Why is comparing yourself to others a bad habit
Try to describe yourself in 3 words. Smart, succesfull, pretty? Good. Compared to whom? Ironically, even self-reflection (often) includes comparison to others. Being social beings, other people are crucial for our life, opinion but also self-esteem. Observational learning is one of the most important ways how we learn what behavior is adequate in a particular situation, what are our gender and other roles but also what is ethical and moral.
Again, being a social being also means that, in some way, for our survival is vital that we are accepted by our group. Therefore, the comparison is essential to help us determine whether we deviate from our group. Being better (but not too much) in some aspects could be appreciated by the group.
Life in which we are not comparing ourselves to others would be great. Just remember some three years old kid who is completely unaware of another kid's achievements and ability and fully enjoys an activity even if they clearly fail in it. Adults who somehow manage to keep that attitude seem much happier and fulfilled. Sadly, for most of us, that is not possible. Being self-aware inevitably means that we will try to make a good impression on others, or even when we are completely alone, we will compare ourselves to some internalized exemplar. However, with practice - you can minimize the negative impact of social comparison. But before that, let's dive into why we compare ourselves to others in the first place.
Why do you compare yourself to others?
Comparison to others feels like such an innate and automatic process that most of us have trouble realizing when we start with that practice. It seems that societal organization promotes social comparison even when we are not intentionally doing it. During growing up, we were often compared to our peers and siblings both by our parents and teachers. They did it mainly with two aims: to encourage and appraise positive behavior and to point out misbehavior. Even as adults, we are doing something similar (only now are we the ones who are choosing exemplars).
How does comparison with others affect your life?
Some authors (e.g., Collins, 1997) stated that our motivation is different depending on whether we are performing upward or downward comparisons. When we compare ourselves to others that we perceive as worse than us (i.e., downward comparison), that could increase our self-evaluation. On the contrary, an upward comparison, i.e., comparing with those better than we are, could help us in setting goals for self-improvement but also decrease our self-evaluation. Finally, we can also compare ourselves with similar others. In that case, comparison helps us form stable and more accurate self-appraisals (i.e., it helps us determine who we really are and what our strengths and weakness are).
Comparison with others and its effects on our life was investigated in the context of various psychological phenomena. For example, research that investigated the role of media in developing negative body image showed that after watching photos of thin models, women showed more negative appraisal of their own bodies (Groesz et al., 2002). Similar results were obtained in another study (Blomquist et al., 2020), where authors examined how social comparison with models affects the estimation of our ability to eat high calory food regularly and maintain our weight. The group that saw ads without models was more confident compared with the group that saw ads with models. Interestingly, the second group also showed more dissatisfaction with their own body after seeing ads with models.
Similar effects are also observed in the context of social media usage. Being exposed to the "perfect" image and life of others negatively impact our mental health. Even though we all know (at least at some level) that what we see on social media is only one tiny segment of truth (if it is true at all), we still end up feeling down, ashamed, etc., because our life is not that cool. One study (Vogel et al., 2014) showed that participants who frequently used Facebook showed lower trait self-esteem. Furthermore, the same study also investigated the effects of upward and downward comparison on state self-esteem. Expectedly, upward comparison led to lower state self-esteem and self-evaluation.
Finally, some authors (e.g., Menon & Thompson, 2010) emphasize that upward comparison in a work-related context could increase motivation but also envy which could harm individuals' careers but also the entire company by creating a hostile working environment.
However, it seems that upward comparison for some people could be beneficial. Collins (1997) mentioned that posting pictures of thin people on refrigerators for some people could have a positive impact on their diets by reminding them about what is their current status and what is the desired goal.
The Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others
Although in some situations, comparison with others could be beneficial (like when we are learning some motoric activity or new language), most of the time, it isn't. Why is that? One of the reasons is that we rarely take into account the full picture. We usually take only one (maybe the best) aspect of someone's life or personality and set it as an exemplar, ignoring all other info and flaws. Even when we are aware of other people's flaws, we are more tolerant than when we judge ourselves.
What to do to stop comparing yourself to others?
Even if it is impossible to completely stop comparing yourself to others, it is important to be, at least, aware of it and to gain control over it. If you train your brain, you might even learn how to gain important insight that will help your personal growth.
- Be aware of your triggers and avoid them
What situations make you insecure? Are you prone to comparison to others more when you are already feeling down? If the result of the comparison doesn't provide you with any useful info and just makes you feel bad about yourself - try not to do it. Also, avoid people who tend to emphasize your flaws all under the pretense that they just want to help you.
- Limit your time on social media
We already mentioned the damaging impact of social media. Although social media, in theory, should help us connect with our family and friends, in reality, they are often one of the sources of stress. The majority of us are very familiar with the feeling of being stuck and not being good enough. Compared to Instagram models, our skin will never be so clean, our muscles never so defined, most of us are not having perfect spouses and children, and yes, we are not all doing meaningful jobs with colleagues that are our "family". Therefore, it is important for you to regularly do a social media detox. Pick a time during the day or weekend when you will not check your social media account. If you can manage a complete day without social media, that would be even better. Probably no need to say - avoid social media and, generally, usage of devices at least one hour before sleep.
