If you’re looking to stop comparing yourself to other people, your efforts will be fruitless. According to the social comparison theory, we all do it and we’re not going to stop. So, let’s put aside the idea that you can somehow stop comparing yourself to others and focus on how you can 1) hack your innate ability to compare and 2) keep it from pulling you under.
Social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the social comparison theory in 1954. The idea is that we are all driven to assess the accuracy of our abilities, opinions, and emotions. However, without anything concrete to compare ourselves against, we turn to the people around us.
Let’s say you’ve just joined a local basketball league. Once you hit the court, you start to evaluate your skills by comparing your performance to other players. You might initially compare yourself to someone playing the same position as you on the other team, taking note of what skills they are better at than you and which ones they’re not. You might also compare yourself to other players in other positions. Now that you’ve got a benchmark to work with, you’ll be in a better position to make adjustments and improve your abilities.
Sometimes we make comparisons with people who are better off than us (upward comparisons) while other times we compare ourselves with people who are worse off (downward comparisons). These comparisons can leave us feeling better or worse, it all depends on what we do with the information. For example, the inspiration you feel from learning about someone else’s achievements may get you pumped and ready to take on new challenges, increase your focus, and get you on track to improving your life. Similarly, if you realize that your abilities are at a higher level than someone else’s, you might feel a sense of mastery, accomplishment, and pride for your hard work. As you might notice from those examples, comparisons are not the problem! The problem occurs when you filter them in a way that leaves you feeling sad, less-than, depressed, or worthless.
Who Are Your Comparison Targets?
People typically compare themselves to those they most identify with and those in their general circle. You probably don’t go comparing your daily life to that of Bill Gates or to someone in a much worse position than you. Typically, you’ll find yourself comparing to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
Comparisons, Self-Esteem, and Eating Disorders
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel that they don’t measure up to those around them. One might say these individuals are primed to filter out anything that doesn’t support their core belief of being, for example, not good enough. They may find themselves scrolling through social media or looking at the people around them to gather evidence that will support this core belief. This is achieved through numerous maladaptive or unhelpful upward comparisons that they promptly file under ‘I’m not good enough.’ As you can imagine, this leaves the person with increased feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and even lower self-esteem.
Another example is body-related social comparisons (BRSC), which tends to be a struggle for those suffering from eating disorders. According to a study by Hamel, Zaitsoff, Taylor, Menna, and Le Grange, adolescents with eating disorders engaged in significantly more BRSC than their peers with depressive disorders as well as their healthy counterparts. These unhelpful social comparisons were also a significant predictor of eating disorder symptoms. Again, these types of comparisons leave the individual in a terrible cycle of negative emotional experiences, disordered eating behaviors, and a poor relationship with their body.
These maladaptive comparisons are precisely where the problem lies. Comparisons are meant to inspire us, motivate us, validate whether or not we’re doing things properly, and let us know when we’re off track. They are not intended to break us down.
Harnessing Your Comparisons
As mentioned above, humans have an innate drive to compare and we’re going to keep doing it. Unfortunately, social media is constantly perpetuating maladaptive social comparisons and everyone is comparing themselves to someone else’s highlight reel. So, let’s break down ways that you can get out of the cycle of unhelpful comparisons, strengthen your sense of self, and use your ability to compare for good!
Get connected, but for real this time
You don’t have to get rid of social media, you just have to use it better. Instead of passively scrolling, getting caught in unhelpful comparisons, and feeling down on yourself, really connect instead! Engage with people that you care about. Let them know you’re proud of them or that you are wishing them well if they’re struggling. Private messages are your friend! Write to friends and family, check in on them, and let them know you care. Fostering more authentic relationships will give your online time more purpose and improve your overall social media experience.
Check-in with yourself
When making comparisons, pay attention to how you’re doing it. Ask yourself, ‘Is this helpful to me in reaching my goals and living my best life?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ you don’t have to beat yourself up for getting caught up in it. Just focus your attention on somewhere or something that is more positive and of value to you in building the life you want. If maladaptive comparisons feel automatic and it’s hard for you to catch yourself when doing them, use your emotions as signals. When you start to feel down on yourself, check-in and ask ‘Am I hurting myself through comparing again?’ Then, get yourself back on track.
Using comparisons for good
Comparisons can be truly inspiring. Spoiler alert: there are a bunch of people out there that are doing better than you and that doesn’t make you less-than. Try letting this reality motivate you. There’s always an opportunity to feel better, try harder, be proud of yourself, and do good in this world.
Next time you see someone who just bought a shiny new car, took an amazing vacation, or landed a new job, try thinking about your own goals and make moves towards achieving them. Let yourself be motivated by the fact that other people are doing what feels important to them and you can too. Getting caught in the cycle of unhelpful comparisons is just, well, unhelpful. You already know where that gets you, so give this approach a try instead.
Be your own benchmark
You can compare yourself to yourself! This is helpful when you are struggling because you can remember things like, ‘I’ve been through much worse, I can definitely get through this’ or even ‘There was a time when things were so difficult for me, my hard work has really paid off.’ Be your own inspiration, you’re the expert on what you’ve been through and what you have accomplished so use that knowledge to your advantage.
Over the next few days, start using some of these skills. If you struggle with maladaptive comparisons, this will take time and practice as you learn how to do things in a new way. Remember, if you want to feel different, you have to do different. You deserve to do better and feel better and nothing compares to that!
About the Author:
Jessica Aron, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and trauma. She works in private practice in Greenwich, CT and White Plains, NY utilizing an integrated therapy approach to promote recovery that goes beyond symptom reduction.
Festinger L (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations. 7 (2): 117–140.
Hamel, A.E., Zaitsoff, S.L., Taylor, A., Menna, R., & Le Grange, D. (2012). Body-Related Social Comparison and Disordered Eating among Adolescent Females with an Eating Disorder, Depressive Disorder, and Healthy Controls. Nutrients 4(9), 1260-1272.
Webber, R., & Alexander, D. (2017). Mirror, Mirror. Psychology Today 50(6), 56-65
Written – 2018