You probably know that it’s not always good to compare yourself to others. You know everyone moves at their own pace and circumstances are different. But you probably still find yourself making comparisons to others and wonder why you can’t stop.
Comparing yourself to others isn’t always bad and sometimes, it can maintain or even enhance your self-esteem. That’s what makes it so hard to stop, even if comparing yourself to others decreases your overall happiness. Overall, however, comparing yourself to others is often damaging your mental health without your awareness. Luckily, it’s possible to refocus your attention on yourself and make negative self-comparisons matter less.
In this article, we’ll look at why we are so quick to compare ourselves to others and how to maximize our happiness by minimizing the need to compare.
- Why do people like comparisons so much?
- When comparing yourself to others is bad for you
- How to stop comparing yourself to others
- Wrapping up
Why do people like comparisons so much?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people love comparing things with other things, and people with other people. In fact, we often define things and people through other things and other people.
For example, up-and-coming singers, bands, and actors are often likened to existing stars. “Is Timothée Chalamet the new Leonardo DiCaprio?” asks one headline. Well, does he - or anyone else for that matter - have to be the new Leo? Can’t he just be Timothée?
Of course, nobody wants or expects Timothée to be the new Leo. But by comparing the newcomer to an already established star, we get an idea of what he might be like and what we can expect of him.
Can comparisons result in positivity?
Occasionally, this type of comparison is very useful, as it helps to understand something better. It can also be a type of social shorthand.
For example, if I tell you that my boss is like Hitler, you will probably understand that my boss is a tyrant and perhaps a little evil. You will probably be able to infer that my boss isn’t responsible for the systematic slaughter of millions of people from our social context. (I would also like to say that my actual boss is a very nice lady and not at all like Hitler.)
Comparisons can also be used to flatter. For example, “You look just like Audrey Hepburn!” is meant as a compliment on someone’s beauty and Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 compares the subject to a summer’s day (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
But in addition to being poetic, comparisons can sometimes also be used to define ourselves.
Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory proposes the idea that everyone wants to gain accurate self-evaluations and in order to define the self, we must compare our opinions and abilities to others.
For example, I have a decent sense of rhythm, but abysmal flexibility. I know this because I compare myself to other dancers in my adult ballet class. It’s important to keep in mind that these evaluations only work in the context of the ballet class. If I were to compare myself to my family and friends, or professional ballerinas, using those same characteristics, I might come away with completely different results.
When you focus only on this short definition of the social comparison theory, it seems like comparing yourself to others isn’t such a bad thing. Isn’t having an accurate evaluation of yourself and your abilities important?
Well, yes, but as I mentioned in my example, comparisons are only accurate in a certain context. And even in this proper context, our comparisons are rarely 100% accurate, because they are influenced and colored by our thoughts and emotions.
Upward vs. downward comparisons
Also, it’s important to know that social comparisons can be made in different directions - upward or downward.
We make upward comparisons when we compare ourselves to people who are better than us at something. For example, by comparing myself to people who are more flexible than me, I’m making an upward comparison. These comparisons are supposed to motivate us by showing us what we could achieve.
When we compare ourselves to people who are worse off, we are making downward comparisons. For example, when I compare myself to people who are less flexible than me (which is an achievement in and of itself), I am making a downward comparison. Downward comparisons serve to make us feel better about our abilities, by making us feel that we might not be the best at something, but at least we aren’t as bad as someone else.
When comparing yourself to others is bad for you
Comparing ourselves to others is completely natural and often encouraged. As we discussed, using good role models for upward comparisons can be a powerful motivator.
However, upward comparisons can also leave us feeling inadequate and defeated. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to reach the level we are comparing ourselves to, because everyone’s abilities and circumstances are different.
Making upward comparisons can be especially dangerous in the era of social media. Looking at the beauty-filtered highlight reel of someone else’s life on Instagram is rarely motivating. If anything, it only serves to make you feel bad about your own life and lower your self-esteem.
