It’s natural to be curious about others. But what happens if we are always comparing ourselves to other people? Is it true as Theodore Roosevelt once said, that “comparison is the thief of joy”?
Comparing ourselves to others is a completely natural behavior. In fact, social comparison theory suggests that people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves, often in comparison to others (source).
This suggests that we see other people as a reference point to compare things and judge whether something is the same or not and if so, if that thing is better or worse. The results of these comparisons can greatly impact how we feel about ourselves and the decisions we make in our lives.
And the number of comparisons that we make each day is profound. Research indicates that more than 10% of daily thoughts involve making a comparison of some kind (source).
Let’s take a closer look at social comparison theory and how comparisons can impact our lives.
Why Do We Compare Ourselves to Others?
Comparisons begin at a very young age as we are constantly immersed in systems that compare us to others. For instance, as a young child, you may have had contests with your friends to see who is the tallest, fastest, or maybe the best at a game. Or, maybe your parents compared your abilities and traits with your siblings.
Then, upon entering school, there is a whole new group of kids to compare yourself to. You may have compared grades, popularity among friends, clothes, appearance, athletic ability, and other talents.
As adults, the comparisons may change shape slightly with an emphasis on status, salary, career, and relationships. Although, comparison of appearance seems to be a factor from childhood to adult life.
And we all know that it’s difficult to be on social media and not compare ourselves to others. With 24/7 access to view the highlight reel of everyone else’s life right from your phone (whether you know them personally or not), you may begin to feel not so great about yourself.
Types of Social Comparison
The feelings that come from comparisons stem from two types of social comparison: upward social comparison and downward social comparison.
Upward social comparison takes place when we compare ourselves with those who we believe are better than us (source). These upward comparisons often focus on the desire to improve our current status or level of ability. We might compare ourselves to someone better off and look for ways that we can achieve similar results.
On the other hand, downward social comparison occurs when we compare ourselves to others who are worse off than us. Such downward comparisons are often centered on making ourselves feel better about our abilities or traits.
Both types of social comparison can put our happiness, confidence, and mental health at risk.
The Consequences of Comparison
If you are intentional in your comparisons, then they can help to inspire and motivate you (source). For instance, seeing pictures of your friend’s daily workout on Instagram could motivate you to start an exercise program too. Or, maybe you read a book from someone who started their own business and is now very successful. Now you have a role model who can inspire you to meet your goals as well.
Yet, while comparing yourself to others can be motivating, it can also lead you to feel that you’re not good enough or that you never have enough.
As a result, social comparison can have many negative consequences. A few of the most common include:
The significant thing to remember is that it is about perspective. If comparisons are making you feel bad about yourself, depressed, or even too caught up with the number of comparisons you are making, then it’s time to make a change.
What can you do about it?
Tips for Dealing with Social Comparison
1. Pay attention to your thoughts. The first step to overcoming anything is to become more aware. Begin to gain awareness of the comparisons you are making. When you recognize that you are making a comparison, say to yourself, “There’s one of those comparison thoughts.” Think about how it’s serving you. Is it a positive thought? If not, then release it.
2. Avoid your triggers. Start paying attention to the situations or people that lead you to compare yourself to others. Social media is a big one for most of us. Yet, you may have friends and acquaintances that make you feel discontent with yourself. Think about whether comparing yourself to them is adding meaning or value to your life. If possible, cut back on social media if it is negatively impacting your well-being.
3. Feel gratitude for who you are and what you have. Feeling a sense of gratitude can help you to focus on the positive and decrease the habit of constant comparison. Two gratitude practices you can try are affirmations and journaling.
An affirmation is a brief phrase, repeated frequently, which is designed to encourage positive, happy feelings, thoughts, and attitudes (source). A gratitude affirmation could be “I am happy with who I am” or “I am happy with what I have.” Speak the affirmation out loud. Repetition is important because your brain will make connections every time you repeat the action and thoughts.
To start a gratitude journal, spend a few minutes each day to write down five things you’re grateful for. You will not only feel good as you write them down, but you will experience gratitude throughout the day as well.
“We become what we pay attention to.”
4. Compliment Others. Compliments can make others feel great and they can enhance your own self-esteem. This is because giving a genuine compliment requires us to look for the good in others (source). We realize that we are all on the same journey together and that each of us has value to share with the world. Even if you are just thinking of the compliment and not saying it out loud, this is a more positive experience than making comparisons.
5. Compete with yourself instead of others. Instead of centering your attention on others, focus on your own achievements and goals. By reflecting on your achievements you will realize that you are capable of accomplishing amazing things. This will help you to feel more confident about your abilities. This can also help you to set goals and think about how you can continue to grow.
A Take-Home Message
Consider how upward and downward social comparisons might influence your thoughts, feelings, and actions. As you become more aware of these comparisons, I invite you to use the strategies offered to take back your joy and create your own path.
If you are finding it difficult to end this constant comparison and would like to speak with a professional, please reach out to schedule an appointment.
As a therapist, Jorie Miklos enjoys helping people reach a level of personal happiness and satisfaction that they didn’t think was possible.
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