getting the magazines that have pictures of women and you go, “Why don’t I look like this?” It’s all of these things coming together, and it just puts you under the pile.
Shannon: Yes, and it can last throughout your whole lifetime. You start comparing, as a young mom with a new baby, and then you grow into a mom of teenagers, or a grandma. Even grandmas are comparing their kids! Or you start in a new position and you’re comparing yourself with all the other new hires. By the retirement party, you’re still comparing yourself with the others who are retiring.
It’s this problem that the more we compare, the more we want to compare. It is not producing anything remotely healthy or happy in our hearts.
Bob: In your book, you outline a number of areas where comparison shows up in your life and in the life of a lot of women. You talk about comparing sins; it’s comparing sins, but comparing righteousness at the same time. It’s looking at others and thinking: “Well, your sin is worse than mine,” or “I’m holier than you,” or “I wish I was as holy as you.” It’s that whole comparison; it’s evaluating our spiritual lives by looking at other people.
Shannon: Yes; I spoke for a women’s group recently. I asked them to raise their hand on their favorite chapter in the book. I was kind of worried about this comparing sin chapter; I didn’t know if everybody else did it as much as I did. [Laughter] That was the one that most of the women were interested in looking at and reading.
Especially, I think, as Christians, we tend to compare our righteousness or our sin with others. In the church especially we have this habit of looking at others with this sense of disgust: “I’m so disgusted with my son for this,” or “I’m so disgusted; look, that is so…” We have this tone when we look at other people.
In his book, Age of Outrage, Ed Stetzer says, “We cannot communicate disgust without also communicating something about ourselves/without communicating a sense of superiority.” We can’t look down at others with disgust without lifting ourselves up—this “Me first,”—me elevating myself. This is so opposite of what Jesus calls us to, isn’t it?
Bob: Yes, the comparison of my sins and your sins—I mean, my experience is that I tend to minimize what are my sins—the areas, where I’m not as prone to sin or don’t have the same temptations, I tend to blow those up as the really bad things that other people do, without recognizing that what the Bible says is all sin is ultimately rebellion against God, and against His goodness, and His purposes.
While we can’t say all sins are equal in terms of their damage that they do to us or to others, all sins are equal in terms of what they’re saying about who God is and about who we are. They’re all rebellion against Him, aren’t they?
Shannon: Yes; in this book, I’m looking at: “What does Jesus say about comparison? What is He saying to people who are comparing?” There are lots of instances where people are comparing their sin with somebody else’s sin in the Gospels.
One of those is when Simon is hosting this dinner. There’s the sinful woman, who comes; and she’s weeping at Jesus’ feet. Simon’s sort of looking down on her with disgust; and then Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Jesus tells this little story, and He tells a story about two people. One of them has a lot of debt; the other one has a little bit of debt. Both of them, though, are in debt; and they can’t pay off their debt.
In a sense, Jesus is putting Simon and this woman side by side in this story; and He’s saying, “Yes, this woman—she has a lot more sin than you do—but you both are in exactly the same situation, where you have debt that you cannot pay.” For Simon to look down on her, he’s not recognizing his own [indebtedness]. That’s us; so many times, when we look down at somebody else’s sin, we’re ignoring our own condition. We are men and women, who live with this enormous debt of our own sin. Whether it’s minimal or a lot of sin, none of us can face God or face eternity based on our own merit; we are all in a desperate situation.
Bob: You talk about what you call “sideways disgust.” Explain what that is.
Shannon: Yes, it’s just constantly looking to the side and looking at other people. I feel like I’m looking at them; but ultimately, I’m looking at myself; and I’m measuring myself against them.
I’m so concerned about this disgust factor, I call it, in the church. I think we’ve really grown comfortable with communicating disgust towards people who are outside the church or even those inside the church. I invited some friends to do a Disgust Factor Challenge with me; we went three weeks. We just kind of monitored our faces, and our voice tones, and our heart attitudes for little signs of disgust.
It was all over the place in our lives! We were so surprised at so many of the things—and not just right and wrong—they were just differences. We tend to want to group up with the people who look like us, and who live in the same neighborhoods with us, or go to the same kind of denomination. We cast this sideways disgust at the people who are not like us.
But you know what?—in the church of Jesus Christ, every person is celebrated. The church is the most diverse and yet unified group. It’s not uniform—you know, there would be no need for unity if everyone was uniform in the church—that’s what the church is supposed to be like.
Dave: Yes; and where do you think that comes from?—this disgust. I mean, when you say that, we’re all shaking our heads and going: “I’ve done it,” “I’ve felt it.” But worse than me feeling it from others is I’ve done it to others. You mentioned earlier: “I think a lot of people, that are outside the church, that’s one of the reasons they don’t come.” They don’t feel welcome; they feel sort of a judgmental comparison eye. Where does that come from?
I know we talked last week about the control thing being tied back to a curse. Where do you think the comparison gene—because it’s human—where does it come from?
Shannon: I think it’s the world system that we live in. There’s a ruler of this dark age, and he has set up a world system where he invites us to measure ourselves and compare ourselves. We don’t have a backstory to Satan; but from what we can gather, Satan had authority and prestige in heaven. He was a leader, and yet he was not content with that. He said that he wanted to be lifted up; he wanted to be like the Most High.
Do you see that comparison word, “like”? He had the audacity, as a created being, to compare himself with God and want to be on par with God. That was the beginning of his fall. Jesus said he fell like a streak of lightning to this world, and he didn’t land on our planet with some new meekness; right? Satan is a liar, and he cannot embrace the truth. He lives out this delusion that somehow he is God’s rival.
