How To Use Comparison To Your Advantage
By Kacie Mitterando, LMSW
As Theodore Roosevelt once said… “Comparison is the thief of all joy.” While now that may seem like one big century old cliché, Teddy was definitely onto something. With social media influence rising, comparison, alongside self-esteem and confidence is a topic that is discussed often from one side of the couch to the other.
In social comparison theory, developed in the early 1950’s by a psychologist Leon Festinger, Leon proposes that humans are able to assess themselves based on the comparison of those around them (1).
There are also two different ways in which we compare ourselves to others:
Downward comparison and Upward comparison
Downward comparison is comparing oneself to someone believed to be worse off than you. An example of this might be saying, “at least I’m smarter than my brother.” We use downward comparison most often when we’re looking for a self-esteem boost. If our boss tells us we need to do better at something, it may make us feel better to remind ourselves that we’re still surpassing our colleague who was let go the week before. Upward comparison is the opposite, and involves comparing oneself to someone perceived as better off than you. Therefore, thinking about how much more attractive your friend is than you or how nice the social media influencer’s life looks would be considered upward comparison (2).
Now, don’t get me wrong - I don’t believe that comparison is always a bad thing. In fact, there’s many ways that comparison may often serve us. For example, sometimes comparison can spark motivation within us. Seeing a coworker get a promotion or watching someone succeed in a new goal can inspire us to take on a new project at work or sign up for that race you’ve been saying you would do. In addition, comparison might help you acknowledge that a trait you have might be slightly more developed than the person next to you and this itself can boost your self-esteem.
Comparison is a normal part of life and most of us are going to experience this from time to time. Comparison (downward and upward) becomes problematic when it starts to coincide with feelings such as envy and a drop in self-esteem. Sometimes, comparison can even make us excited about other people not doing as well as us, and this can be a red-flag that our comparison spiraling out of control as well.
Like most things, there’s some tools we can incorporate into every day life to help remedy this:
Consider common humanity
When we look at those less fortunate than us from an empathetic perspective, we’re better equipped to not only recognize the vulnerabilities that we have but also increase the compassion that we have for those around us. Comparing ourselves to those whom we perceive as lesser off by searching for common ground and places we connect can help with our downward comparison.
Use comparison for good
If you’re reading this blog you’re most likely aware of the comparison that you’re experiencing in your every day life. With this new awareness, use these thoughts to reframe the comparison as motivation to improve in certain areas. Ask yourself what you can do to have a more loving relationship or put your health first.
Write down and practice phrases that feel true and helpful to you. Whether this self-talk involves the positive qualities that you have or further clichés such as “money can’t buy happiness,” keep a list handy of go-to words that will help you feel more regulated (3).
Think about sacrifices
It can be really easy to fantasize about what others’ lives look like if they’re more glamorous than ours. It might sound incredibly nice to have a higher paying job or an incredibly fit body. When you sense these thoughts about others in comparison to yourself, focus on the sacrifice’s this person may have had to make. For example, did they hold off on having a family to put their career first? How many fun and spontaneous days/nights did they skip with loved ones to avoid food that may not have given them that figure? While these sacrifices may have been worth it for this person, these questions can help you figure out whether or not it would be worth it for you.
Leon Festinger's Social Comparison Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologynoteshq.com/leonfestinger-socialcomparisontheory/
The Perils of Comparing Ourselves to Others. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-love-and-war/201607/the-perils-comparing-ourselves-others
How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prescriptions-life/201803/how-stop-comparing-yourself-others