We all do it.
We compare ourselves to others sometimes.
And I’m pretty sure that you’ve heard that it’s a bad thing. And it can be.
When you compare your life to someone’s portrayal of their seemingly picture-perfect life on social media or where you are in your career at your age to somebody who seems to have taken a golden escalator straight to the top, it can feel awful, demotivating, and humiliating. It can be a negative thing, bringing on feelings of stress, shame, or jealousy and making you more competitive than necessary.
But comparing yourself to others is not always bad.
It can also be inspiring, motivating, and hopeful to compare yourself to people who have overcome obstacles, worked hard, and figured out ways to achieve and progress despite the odds. You might even think “If they can do it, so can I!” In these instances, making comparisons can help us feel better about ourselves and our situations.
There are two types of social comparison, upward and downward, and how each affects you depends on many different things.
Social Comparison Theory Defined
When you compare yourself to friends or colleagues using a trait that you consider desirable, for example, money or success, this is known as social comparison. Social comparison is where we compare certain aspects of ourselves, such as our behavior, opinions, status, or success, to other people so that we can form assessments of ourselves.
In 1954, Leon Festinger proposed that social comparison was driven by a need to evaluate ourselves so that we had more information. More recent theory suggests that social comparison is motivated by three drives:
The concept of social comparison has expanded dramatically from the initially limited theory that only encompassed opinions and abilities to include more abstract concepts such as job satisfaction and overall life success.
Upward and Downward Comparisons
Comparing ourselves to others is a natural human behavior that probably originally evolved to help us live together in communities, learn from one another, and adopt the behaviors of a group to fit in. It also can be a form of introspective thinking, to gauge how we’re doing in life, re-evaluate plans, and determine necessary actions in what directions.
When you engage in upward social comparison, you are comparing yourself to someone who is perceived to be more capable or performing better than you. When you engage in downward social comparison, you are comparing yourself to someone who is perceived to be less capable or performing worse than you.
The direction of the comparison doesn’t coincide with the direction of the outcome. Both types of social comparison can have negative and positive effects. Comparison isn’t automatically bad either way.
Comparing Can Have a Negative Impact
Whenever people gather, we tend to compare ourselves and form some sort of hierarchy, formal or unspoken. We can’t help it. Whether a person is higher up or further down on the totem pole, we just naturally tend to compare. Clubs have elected officers and give awards to people, and everyone knows the members with the most influence. Moms’ groups compare their babies’ milestones and their relationships in an effort to gauge how their kids are progressing and to measure how well they’re fulfilling the role of mother.
When you make a comparison and find yourself lacking, it can create stress and feelings of shame or hopelessness. On the other hand, you can appear overly confident or competitive when you make downward social comparisons, which may then put strains on your relationships.
The Impact of Social Media
Social media has taken social comparison to a whole new level. On social platforms, you can see who is doing what, and you may get stressed or depressed wondering if you’re doing enough, earning enough, or enjoying life enough. “FOMO,” fear of missing out, is real. Remember, when you compare your regular life with someone else’s highlights, you are almost always going to come up lacking. Social media exacerbates social comparison in all the worst ways, making us feel worse about ourselves. Research validates this.
Comparisons Can Have Benefits Too
There are also potential positive aspects to social comparison. When the people we compare ourselves to are doing well, they can inspire us to do our best also. This is especially true if they share information about their path, and you are open to learning with a growth mindset.
When you make downward comparisons to others who have it worse than you, it can make you appreciate what you have more. It can help you realize that you could be in a worse position, feel more gratitude, and experience more empathy. People often do better and accomplish more if they’re trying to keep up with a role model or successful friend. We can elevate ourselves by supporting others. It’s a win/win.
Even the desire to avoid the embarrassment of failure can be a strong motivator. Competition can be healthy and friendly and positive. The main difference between friendly and non-friendly competition is the supportiveness factor. Unhealthy competitors delight in one-upmanship and the failure of others. Healthy competition, on the other hand, can motivate you to succeed.
