The Danger of Social Comparison: Why You Want What Others Have & How To Stop
Some human tendencies are self-defeating.
They hold us back, preventing us from becoming the best version of ourselves. Social comparison is one of these mental traps. By comparing yourself to others, you lose sight of your own personal value and uniqueness and set yourself up for a life of dissatisfaction — a life of wishing and wanting everything you don’t have. So why do we fall into the trap of thinking the grass is greener on the other side? And how do we reframe this negative self-speak to help us move forward and grow?
A Brief Story of The Power of Comparison:
One time, I saw a girl so breathtakingly beautiful, I lost sight of my own true beauty. The next day, I met a man of such wealth and stature, I forgot my own journey of success. Shortly afterward, I saw a younger woman with the perfect body, and now I only see imperfection when I look in the mirror. I feel small and ashamed. But after a while, I will not remember why. I will begin to live with the belief that I will never be enough.
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” ~Steven Furtick
How Social Comparison Works:
According to psychologist Leon Festinger, we engage in “social comparison” for two reasons, to assess how we are doing in a particular area of our life and to determine our place within society. We use social comparison to evaluate and learn about ourselves, and Festinger claims this drive is as powerful as thirst and hunger. It’s a natural tendency that all humans experience. It can be broken into two categories, downward and upward comparison.
Downward comparison involves comparing yourself to someone you perceive as worse off than yourself. We often engage in this type of comparison when our self-esteem is threatened because it places us on a pedestal and reassures us that it could be much worse. According to Psychology Today, a shift in perception can make this type of social comparison more beneficial for both parties when focusing on our common humanity. For example, if you recognize your own vulnerabilities and shortcomings and how these connect you with the other person, you are more likely to empathize and provide support versus having a false sense of superiority.
Upward comparison involves comparing yourself to someone you perceive as better off. This can have either a positive or negative impact on your psyche depending on how you frame your perception. For example, this type of social comparison can inspire and motivate you to make improvements if you admire this person and perceive that the same outcome is available to you. However, if you view the comparison with contempt and hopelessness (not within the realm of possibility), then your self-esteem can be negatively impacted by this comparison.
Why You Should Avoid Social Comparison:
- Perfection is an illusion. Social Media has contributed to your belief that everyone’s life is perfect because it doesn’t tell the whole truth. You see snippets of your friends on the perfect dream vacation, not realizing they arrived a day late due to a flight delay then had to switch rooms because theirs had water damage. You see pictures of happy couples smiling and kissing as the sunset drops behind them, not realizing that they were arguing just moments before. This illusion of perfection is not a good benchmark for evaluating your life, so do yourself a favor and remember that you’re only getting one small piece of the story on Social Media.
- Life isn’t always on an even playing ground. Let’s face it, sometimes life just isn’t fair. Some people have intrinsic advantages over others. They’re born into wealth, they have natural talents, a rapid-fire metabolism, the perfect hair and eyes, a bigger network that helped them land that dream job, etc . . . Comparing yourself to these people is like comparing apples to oranges and often leaves you feeling jealous and inadequate when the truth is there’s an uneven playing field. This type of social comparison fails to motivate or inspire you to become your best, so it’s best to avoid it.
- Turns friends and allies into rivals. When you constantly compare yourself to your friends, you lose the ability to celebrate in their joy and success. This lack of support causes friction and creates separation between you. Remember that the tide will eventually turn and you’ll want your friends to celebrate with you, so rejoice and be happy for them when it’s their turn.
“Comparison is the death of joy.” ~Mark Twain
3 Empowering Strategies for Gauging Success And Motivating Growth:
- Use temporal comparison vs. social comparison. Instead of evaluating your success and where you are in your life by comparing yourself against others, try evaluating against yourself. With temporal comparison, you use your past as the benchmark for growth. Have you made progress in your career in the last year? Are you closer to the body weight you want to achieve? Have you made noteworthy achievements towards the goals you set for your life? If yes, then you are successful and you will continue to make improvements. If no, then decide what you want to change, set a goal, and use your current state as the benchmark for growth because when comparing against yourself, you eliminate the uneven playing field factor mentioned above.
- Live with an attitude of gratitude. The quickest way to ease the personal burden of comparison is to be grateful for the blessings in your life. The more thankful you feel, the less compelled you will be to compare yourself to others. Don’t wait till you hit a major milestone to be thankful; instead express gratitude for even the smallest things. This may be difficult at first, but as you develop the habit of gratitude, you will find that it becomes a part of your natural response. This will also help you celebrate the success of others versus feeling inadequate or jealous. Start with writing down 3–5 specific things each day that you are thankful for. As you reflect on these things, focus on feeling the emotion of gratitude, as this creates a new neural pathway in the brain allowing you to experience this feeling more easily in the future.
- Learn to FULLY love yourself. Appreciate your strengths and weaknesses. As the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu remind us in the The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness for Changing Times, “You are a masterpiece in the making.” Remembering this spiritual truth removes the burden of comparison and allows you to feel content with where you currently are in your life. By identifying your strengths, you will remember that others admire you for these traits, just as you admire others for theirs. Knowing your weaknesses allows you to view others more objectively and helps you identify areas where you want to make improvements without self-judgement.
Social comparison is the deadliest vice of perfectionism. I know this because I used to be a perfectionist. I lived by the mantra that if I couldn’t do something perfectly, it wasn’t worth doing at all. At the time, I didn’t realize this mindset required me to continually compare myself to others. I didn’t realize this was preventing me from taking calculated risks that were necessary for my growth.
Over time, I realized this strategy wasn’t working for me, so I decided to change. I was introduced to the business concept of MVP (Minimum Viable Product). I was fascinated that businesses would take risks by putting out an MVP product that wasn’t fully refined so that they could gain valuable customer feedback and make necessary changes to the final product along the way. I realized how this business strategy allowed companies to grow more quickly and effectively. I decided that the MVP strategy could also be applied to personal growth to allow me to become the best version of myself. I accomplished this by applying the three strategies listed above. If I can break the chains of social comparison, I know anyone can. Including you.
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What Is Social Comparison Theory? By Kendra Cherry
Psychology Today: The Perils of Comparing Ourselves to Others By Juliana Breines, Ph.D.
Psychology Today: 3 Reasons to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others By Deborah Carr, Ph.D.
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World By Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
Originally published at andreacadelli.com on May 23, 2017.