Comparison is the thief of joyTheodore Roosevelt
Social comparison isn’t a new phenomenon. Comparing ourselves to classmates, neighbours and family members has always been something we’ve engaged in as human beings. The difference between 15 years ago and now, however, is that social media use has proliferated to such an extent that the average person’s 10-20 person social circle has now expanded to 300 persons and more. That’s a lot of people to compare yourself against and a lot of pictures and highlights to be bombarded with on a daily basis.
Social comparison isn’t all bad, of course. It’s our way of evaluating ourselves and understanding our abilities, behaviours, emotions and accomplishments. This is great in terms of motivating us to push ourselves a little harder or assessing what we want from our lives. Unfortunately, however, social comparison has also been linked to reduced self-esteem, anxiety and depression (McCarthy et al 2020; Liu et al 2017), particularly in those people who already struggle with self-esteem or mental health issues.
In light of this, I’d like to provide some guidance on how to manage social comparison in a more healthy way:
Reflect on what success means for you – success is often measured in terms of status, wealth and accomplishments. However, success is subjective and can mean different things to different people, depending on your priorities and values. Having close relationships, doing a job you love, giving back to the community or being able to travel regularly may be your idea of success. Rather than accept the definition of success imposed by society or others in your circle, take the time to think about what’s important to you and celebrate those successes, whatever they may be.
Limit your social media use – research suggests that people who spend 2 hours or more per day on social media report higher rates of anxiety, depression and poor mental health. Many App’s now exist which assist you in managing the time you spend using your phone. Set limits for yourself, such as allowing yourself only 30 minutes of phone time every evening, or only allowing yourself to check social media apps at certain periods of the day.
Know your triggers – start becoming more aware of how you feel during and after social media use. Notice what and whose posts make you feel low, envious or angry. Such awareness can help you eliminate or avoid anyone or anything that has a negative impact on your mental state.
Practice gratitude – High levels of gratitude have been correlated with enhanced psychological well-being. A useful practice is to finish each day by writing down the moments in your day you feel grateful for. It can be the simplest of things, like the attentive and friendly waiter, the colleague who made you tea or the chat you had with your friend.
Remember that money doesn’t buy happiness – Research has shown that whilst a certain amount of income correlates with higher emotional well-being, once this level of income is reached, happiness doesn’t rise as income rises. Whilst money can alleviate the stress of paying bills, enable you to go on holidays, and so on, money cannot replace important sources of happiness and life satisfaction such as healthy relationships, enriching experiences and a sense of purpose.
Compare only with yourself – Rather than comparing yourself with other people, compare yourself with earlier versions of yourself. I like to remind clients how different they were when they first started therapy. We’re often so caught up in feeling less than others that we overlook the things we’ve learnt, old patterns we’ve broken and the important milestones we’ve reached despite the struggle.
Remember your journey – I once had the privilege of working with a client who, in her 40’s decided to pursue her passion for art. Compared to people who’d started gaining experience in their 20’s or had the opportunity to study art at college, my client was a late bloomer and well behind her fellow artists. Had she compared herself to these people, she’d have probably given up or felt quite inferior. Instead, she proudly told me about the challenges she’d faced in her life which made pursuing her dreams all the more extraordinary. We all have our own unique capabilities, life experiences and opportunities, or lack thereof, so comparing yourself to others who’ve had a completely different experience is illogical and unfair. Instead, acknowledge how far you’ve come and the grit and determination it took to achieve your goals, whatever they may be.
Engage in conscious social media posting – We’re socialised to believe that we need to constantly portray a successful and seemingly ‘perfect’ image to the world through social media. This has led to a generation of young people who rely on external validation for ‘proof’ that they’re enough. The only way to move away from this unhealthy and insecure pattern of seeking validation is to work on validating yourself internally and slowly refraining from participating in the ‘envy inducing’ game social media draws you into. By all means, share your successes and happy moments on social media. However, don’t forget to validate yourself by stopping for a moment and acknowledging your achievement, maybe even celebrating with family or friends. As you do so, you may find that posting on social media is less tempting or necessary.