We’re always drawing comparisons. It’s human nature. Often we do it intentionally: comparing restaurants, top 5 films, best nights out or even exes. However, the thing we most love to rate is ourselves – how we think we measure up against others – and more often than not we don’t even realise we’re doing it.
Mostly we compare ourselves to people we know or people who we see as similar, such as friends, colleagues, siblings or partners. This is called social comparison.
The theory of social comparison was first proposed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger who said that we all have a drive to evaluate ourselves – our attitudes, abilities and beliefs – and to do this we compare ourselves to others. There are two types of social comparison:
Upward social comparison: comparing ourselves with those we perceive to be better than us
Downward social comparison: comparing ourselves to those we perceive as worse off
While comparing ourselves to others is natural (part of our ingrained survival of the fittest psyche), comparisons can become damaging if you’re always comparing yourself to those you see as better off (upward comparisons) while ignoring any information which counters that view. You’re much more likely to do this if you’re suffering from low mood or are feeling insecure. Just when you want your mind working for you it will start making things worse. You’ll deliberately compare your worst bits to other people’s best bits, ignoring any of your own strengths. If you constantly see yourself as worse off/uglier/less intelligent, it’s going to have a really negative impact on your mood and confidence.
You might think, “Laura is so lucky she has an amazing house and job”, while ignoring the fact that she’s desperately unhappy being single. Or you compare yourself physically to celebrities who have a team of chefs, personal trainers, make up artists and stylists at their beck and call. Often these comparative thoughts happen so automatically that you’re not even aware you’re indulging them.
Next time you catch yourself comparing yourself negatively STOP. Instead, try to find a more balanced view by paying attention to the information that contradicts your negative thoughts. Take in the full picture of the person you’re comparing yourself to. Are you being fair to both yourself and them? Do you know the full story? Okay, so Lucy does have an amazing house and job, but she’s had to work hard to get them and has made lots of sacrifices (i.e. working weekends, not seeing her friends etc).
Think of your own strengths – you may not have a high-flying job, but you enjoy what you do and you’re good at it. Although it might not be well paid, it fits into your life and you’re lucky to have a good work/life balance. It’s also helpful to remember that you’re comparing how you feel inside with what they’re showing outside. Generally we all tend to put on our best front to others, but often the image we portray is very different to how we feel underneath. Everyone has their secret demons.
Of course the best course of action is not to compare yourself to anyone at all! We’re all different and someone else’s successes or failures don’t reflect on you at all. Use them for inspiration or motivation, but never as a stick to beat yourself up with. Far better to enjoy yourself and others for what and who they are.