It’s human nature to compare ourselves to other people. From a young age, we’re conditioned to measure our worth based on external factors – What are my grades compared to this person’s grades? How does my bike compare to that kid’s bike? Clothes, houses, athletic ability, bodies, relationships, financial status, and the list goes on. Comparison is at the very root of a lot of competition: Who is better at X? Who is going to win? Who can do this faster? So it is no surprise that we find ourselves unable to help it when the tendency to compare creeps in.
Social comparison theory, proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, suggests that when people are in social situations, they will compare themselves with others for self-evaluation. This comparison can be an upward comparison – when we compare ourselves with someone “doing better” than us; downward comparison – where we compare ourselves to someone “doing worse” than us; and lateral comparison – where both subjects are “at a similar level.” We do each for different reasons, and while comparison can serve to challenge and motivate us, not all comparison is healthy or helpful. In today’s hyperconnected world, where everyone’s highlight reels are just a click away, comparison has become not a thing we do, but more of a way of moving through life.
When we are in a constant state of comparison, we can quickly set unrealistic expectations and unfair standards for ourselves. It becomes easy to overlook our own unique strengths, talents, and accomplishments, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and anxiety. It’s like constantly running a race we can never win, leaving us exhausted and drained.
The Impact on Unhealthy Comparison on Your Mental Health
When left unchecked, comparing ourselves to others can be damaging to our mental health. It chips away at our self-esteem and self-worth. This impact on our self-esteem can cause us to start questioning our abilities, criticizing our appearance, and second-guessing our life choices, which can ultimately lead to a downward spiral of depression and anxiety.
Moreover, constant comparison can hinder our ability to truly connect with others. Instead of celebrating someone else’s successes, we may feel envy or bitterness because what they have, achieved, or look like feels threatening to us, creating a toxic cycle of isolation and loneliness. It’s a lose-lose situation that robs us of joy, contentment, and a chance at forming genuine relationships.
4 Ways to Limit Unhelpful Comparison
If you find yourself frustrated, deflated, anxious, or even depressed because you of the comparison game, consider the following 4 ways to help limit perpetuating the unhelpful comparison trap:
1. Focus on Your Strengths, Accomplishments, and Growth
It can be easy to get lost in looking outward, but you are worth taking some time to appreciate. Consider making a physical list of your strengths, your accomplishments, and areas where you have grown. It may even be helpful to consider compliments you have received, notes or emails you have gotten, or awards you have earned when coming up with these lists. Considering these things about ourselves can help boost our confidence, making us less susceptible to the jealousy and insecurity that comparison can breed.
2. Recognize and Avoid Triggers
There are a lot of things that can trigger our tendency to begin making unhelpful comparisons. Much to probably no one’s surprise, social media is a breeding ground for unhelpful comparison. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, over 60% of adults in the United States report feeling stressed about comparisons to others on social media. And it isn’t just social media.
If certain shows ignite your tendency to compare your life to another, your home to another, your relationships to others, consider avoiding them. Maybe there’s a person who you’re around often who tends to boast about material things, accomplishments, or trips they’re taking, or something else. While it can be helpful to try to be happy for others who we tend to compare ourselves to, if you find yourself around someone who seems to be intentionally trying to make others feel badly or “less than,” it may be helpful to limit your time around this person.
3. Avoid Comparing Outside Info to Inside Info
Okay, it’s a cliche we have all heard before, but it’s so true: You never really know what other people are going through. There have been countless times when I have been in therapy explaining something that I feel like I may be the only person in the world thinking or dealing with, and my therapist will assure me that I would be shocked to know how many people – probably even those in my day-to-day lives – who are going through the same things. All of that to say, try your best to not let what someone willingly puts out into the world be the standard by which you compare elements of your own life. There’s a lot that all of us don’t know about each other.
4. Tap Into Healthy Comparison
Comparison – when it’s healthy – can be a great motivator. If someone in your life has achieved something that you are tempted to be envious about, consider asking them some questions that may help you accomplish that or something similar.
Another way to keep comparison healthy or to lessen it when it starts to feel unhealthy is to congratulate and compliment the people who you may be tempted to envy. I love this quote from Ruthie Lindsey: “If you see something beautiful in someone, speak it.”
This can help alleviate the negative emotions that can accompany unhealthy comparison habits. You may find that complimenting someone else opens the door for a deeper connection, lessens feelings of envy and insecurity, and actually boosts your self confidence.
Navigating the Fine Line: When Comparison Becomes Counterproductive
As mentioned above and as you have probably experienced yourself, comparison can be helpful in some instances. It can be the reason we know something is wrong with our bodies, that we are sick, it can be a helpful compass for goal-setting and achievements, but unhelpful comparison patterns can quickly wear us down. So the next time you’re feeling down on yourself for not having what someone else has, for struggling to achieve something that seemingly came easily for someone else, for not performing as well on something as another person, try to return to this list to help alleviate the unhelpful comparison cycle.And, ultimately, try to remember that your worth is not determined by your performance, appearance, or any other external factors. No comparisons are necessary to know with 100% certainty that you are valuable and worthy as you are at this very moment.
By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC
All images via Unsplash
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