photo by Yaroslav Shuraev for Pexels
by Andrea M. Darcy
From parents telling us we have been better behaved than a sibling, to teachers who keep charts with gold stars, comparing yourself to others is a habit we learn from a young age.
How much damage is self comparison doing in your life, and can comparing ourselves ever be a positive?
Social comparison theory
In psychology, the human drive to compare ourselves to others is called “social comparison theory“. This theory was first coined in 1954 by social psychologist Leon Festinger.
He recognised a primitive drive within us all to compare our opinions and abilities to those of others, so that we can better understand ourselves.
Why do we compare ourselves to others?
Festinger suggested we practice self-comparison because we want to:
More recent social comparison research by psychologists Gibbons and Buunk found we all tend to socially compare, including things like our emotions and values, even if we don’t realise it. So thinking you’ll never compare yourself to others is unrealistic. And social comparison also involves a drive to improve and enhance ourselves.
What the different forms of social comparison can say about you
There are now two recognised forms of social comparison, which are:
- upwards comparison (to those we perceive as doing better than us)
- downwards comparison (to those we perceive as doing worse than us).
Each form of comparison comes with positives and negatives.
Upward social comparison
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Pitting yourself against those you perceive as better than you can help you to:
But comparing upwards can also lead to:
Ask yourself this: Are you using this form of comparison because you secretly want to beat yourself up, or boost your ego in ways that are unhealthy? Or are you actually doing this to create positive motivation?
Downward social comparison
Comparing yourself to others whose lives are less advanced than yours can:
It can also on the other hand cause you to:
- lose motivation to change (“what I have is fine”)
- be dishonest with yourself about your own suffering (“It could be worse”)
- avoid seeking the help you really need.
Ask yourself this: Are you comparing yourself to others who are not as lucky as you because it makes you feel more accepting and grateful for what you have? Or has this become a way of letting yourself stay stuck in life?
Comparison and your self-esteem
Feel like sometimes you can compare yourself to others with no issue, but then other times you feel terrible afterwards? In the 1990s social psychologists Aspinwall and Taylor published pivotal research that showed that–
–the effects on your self-esteem when comparing yourself to others depends on what state your confidence was in to begin with.
If you are in a state of self-worth, comparing upwards can motivate you and serve you better than comparing downwards. But if you are already not feeling great about yourself, it lowers your self-esteem even more and is best avoided.
Comparison and social media
This research could explain the problem with social media.
We are often driven to use social media when we are feeling vulnerable. We don’t tend to be exploring Instagram in the middle of a great date, for example. But more on the night all our friends are out with a partner, and we are at home, feeling bored and lonely.
And we are comparing ourselves not just upwards, but often to carefully manipulated illusions. To bodies or lifestyles that don’t really exist.
How to use social comparison productively
So given the above information, how can you make your moments of social comparison less psychologically draining?
1. Limit social media time and avoid it when you aren’t feeling good.
Quitting social media can be hard, as it’s addictive. But it can also free up a surprising amount of energy and time. Not sure you want to? Give yourself a wakeup call by timing your use for the next few days and keeping a diary of what your mood is like just before and after you use it.
2. If you must compare upwards, learn the habit of balance.
If you can’t stop comparing yourself to people you are convinced are above you, fine.
Counteract it by listing one unrealistic thing about the person for each comparison you make, or finding one balanced thought.
“She has a better body than me” then involves, “but wait, she hasn’t had any children, or has the budget for a private trainer”. “She is way happier than me” can be balanced by, “but I don’t know her and nobody is happy all the time”, etc.
3. Practise gratitude. Yes, seriously.
It’s annoying as it seems everyone goes on about it, but that’s simply as it works. Gratitude is actually evidence based, proven to up your moods and even help your sleep. So whether or not it’s still trendy to keep a gratitude journal, do give it a go. Or use a gratitude app if it’s easier.
4. Use comparison for better perspective only.
If you must compare, use it to widen your perspective. This can be downward comparison ( to someone in a Third World country I live like a queen). But it can also can be comparing upwards if used to bring humour or relief. For example, “I am terrified of giving this presentation because I’m terrible at them and will never be as good as an Oscars presenter…. but it’s not stars here, it’s just my colleagues!”.
5. How to stop comparing yourself to others? Compare yourself to… yourself.
Too often we forget to see how far we’ve come. Comparing your life now to your life when younger can be life-affirming. So yes, you might have been passed over for a promotion recently. But did you ever think when in your twenties and a receptionist you’d even be in the running one day for Manager of Operations?
Self-comparison and mental health
Is it possible that you self-compare because you are dealing with mental health issues? Yes. In newer research, Gibbons and Buunk found that certain groups of people were more likely to self-compare. This includes those who are sensitive, have high empathy, low self-esteem, or who are neurotic or narcissistic.
Given that low self-esteem is a leading symptom of depression, they also looked at how those who were depressed used social comparison. They found that if you are depressed and use comparison to find easily achievable goals, it can be helpful. But that comparing yourself to things that are very out of reach can send your moods spiralling.
Note that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also lead to a lot of self comparison. Adults with ADHD are often high potential individuals, but their own brain is working against them. The end result can be a constant sense of not living up to your potential. And this sees you endlessly comparing yourself to those you are sure you would be like, if it weren’t for your attention issues.
Can’t stop comparing yourself to others to the point you’re depressed? We connect you with a hand-selected team of top London talk therapists in lovely central offices. Or use our sister site to find therapy listings covering all of the UK.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing expert, trained in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy