Social Comparison & Ressentiment

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"Against another's great merits, there is no remedy but love." Goethe

About Comparison

It is in our nature to compare ourselves to others. Indeed, our self-identity as persons is first constituted and subsequently shaped in a network of relationships with others. As we enter the larger social space, beyond home and later beyond school and neighborhood, we find new and different occasions to make such comparisons.

In our efforts to pursue a career and attain markers of success as adults, we notice others. The most competent among them become standards of comparison perhaps. As peers they also become competitors. Comparative appraisals of self versus other may produce feelings of envy, even resentment (not the same as ressentiment).

If our underlying sense of self is secure - we know we're okay. Parents, teachers, and others have given us reason to believe this. We also know that those things and qualities we most desire and admire can be achieved with effort and with help. We've also come to see that each of us approaches life with differences that make us individual - it's normal.

When this healthy, underlying sense of self is present, it bolsters our confidence to actualize desired qualities, capabilities, and accomplishments, to make them part of who we are as persons. So, the feelings of envy will naturally give way to determined efforts to achieve in our own way what we earlier saw others realizing in their own way.

Chains of such adaptive achievement strivings are inherent to human development, and they include episodes of social comparison. But when we see persistent attitudes of resentment, a generalized attitude of rancor and hostility toward others, which is not resolved by means of productive action, we can be rather sure it's become ressentiment.  

The Corrosive Difference of Ressentiment

It's when what we desire, envy, and resent others having (things, status, esteem, or nobility) seems unattainable. It's when we harbor feelings of impotence to do or be what another person has done or be what they've become. It's when these feelings of impotence are repressed as a secret and fatal flaw in our character.

When feelings of envy and resentment produce this unresolving feeling of rancor for others, we are consumed by feelings so repugnant that we must project them upon others. We must find others to villainize, "It's them! They are the reason I have not been able to achieve more success, get that promotion, or be recognized for my genius."

In reality, of course, and as Goethe reminds us, there is a way to change this state of being. It begins with love, first directed toward ourselves with compassion. Something, perhaps some deficiency in care when we were young, caused us to overlook a capacity for growth and for nobility within ourselves. So we must now discover it and have faith in it.

From there, we find ways to more easily love others, even those whose qualities we admire and might envy.

But what we now envy is either their unique individuality as a person, or their achievements which are often achievable for ourselves and others with effort and determination. We come to know and appreciate what we've been given. Now the ruminations and self-criticism that stole our energies and capacities for growth are emancipated. We are free to be.

If you are not there yet, know that it's possible!