Comparing yourself to others is in some ways normal, and even more so since the rise of social media.

And it's also nothing new. "Social comparison theory" has been around since the 1950s, when social psychologist Leon Festinger identified that we are all driven to identify and improve ourselves, and use comparing ourselves with others as part of this process.

Comparing yourself to others - dangerous, or useful?

There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to keep up with those around us, or improve our game. Something like comparing how we are doing next to our colleagues can be something that keeps us focused and inspired.

The problem comes if we always compare ourselves negatively, or let comparison lead to too much competitiveness.

Say, for example, you began to spy on a colleague you are worried will beat you to a coveted promotion, and start to have endless thoughts about being stupid and worthless. Then the comparison has gone too far, and become obsessive.

Comparison also has a dark side if we do it over things we can’t control. This is why psychologists red flag social media use, particularly amongst young girls, who studies show suffer poor body image after using social media.

In fact a 2018 Italian study found that already having low self-esteem led to using social media precisely for the negative reason of comparing yourself or even creating a 'false self'. Whereas if you have good self-esteem, you are more likely to use social media like Facebook to connect.

How to use comparison as a good thing

'Comparing up' means we compare ourselves to someone we acknowledge is ahead of us. If we compare not to put ourselves down but to learn, it can help us find new ways forward and set goals. For example, if you want to one day have your managers job, you can compare what your skills are to hers, then find a course that will make your skills more of a match.

Comparing up needs to be done with care. A large-scale review of the best studies to come out of six decades or research on social comparison still shows that comparing up is likely to leave us feeling bad about ourselves, unlike comparing down.

'Comparing down' means we knowingly rate ourselves against someone who is not doing as well as us. It's a way to get an instant boost. For example, if we feel bad about gaining some weight, we think of a friend who is much heavier than us, then feel better. But we need to be careful we aren't left feeling a bad person if the comparisons are too unkind.

Another positive way to use comparison is to use it (compassionately) with yourself. How do you feel today compared to yesterday? What went better yesterday that saw you feeling more productive? If you are telling yourself you can’t do a presentation, when did you actually do something similar in the past and succeed?

Questions to ask yourself about comparison

  1. Is it useful to compare myself to this other person?
  2. Will it result in a new goal or practical information? Or inspire me?
  3. Or am I using comparison as a way to make myself feel bad?
  4. Is it even fair to compare myself here?
  5. Can I even control the thing about myself I am comparing?
  6. What would it feel like to just stop this comparison?
  7. Can I indeed actually stop myself comparing here, or is this a bigger problem?

Can’t stop comparing yourself?

If you really can't stop comparing yourself to others, then comparison is probably a symptom of a bigger issue, and it's time to get proper support. This could be something like:

In some cases, if you are always comparing yourself to others as you are aware you are different and are desparately trying to mimic others so you can fit in? It can also be a sign of autism spectrum disorder or a personality disorder.

Time to get help with the endless comparison that's bringing you down? Find a therapist now at a price that fits your budget and get talking.

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