He tries to compete with God, and he throws attacks at God by throwing attacks at us. He comes after us, and he tries to lure us into the same behavior as him. He wanted to lift himself up, and that’s what he tempts us to do the same. He wants us to lift ourselves up/to constantly be measuring ourselves; and he invites us to prove that we are enough, that we have enough, that we are better than others. Then, when we can’t prove that, he shames us—right?—and says, “You don’t measure up.” Either way, he just tempts us into this continual trap and bondage of measuring ourselves by others.
Dave: It’s really like the disgust part of comparison that you just got at is really rooted in the national religion of hell, according to C.S. Lewis.
Dave: So there’s a sense that I’m better; and yet, if I’m completely humble, it’s the opposite: no one would feel disgust from me; they would feel grace, and they’d be drawn in.
Bob: First John has a verse that talks about loving the world, the things of the world, and then it goes on to talk about the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the boastful pride of life. You ask where this comes from—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the boastful pride of life—it’s the comparison with other people.
You trace that back to when Satan came to Eve in the garden and showed her the fruit. It says it looked good to her; it was desirable. She saw, “This would make me wise”; so it was appealing to her pride/to her vanity. Our comparison is that there’s something inside of us that we want to be esteemed. We want people to look at us and think we’re better than we are—and think we’re all that and a bag of chips—right? [Laughter] We want folks to think highly of us, and we think the way to do that is through self-aggrandizement rather than saying what Jesus said: “If you want to be great in the kingdom, you become the servant of all.” That’s when God looks and says, “There’s a great one right there.”
One of the areas that you say is a comparison pitfall in your book, Comparison Girl—we’re talking to Shannon Popkin about this—you talk about wealth being a comparison issue. Certainly in our culture, we’ve all talked about keeping up with the Joneses and being aware of: the neighbor gets a new car; and instead of going, “Good for them,” we think, “When do we get a new car?”—right? [Laughter]
Shannon: Right; yes. Tim Keller says that you don’t know you’re greedy if you are. That was really convicting to me.
We always talk about ourselves as being blessed. You know, when we have wealth, we’re blessed; but what if we’re just being tested? What if God was saying: “As you have opportunity to pad your bank account or pad your purse, are you going to love Me with that money, or are you going to love yourself? Are you going to use that wealth?—are you going to use it to measure yourself against others and to be seen as superior, or are you going to give away your wealth?”
I remember reading that part about the camel and the needle; and for the first time, I recognized: “You know what? Camels are really big, and the eye of a needle is really small. If I have wealth, it means I have that sort of stacked against me. My wealth is actually not to my advantage; it puts me at a disadvantage. It keeps pulling me into measuring myself and trying to prove that I’m superior. The only way to break free from that is to give money away. That’s what frees me of this trap of comparison.”
Also, thinking about the fact that—when I take my measuring cup full of money and I tip it out, and I pour my wealth out—every little bit is collected in the place where moth and rust cannot destroy. That’s very motivating to me.
Bob: Now you’ve gone to meddling. [Laughter] I have stuff—when you said, “What if, instead of looking at it as blessing, we looked at it as a test?”—I thought, “I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of that—that God gives you wealth and it may be to say: ‘Okay, let’s see what you do with this. Let’s see how your godliness is going to manifest itself in this. Is it going to be, “Well, I’m sure lucky; I can do things other people can’t do,” or is it going to be generosity and kingdom-focused living?’”
I remember a pastor one time saying most of us look at our bank account and we say, “How much of what we have are we going to share with God?” instead of saying, “How much of what God has given to us are we going to keep for ourselves?” Now, there’s a whole different perspective if we say: “Okay, this is not my money; this is God’s money. How much of it do I keep for myself?” “Because it belongs to God; how much does He want me to spend on me? How much does He want me to spend on advancing His kingdom?”
Dave: Yes, and wouldn’t it be radical if, instead of comparing our wealth to our neighbor—you know, because we’re always like, “I hope I have more,”—what if we compared, in a good way, and said, “I hope I can be the most generous”?
Shannon: Yes! You know what? Jesus invites us to compare in that way. Do you remember the story of the widow at the temple as she brought her two little copper coins? In that day, the temple would give a widow two coins per day for her bread for the day; so this woman was basically saying: “You know what? I’m going to fast today. I’m going to give generously; I’m going to go without food.” I think it’s interesting she had two; because that means she could have given one and kept one for herself, but she was so generous.
Jesus, in response to that, calls His disciples over and He says: “Hey, look at her! Look at her; she has given more than all the rest of these.” It’s this interesting thing that Jesus invites us to compare in a way that inspires us, not to measure ourselves against each other, but “Let’s be inspired by the generosity of this woman.” He lifts her up. She had humbled herself so drastically, and yet He lifts her up. Let’s be inspired by the people around us who are generous.
Bob: To that point, comparison can be corrosive and toxic; or if we’re comparing ourselves to what God’s called us to, it can be inspiring. It can be something that’s motivating, to say, “My goal is to be like Jesus.” Now, there’s a comparison that we are always going to fall short of; but when that’s our goal, not for our glory but for God’s glory, that’s a whole different kind of comparison. That’s why the subtitle of your book is so right: [Lessons] from Jesus on Me-Free Living in a Measure-Up World. This is not about, “How do I look good?”; it’s about, “How does God look good/how does He look good through me? How do I glorify Him?”
I’m guessing that maybe more than a few of our listeners wrestle with this issue of comparison. Get a copy of Shannon’s book, and maybe go through it with some other women. You can order Shannon’s book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The number to call to order Shannon Popkin’s book, Comparison Girl, is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk more about comparison. We want to talk about how we can fall into the trap of comparing our kids to other people’s kids; we’ve all done that, right? Shannon Popkin will join us again tomorrow. I hope you can join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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