Why do we Compare Ourselves to Others?

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Teacher and inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant once said, “Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” If that’s true, why do we do it?

Comparison is in our Human Nature

In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term social comparison theory. At the core of his theory was the thought that people compare themselves to others so that they can learn about themselves or learn how to act in a socially acceptable way. Comparison, in some circumstances, can keep us safe or be a source of motivation.

For example, imagine an individual who enters a new culture. This person does not speak the language or understand the traditions. In order to find food, fit in, or become a part of the community, the individual may compare others’ behaviors with their own to determine whether they are doing what is necessary to adapt successfully to their new environment.  In this example, comparison helps an individual survive.

The social comparison theory also states that humans compare themselves to others to get an accurate gauge on their abilities, to process situations, and to understand themselves. If a high school student wants to get into Harvard, they will likely compare their grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities to those of students who were accepted into the university in the past. These comparisons arm the student with knowledge of how to get into the university and may assist the student in making smart choices in high school. Additionally, if the student finds out that they do not stack up to admitted students’ academic achievements, it could help them to set a realistic expectation and to avoid future disappointment.

The Consequences of Comparison

Festinger breaks social comparison into two categories, upward and downward. Upward comparison is directed at those who one sees as “above” or “superior” to them. Downward comparison takes place when an individual compares themselves to those less fortunate or seen as “less than.” While these comparisons can have benefits—upward comparison can inspire hope and spark motivation and downward comparison can instill gratitude—they are often harmful to an individual’s wellbeing. Upward comparison can cause dissatisfaction, envy, and feelings of shame, while downward comparison can cause feelings of superiority and judgment.

Additionally, comparison partnered with certain social ideals often sparks feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Broadly speaking, our culture values thinner bodies and thus produces more positive images of these bodies—even though one body type isn’t ideal or healthy for everyone. With the outright idolization of thin bodies in advertising and marketing, it’s easy for individuals to fall into the comparison trap, thinking, “I wish I looked like the people in the media.”

The truth is, models and actors often don’t even look like themselves in pictures. With the availability of Photoshop and alteration apps, individuals can alter their digital appearance with ease. The unfortunate reality of this phenomenon is that individuals are less likely to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Social Media and Unrealistic Images

Social media is the number one way individuals compare themselves to unrealistic ideals, which can be incredibly toxic. With apps like Facetune and the wide variety of filters available, it’s hard to know what’s actually real online. When scrolling through our timelines, we may come across a “picture perfect image” that ignites feelings of inferiority in us or the wish that we could look more like that person.

What we don’t know is how heavily the image was edited, if the image was staged, or what the person’s actual life is like. Social media often features an individual’s “highlight reel,” the best parts of their life. What’s not often featured is reality, which means we end up comparing ourselves to something that doesn’t even exist.

How to Stop Playing the Comparison Game

It’s nearly impossible to stop comparison all together and that’s okay. Sometimes, comparison can be extremely beneficial. The success of others may motivate or push us to improve our own lives. Comparison can help us to find our community or people that we are comfortable being around. But, it’s important to be aware of when comparison becomes toxic and to work to protect ourselves. Some ways to put an end to toxic comparison are:

  1. Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad. We don’t owe anyone our social media friendship or following. We can use our discretion and choose carefully what accounts we want to follow. We can choose to unfollow influencer accounts if they make us feel bad about our financial situation. We can unfollow accounts that make us feel bad about our appearance. We can even unfollow our friends if we find their accounts make us feel insecure or inferior (if that seems too harsh, there is an option to “mute” accounts, which means that you won’t see their posts but you will still remain friends).
  2. Take a break. If social media leaves you feeling down, take a break. Some individuals implement a “no social media” day once a week. Some even choose to delete their accounts. The important thing to know is that if social media is affecting you negatively, you can step away.
  3. Understand the reality. When we understand that social media doesn’t reflect reality, we may be less likely to compare ourselves and judge others, because the truth is that we often don’t know what others’ lives are truly like.
  4. Be real on your personal accounts. Lots of folks find comfort and confidence in being honest on their personal social media. By sharing unedited images or the bad days, we can feel authentic, real, and validated in our truth. This honesty benefits those around us as well because it verifies that everyone has bad days, struggles, and isn’t always camera ready.

Social media has positives and negatives. When the drawbacks start to outweigh the benefits, we recommend stepping away from it, working through your emotions, and thinking about why you use social media. For those in eating disorder recovery, social media can be particularity toxic with pro-ana accounts, edited images, and unrealistic standards. However, social media can be a safe haven when filtered and used wisely. Many individuals in recovery curate an empowering, healing-oriented, and positive community around them online.

If you or a loved one are struggling with negative self-esteem, comparison, social media, or disordered eating, reach out for support as soon as possible. The Emily Program (1-888-364-5977) can help you understand your behaviors and thoughts. By getting at the root causes of disordered eating, The Emily Program works to create recovery plans tailored to each client’s experience. By seeking support, finding recovery, and maintaining a positive community, individuals can find lifelong recovery from eating disorders.

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