The Stress of Social Comparison
Social comparison is a common human dynamic that first rears its head when children are very small, in the days of toddlers wanting whatever toy is in the hands of the kid next to them. It gains momentum in elementary school when kids follow fads, and it’s noticed when someone isn’t watching the same shows or playing the same games as everyone else. High school, the world of brand names, popular music, cliques and “fear of missing out” is when social comparison really takes hold, and it never quite goes away as people focus on getting into the better colleges, landing the better jobs, marrying someone their friends might envy, and building a picture-perfect life with them. Once we have kids, we rejoin the cycle through them.
As adults, we face many of the same social comparison pressures as teens to one degree or another: comparing our looks, our social status, our material items, even our relationships. This is natural human behavior, and it’s designed to help us live together as a cohesive group, to help us learn from one another, and to keep us from falling too far behind our potential. It also helps us to define ourselves, to gauge how we’re doing in various areas of life based on what appears to be possible, and can even seem to help us feel better about ourselves in many cases. It can also be stressful, however, and it can make us more competitive than we need to be.
What Research Says on Social Comparison
Researchers have identified two types of social comparison: upward social comparison, where we look at people we feel are better off than we are in an attempt to become inspired and more hopeful, and downward social comparisons, where we look at people who we feel are worse off than we are, in an effort to feel better about ourselves and our situation. These comparisons aren’t always bad for us, but they can sometimes be less helpful than we think they will be, and at times they are truly bad for our happiness and stress levels. Some of the factors that affect whether social comparisons are helpful or harmful are our self-esteem, the stressors we already have in our lives, and whether we’re making upward or downward social comparisons.
People who have higher self-esteem and fewer stressors in their lives tend to fare better with social comparisons. For example, generally speaking, when we make downward social comparisons and compare ourselves to those who are less well-off, it generally makes us feel better. However, those who are already high in self-esteem experience a greater bump. Those who are lower in self-esteem or are experiencing greater threats or stress in their lives tend to use downward comparisons more often and this can lift their mood, but not as much as it does in those who are already doing better in these areas.
Upward social comparisons—comparing ourselves to those who are better off as a way to get inspired—can make us feel just that: inspired. Those who are going on diets can use pictures of people who embody their physical goals and feel more motivated. Those who are working hard in business can have a role model they strive to emulate, and feel clearer on their path. However, those who have lower self-esteem or have recently experienced a setback can feel worse when they make upward social comparisons, both experiencing a drop in mood and often an increase in stress.
How We Stress Ourselves by Comparing
Social comparison comes in many forms. Basically, whenever people gather, we have a tendency to compare ourselves and usually form some sort of hierarchy, formal or unspoken. Clubs have officers who are elected and awards that are given to those who excel, and most people are aware of the more influential members. Moms’ groups compare their babies’ milestones and their relationships both in an effort to be sure their kids are progressing and to measure their own success as moms. From the high achievers to those looking for friends and fun, we tend to compare.
These comparisons can stress us, however, as we may find ourselves lacking when we make upward social comparisons, and may come off as conceited or competitive when we make downward social comparisons, which can create stress in our relationships.
Social media has taken the social comparison to a whole new level in the last several years. We see who is doing what we’re not, and we may become stressed wondering if we’re doing enough, earning enough, enjoying life enough. We compare our regular lives with other people’s curated best memories, not knowing whether they’re just posting their highlights and the best photos out of dozens, or if they’re really sharing casual and spontaneous events as they happen. Either way, many people find that social media exacerbates social comparison in all the worst ways, making many of us feel worse about ourselves, and research seems to back this up.
This happens in casual, real-life scenarios as well, however. Have you noticed yourself feeling happy for a friend when you hear their good news, but a twinge of regret for yourself that you’re not experiencing the same good fortune? Conversely, have you found yourself feeling a tiny jolt of satisfaction when you hear someone else has fallen down a bit, experiencing some misfortune that makes you feel luckier in comparison? These feelings can sometimes be automatic, and we’re wired this way in some ways, but we don’t need to let our instincts toward social comparison be an important part of who we are; we can minimize these tendencies and counteract them with a little effort, and feel less stressed by them as a result. The first step, however, is being aware of social comparison in ourselves and in others.
