It’s almost impossible not to notice how we’re doing relative to other people, whether in terms of our career success, financial position, relationship status or physical appearance. It’s so common, in fact, that psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the term ‘Social Comparison Theory’ back in 1954 to describe our human drive to gain an accurate self-evaluation by comparing ourselves to others.
This kind of social comparison can sometimes be useful: Making upward comparisons (comparing yourself with people doing better than you are) can encourage you to work harder towards your goals; and if you’re feeling down about some aspect of yourself or your life, downward comparisons (comparing with people who are less well off than you are) can give you a sense of perspective so that you feel better about your own situation.
Too much comparing isn’t good for anyone though. Back in Festinger’s day, we were probably only comparing ourselves to our immediate family, friends, neighbours and co-workers. These days, social media has made it possible for us to compare ourselves and our lives to hundreds of ‘friends’, strangers and even celebrities online.
Women, in particular, seem to be in more danger of being negatively affected by social comparison because of the media images we are continually exposed to of other women who are thin, beautiful and fabulously wealthy. Those carefully edited and posed photos filling our Instagram feeds and the photoshopped magazine covers have made us feel that the ‘ideal’ is actually the norm, and so we judge ourselves more harshly by comparing ourselves with an impossible standard.
It’s not just physical comparisons that make us feel we’re not measuring up. There are the professionally styled living rooms, spotless kitchen benches upon which are served organic, whole-food meals and daily green juices. Spouses are always smiling – never arguing. Children and pets are perfectly groomed and well behaved. Not to mention that everyone is having fun ALL THE TIME.
The more you engage in upward comparison, the more likely you are to experience its negative consequences of envy, self-criticism and lower self-esteem. If you find yourself falling into the trap of comparing yourself with others and feel like you’re coming up short, here are some tips to help you keep things in a little perspective:
- Remember it’s your ‘behind the scenes’ vs. their ‘highlights reel’.
When comparing, we are seeing an edited version of a person’s whole life but often we fail to take into consideration that this is really their ‘highlights reel’ and that everyone has their own stuff going on behind the scenes, regardless of outward appearances. Not that I’m suggesting we hope anyone else is secretly miserable (!) but we do want to remember our common humanity. What you see is a snapshot, not the whole picture.
- Focus on what’s important
Social comparison frequently tends to focus on outward, observable features of a person’s life such as their financial status, physical appearance, career achievement or lifestyle. There’s enough research now to support the fact these are not the things that bring us deep and lasting joy in life. A life that is lived with intention and purpose, good quality friendships, good health and the savouring of small pleasures are all the things that make life worthwhile but they’re usually not what you’re focusing on when engaging in social comparison. Remembering your own values and practising gratitude can help to move you out of the comparison trap.
- Have an abundance mindset
If you’re feeling jealous about other people’s success, you can fall into the trap of being mean-spirited or stingy with your compliments. This happens when you start slipping into ‘scarcity’ thinking; which is the idea that there is a finite amount of success and happiness to go around like a pie with limited slices. It might help to remember that the pie is unlimited and that someone else’s success doesn’t take anything away from you. In fact, you can choose to see others’ success as evidence of what is possible for you if you keep working towards your goals!
Resolve to actively and enthusiastically express happiness for other people’s progress. It will make you feel good and the positive support and encouragement will be returned to you tenfold.
Finally, remember that no-one else has your unique biological make-up, lifestyle or personal history so it makes no sense whatsoever to compare yourself with anyone else. Run your own race and you’ll always be a winner.