Have you ever felt this crushing feeling to conform and at the same time to compete with someone else? Have you been overwhelmed with the urge to simultaneously try to fit in and stand out? This feeling stems from social comparison. Comparing is not a choice. We will always compare.
Our brains are hardwired for social comparison. It stems from our primitive need for survival. When we encounter another person our brain automatically assesses and categorizes the person determining whether the person is stronger, faster, or more capable in other ways. We cannot stop this comparison and categorization from happening. Our choice is how we let it affect us.
Social comparison can have a positive effect on us by providing us motivation toward our goals and enabling personal growth. Comparisons help provide you a baseline to determine where you are and where you want to be. They provide you with feedback so that you can adjust strategies and tactics. Without the ability to compare ourselves to others we would have no way to measure our progress.
Social comparison becomes an issue for our mental health when we allow it to negatively affect our self-worth, produce envy and take our joy. One of the sure signs of a negative social comparison is when you find yourself with a case of the “shoulds”. You compare and think: “I should be more ________.” “I should have been more __________.” I should have _____________.” The “shoulds” wear away at your self-worth because you can never measure up and you are never content. It snatches the joy right out of your soul.
“After so many years struggling to keep up with you, I finally realized we’re not even running the same race.”
― Scott Stabile (Author)
Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It can place you in a cycle of never being content and grateful for what you have and for who you are. It is especially easy to play the comparison game with so many polished social media posts featuring only the best of people’s lives.
It is a matter of perspective. There is truth in the old saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” In fact, scientifically a blade of grass will angle its greenest side toward the sun. Grass will indeed always look greener from a farther vantage point, but up close you can see the dead and reviving blades. When we compare our lives to others, the farther vantage point will indeed look brighter, more polished and attractive than our own situation where we can see clearly our own failures and none of theirs.
Social comparison is not always downward in nature. Sometimes we compare ourselves to others and place ourselves higher in the social order. This too can create negative effects. It can produce self-righteousness, a lack of humility and a disregard for others deemed lower than ourselves.
It seems like it would be predictable which comparison would make you feel better about yourself but it can easily be misjudged. The thought process of “I’m better than” and “I’m horrible” seems like a vast distance. In fact, it comes from the same place. When we are looking up or when we are looking down we are not looking at people. We are looking at ourselves. We are judging ourselves.
Have you ever been in a situation where you have purposely dimmed yourself for fear of causing envy in someone else? This is one example of the complicated affect social comparison can have on your self esteem and interactions.
Comparison is one of the most dangerous things to threaten our self worth and we can’t stop ourselves from doing it. We cannot help it. Our brains will do it. We will judge ourselves. Our recourse is to be a gracious and merciful judge.