- Avoid comparing other peoples' "outsides" to your own "insides"
As social beings, we are constantly trying to make good impressions on others. We carefully present to others the best version of ourselves. But somehow, we keep forgetting that it is not only our strategy. While fully aware of our flaws and weakness, we readily believe that other peoples are only what they decide to show us. Other people also have their difficulties and struggles as well as insecurities. So there is not much sense in comparing our worst with someone's best, right?
- Remind yourself that "money doesn't buy happiness"
Often we are more focused on the things we don't have while completely ignoring all the good things in our life. It is an annoying habit, but evolutionary speaking, that tendency probably was important for survival. However, having more (money, success, recognition…) doesn't mean that we will also be happier. It is hard to believe this because it is counterintuitive. However, the result of one classic study (Brickman et al., 1978) showed that the group of lottery winners did not differ from the control group regarding their happiness level. In the same study, a group of people with spinal-cord injuries that made them permanently disabled showed above-neutral scores of happiness. This phenomenon is known as hedonic adaptation and describes the tendency to go back to baseline happiness level regardless of current life events.
- Count your blessings
Numerous studies showed that practicing gratefulness could improve our happiness and subjective well-being. Furthermore, gratitude helps people better cope with stress, have faster recovery, and have better physical health. Finally, people who practice gratitude also experience more positive emotions, such as joy, hope, love, happiness, and optimism (Emmons et al., 2013).
How to be grateful for what you have? The easiest and most effective way to exercise gratitude is by keeping a journal. Writing requires deeper processing by forcing us to select things we are grateful for, and then writing will help us memorize better and to recall all these memories in moments when we are feeling down. Also, journaling will help you to compare yourself with the old you (more about this below).
- Use comparison as motivation
As we already mentioned, it seems that although mostly associated with negative effects, the comparison doesn't have to be always bad. What is important to analyze is what type of comparison (i.e., downward vs. upward) helps us and in which situations and to recognize when the comparison to others is damaging to our self-esteem and mental health. You can turn comparison into inspiration.
- Compare yourself with you
If we want to track our progress, the best way is to compare ourselves with our past versions. Sometimes we are too focused on things that are not exactly as we want that we don't see how much progress we have already made. By focusing on our weaknesses, we often neglect our strengths.
Some of the most influential authors, such as Jordan Peterson, are promoting this approach. In his best-selling book "12 Rules for life: An antidote for chaos", Peterson outlined rule 4 as "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday". The entire logic is that the only relevant exemplar to whom you should compare is yourself.
You should love your past - even if you made mistakes. Realizing now that those were mistakes shows that you are already a better version of yourself. Also, it is important to accept where you are now, that you are not perfect and that it is ok. Use your past self as a benchmark of comparison, and remember - progress is not always linear.
- Celebrate other people too
We already mentioned that comparison might lead to envy. Being envious and bitter will negatively impact the quality of your life and mental health, and relationship with others. Instead, try to show appreciation for others and their achievement. After all, don't forget - insecurities are universal. Just because you think someone has a perfect life, it does not mean that that person is not dealing with doubts and even self-hatred. Be kind - towards yourself and others.
- Know that this isn't the end of the movie
Even if you are not who you want to be, or you are not where you hope to be - that does not mean that you cannot achieve all of that and more. Society and social media sometimes lead us to believe that we should already figure it out. But each of us has our own pace and our path. And you have the right to change your mind and to try over again and something completely different. If you don't like how your life currently looks - tell a better story.
- Decide not to let fear guide your choices
Being afraid of loss, we often stay for too long in our comfort zone and miss a chance for growth. Comparison to others might increases our fears and affect our choices. Just because you are not the fittest person in the world, it does not mean that you should skip your gym and not improve your health. Just because you are not Beyonce - it does not mean you should not sing at the top of your lungs at a karaoke party. Ok, others might not be envious of your horrible singing voice, but they will appreciate your courage and readiness to have fun. It is ok to be afraid - but do it anyway.
So to summarize, both theory and practice suggest that comparison could be the root of unhappiness for many people. However, it is possible to use social comparison also as an inspiration or as an indicator of how far we have come.
Brickman P., Coates D., Janoff-Bulman R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 36, 917–927.
Blomquist, K. K., Schmalz, D. L., Pate, S. P., & Willmerdinger, A. (2020). What happens when you compare yourself to a model eating a cheeseburger? An experiment testing the impact of models promoting calorie-dense foods on beliefs about weight maintenance, body satisfaction, and purchase intent. Journal of eating disorders, 8(1), 1-9.
Collins, R. L. (1996). For better or worse: The impact of upward social comparison on self-evaluations. Psychological bulletin, 119(1), 51.
Emmons, R. A., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of clinical psychology, 69(8), 846-855.
Groesz, L. M., Levine, M. P., & Murnen, S. K. (2002). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31(1), 1-16.
Menon, T., & Thompson, L. (2010). Envy at work. Harvard business review, 88(4), 74-79.