Using actors, models, and other celebrities as your fitness inspiration may seem like a good idea, but chances are that you will never look like that model in the Nike ad. Even the model in the ad doesn’t look like the model in the ad. When you look at it that way, comparing yourself to that can only result in a negative impact on your happiness.
Photoshop aside, it’s also useful to remember that it’s your favorite role model's job to look inhumanly fit, and they have a whole team dedicated to making their abs look good on camera.
You, however, are probably dealing with your own less-glamorous job and other responsibilities, and don’t have time to spend 4 hours a day at the gym.
This isn’t to say that you should throw in the towel and not try at all, but rather that you should adjust your expectations, taking into account your own life and circumstances with your personal trainers and diet coaches.
Downward comparison is often bad for yourself
Compared to upward comparisons, downward comparisons seem fairly safe: what’s the harm in wanting to feel better about yourself by comparing yourself to someone who is worse than you?
According to psychologist Juliana Breines, we tend to make downward comparisons when our self-esteem has taken a blow, but basing our self-esteem on comparisons to others is a bad idea.
Firstly, self-esteem that is dependent on others, is often fragile. Ideally, you’d want your self-esteem to be something integral to yourself, not something prone to change.
Secondly, by focusing on other people’s misfortunes, we are spending too much time noticing the negatives and not enough on the positive aspects. In general, focusing on the negatives tends to lower our overall happiness. We might also miss others’ successes and strengths, which can cause strain in relationships.
In a 2008 study, Rebecca T. Pinkus and colleagues found that participants responded more positively to upward than to downward comparisons by romantic partners.
How to stop comparing yourself to others
While totally natural, social comparison isn’t always beneficial to our happiness and self-esteem. So how do you stop comparing yourself to others, and focus on your happiness instead? Let’s take a look at 4 simple and actionable tips.
It’s way too easy to start comparing yourself to others on social media, so it might be a good idea to take a break from Facebook. If you can’t avoid it entirely, remind yourself that you are only seeing a small part of someone’s life. In fact, a lot of people spend over an hour a day trying to decide what part of their life to share with the world.
If nothing else works, keep in mind how you probably don't share everything online. If you don’t give an honest picture of your day-to-day life on Facebook, why should others?
2. Be grateful for what you have
When you’re always comparing yourself to others, it’s easy to lose sight of what you already have. If this is you, then it can help to (re)focus your attention on your strengths and blessings by keeping a gratitude journal.
Gratitude is strongly correlated to positive emotions and good experiences, and the reason why is very simple to explain. When you are grateful, you are always remembered for positive events and experiences in your life.
Being grateful for these things allows your mind to think of these positive events, which encourages a positive mindset. A positive mindset is scientifically proven to be a factor of long-term happiness.
3. Stay focused on your own journey and celebrate your successes
Let’s say that you’re trying to become a better runner. Sure, you can compare yourself to world-class marathoners, or to your friend who can barely run a mile. But what does that information give you?
That's right: pretty much nothing.
Instead, you should be looking at your own progress. If you need to compare, look at how you did a month or a year ago. Have you made progress since then, no matter how small?
To quote Hemingway:
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
4. Find affirmations that work for you
My desk at work is overflowing with all sorts of paperwork, but one thing stands out: on my monitor, I have attached a positive affirmation that reads:
“I am capable.”
Notice how it doesn’t say “I am just as capable as…” or “I am more capable than…”. There are no comparisons here, only the affirmation of my own capability.
If you’re prone to comparing yourself to others, finding positive affirmations can be a good way of reminding yourself of your own worth. Ideally, the affirmation should come from yourself, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
- I am capable.
- I am enough.
- I am powerful.
- I am courageous.
- I choose my behavior.
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The more natural something is to us, the harder it is to change or stop. While occasionally beneficial, comparing yourself to others can be bad for you, because it stops you from focusing on the positive aspects of your own journey and growth. However, it’s possible to change and stop the patterns of comparisons and find happiness through it.
Did you agree with the points in this article? Do you have anything to add, perhaps your own experiences? I'd love to hear all about it in the comment section below!