How We’re Stressed by Competitive Friends
Competitive friends can work in our favor if they’re competing against themselves and supporting us to compete against ourselves, or if they playfully push us to reach our potential but fall short of making us feel bad about ourselves in the myriad ways that competitive friends can sap our self-esteem. If you feel judged if you feel your friend is upset when you succeed and happy when you fail, or if you feel pushed too hard, this is not a friendship that is competitive in a healthy way.
Clearly, it’s best to have friends (and to be friends) who are only happy for one another’s success and to offer support rather than claim subtle superiority when friends experience setbacks. This can take a little effort, but it’s worth it in terms of the stress we save ourselves by eliminating competitiveness and replacing it with camaraderie.
The Upside of Competitiveness and Comparison
There is a positive aspect to competitiveness and social comparison, of course. When our friends are all doing well, they inspire us to be our best as well, which is the upside of upward social comparison. (This is particularly true if they share the secrets of their success.)
And when we compare ourselves to others who have it worse than us, we tend to appreciate what we have. We realize that we could be in a worse position. We feel more grateful and we often experience more empathy as well.
We often do better if we’re striving to keep up with a role model or successful friend, and we can make ourselves better by supporting others. Even the desire to avoid the embarrassment of failure can be a good motivator. The main difference in friendly competition and the competition of “frenemies” is the supportiveness factor: true friends may help motivate one another to succeed, but know that there’s no shame in falling short of the mark. Frenemies seem to delight in one-upmanship and the failure of others, while true friends aren’t fully happy in their own success if their friends aren’t right there next to them, doing well too; this motivates us to help our friends succeed, to delight in their successes, and to help them keep going in tough times, which is good for everyone.
How to Free Yourself
If you find yourself in the trap of social comparison, feeling somewhat hooked on feelings of superiority from downward social comparison or beating yourself up when you make upward social comparisons, it’s important to get out of this mental trap. Here are some simple ways you can train your brain to care less about what others are doing or thinking:
- Find role models: If you’re working to keep up with role models, you can gain the benefits of their success (personal motivation, seeing what works for them, etc.) without adding the element of competitiveness to your own relationships. It’s easier to learn from a role model like Oprah Winfrey or Elon Musk than to learn from a friend In your own life without eventually feeling “less than” when they constantly achieve more.
- Create a support circle: It’s easier to avoid competitive friends or frenemies if you create a circle of supportive people and focus on them. This can be a group of friends who share a common goal. You can start a diet club, an exercise group, or another group built around a goal that’s either formal or informal or join a structured group you join, like Weight Watchers or a training group at the gym.
- Partner up: You can also find a “buddy” to share motivation with. Rather than a group, you and your “goal buddy” can check in with each other on your goals, celebrate together, and help motivate one another to stick with the plan. This is particularly helpful because it provides both of you with individualized moral support, a bit of added responsibility to stick with the plan (or you’ll be letting your partner and yourself down), and it makes celebrating small victories a little more fun.
- Count your blessings: When you find yourself making comparisons, try to “even the score” in your head. If you’re feeling envious of someone else’s victory, remind yourself of your own triumphs and strengths. If you’re feeling judgmental, remind yourself of the strengths of the other person and the special things they bring to the table. It also helps to maintain an ongoing gratitude journal so you stay in the frame of mind of counting your blessings rather than what you lack. This also helps you to stay focused on your own life and not the lives of others.
- Cultivate altruism: There are many benefits of altruism, so cultivating it as a habitual thought pattern can be even better for you than for those who benefit from your kindness. See what small things you can do for your friends and strangers. Practice loving-kindness meditation. Be your best self and you won’t feel as prone to compare.
- Avoid frenemies: If you have people in your environment who seem to constantly judge and compare, it’s okay (and even preferable) to avoid them. You may not be able to cut them out of your life entirely, but you can minimize contact and steer the conversation to neutral topics when you do see them. You can also minimize competitively comparing tendencies in yourself, and they may follow in kind.