How to Use Comparison to Help You
If you find yourself making social comparisons that aren’t helping you or hooked on the need to feel superior via downward social comparison or beating yourself up when you make upward social comparisons, it’s important to become aware of and revise your thinking habits. Here are some effective ways that you can train your brain to make social comparisons that help you:
Find Role Models
If you find role models and learn from them, you can gain the benefits of their success while avoiding some of their stumbles. To avoid adding an unhealthy element of competitiveness to your personal or professional relationships, it may be easier to learn from a public figure rather than a person in your own life.
Create a Support Circle
It’s easier to avoid unhealthy competition, both professionally and personally, if you create a group of supportive people with similar interests or goals. This can be an informal group of friends who share a common interest, like exercising or reading. Or you can join an organized group, like Toastmasters.
Find a Partner
Another way to compare and compete in a healthy way is to find a partner to engage in an activity with. Rather than joining or forming a group, you and your buddy can check in with each other at scheduled times, track each other’s progress, celebrate achievements, and help motivate one another to stick to the plan. Studies show that having an accountability partner makes you vastly more likely to reach your goals.
Focus on Your Strengths
When you find yourself making comparisons and feeling bad about yourself or envious of someone else, it can help to remind yourself of your own accomplishments and strengths. Remind yourself of something you worked at and achieved and the qualities you possess that made it happen. Really internalize and feel the feelings of pride, strength, and accomplishment. This will help keep the neurochemical dopamine flowing and make you more motivated and happier.
Limit social media
Using social media can skew your perceptions of what is realistic and interrupt and interfere with in-person communications. Become aware of your usage habits and how they affect you and set limits accordingly. You’ll stay connected better with people in your life if you have certain times each day when your social media notifications are off. Commit to not checking social media during meals with family and friends, when playing with children, talking with someone, or during certain blocks of time while working. Make sure that your phone does not interfere with your career, distracting you from your responsibilities and conversations with colleagues.
One reason comparisons can make us feel bad is that they reinforce a sense of lack. One habit to counter this is to find gratitude for what you do have. There are two easy ways to encourage gratitude daily. The first is to think of or write down a few things each day that you are grateful for. Another way is to reframe your thoughts on the spot. When you become aware of yourself making comparisons that are having a negative impact on you, challenge your thoughts. Counter them with good memories of achievements or obstacles you have overcome or supportive affirmations.
There is ample evidence that focusing on gratitude, rather than negative circumstances, neutral events that are neither positive nor negative, or downward social comparisons, leads to:
- Increased positive affect
- Better sleep
- Higher levels of optimism (which is a buffer against the negative effects of downward social comparisons)
- More prosocial behavior
Use Envy to Grow
Even if you do everything right by avoiding social media, staying focused on your own goals, and practicing gratitude, you will occasionally still feel envious. This can either leave you with resentment and feelings of inadequacy or you can use it to find motivation and self-awareness. Wanting things is not inherently bad. However, it’s healthy to reflect on why you want what someone else has. For example, if someone just landed a job you envy, what makes you envious? Is it the money? Is it the status? Is it the nature of the work itself? The purpose of the work? These kinds of questions can help you clarify what you want and value. So, then you can identify steps to take and make a plan that is right for you to achieve.
Social comparisons are normal. We all engage in them at times. This behavior can be inspiring and motivating, or it can have negative side effects. How it affects us is up to us. The research about social comparisons is complex and not clear-cut. Yet, one pattern seems overwhelmingly clear. That is that the outcome of social comparisons hinges on who we are, who we are comparing ourselves to, and how we frame the comparison.
It is important to remember that each of us is born into a unique set of circumstances, in a unique environment, and our successes are not limited by the people to who we compare ourselves. Instead, we will help ourselves if we use social comparisons to inspire and motivate us and focus on and are grateful for what we have achieved.
This post was first mentioned in the Authoritti5.0 Magazine