What is Social Comparison Theory and how does it affect our everyday thinking?
Developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, Social Comparison Theory is the idea that there is a drive within each of us to gain accurate self-evaluation. We do this by assessing how we stack up against others, in areas such as attractiveness, wealth, intelligence and success.
In the 60-plus years since its conception, the things that trigger us to make social comparisons have developed alongside societal changes. Perhaps most notably, the introduction of social media, which is now a mainstay of popular culture and an important part of everyday life for millions of us around the world.
For many people, comparing themselves to others who they believe are better than them can act as a source of inspiration for them to do better. This is known as Upward Social Comparison, which focuses on the desire to improve our current status or levels of ability. An example of this could be if you've just started doing 5k runs and want to see how well you're doing; you might check a fitness app to compare yourself to others to give you that little push that drives you to get faster or better.
We also tend to compare ourselves to others who we believe are worse off than us, making ourselves feel better about our abilities or traits. This is better known as Downward Social Comparison.
While beneficial to some, for others, the act of comparing can lead to negative feelings of envy, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and isolation. For many of us, the "why don't I look like her?”, when we compare ourselves to, say, a full-time Instagram model, can lead to us feeling overwhelmed and low in mood.
Following Festinger, many psychologists believe that the process of social comparison is driven by our need to regularly evaluate ourselves – and that it applies similarly in males and females. However, research has suggested that women tend to engage in social comparisons more than men. Social comparisons in women can lead to feelings of not measuring up, which can lead to negative self-appraisals and depression.
How much gender influences our motivation to make social comparisons is a subject of ongoing research – and much more is needed before we can definitively say whether men or women are more likely to engage in social comparison.
Likewise, our understanding of the effects of social media on mental health is at an early stage. A 2017 study found a link between social media and increased depression and anxiety symptoms in young people, but wasn't able to establish a causal link.
It's therefore important to proceed with caution and not to jump to conclusions until we have more data on the subject. However, through my work as a Counselling Psychologist at Clinical Partners, I am currently seeing an increasing number of female clients who are expressing urges to compare themselves to others through the lens of social media.
Comparing ourselves to others is completely natural, especially when we are in doubt, lack conﬁdence, or are unsure what to do. However, it’s important to remember that with a few adjustments, you can change these unhelpful urges and learn to appreciate your own value and uniqueness.
Understand when you're making comparisons
We often make social comparisons without realising we're doing it. So how do we change something we are doing subconsciously? One way is to bring the feelings that arise from comparing to the front of your thinking so you become more conscious of them.
Try to recognise when you’re making a comparison and how it makes you feel. Then focus on these thoughts so it's easier to spot them next time. If you realise that you're making a comparison, don't beat yourself up. Acknowledge and understand the thought before calmly adjusting or shifting your focus.
Learn to appreciate the good in your life
Research shows that gratitude is consistently associated with greater happiness, helping people feel more positive, take pleasure from good experiences, and build strong relationships. But, like any desirable trait, gratitude is something we must focus on to cement its place in our lives.
Keeping a gratitude journal not only starts the process of daily gratitude but is one of the best ways to counteract the temptation to compare.
A good way to start is by writing down three things you feel grateful for. These things can be relatively small or big, and it could be anything from having food to eat to a significant life event you took joy from. The important thing is to keep a record so you remember that thing in your life and can recall the positive emotions that come with it.
Next time you feel yourself becoming envious of someone else's accomplishments, remind yourself of all the things you are grateful for in your own life by looking through your journal. Once you become aware of all that you are grateful for and what’s good in your life, you’ll be far less vulnerable to comparison and envy.
Celebrate your achievements
You might share traits with others, but remember that you are your own person, with your own experiences, thoughts, tastes, and strengths. Therefore, it's important to define what success looks like for you and be proud of your accomplishments. Start by creating a six-month plan with goals and objectives, then work on achieving these at your own pace. Never invalidate your successes and always remember, the more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.
Finally, as a golden rule, I often try to communicate that if comparison is how you evaluate your own sense of self-worth, you will always lose.
Remember that time spent comparing other people’s successes to your own is time-consuming and can decrease the value of your own achievements and goals – it’s far better to dedicate that time and energy to your own goals and values. Focus your energy on being the best version of yourself and you’ll be happier.
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