The Emotional Trap of Social Comparison

Do you ever compare yourself to another person?

More likely than not, the answer is yes.

I know this because we have all done it at one point or another.

While there can be adaptive, or benefical, outcomes from social comparison, it is far more likely that comparing yourself to another person will prove to be an emotional trap.

First, the upside..

If you use your comparison as a guide to help you improve yourself, than the emotions you will feel are excitement and anticipation. You will be excited about developing a new dream or discovering a new skill or outlook that you can emulate to improve yourself in some way and you will be looking forward with anticipation to a future in which you have made the changes you have discovered.

In this process, knowing what you want to achieve, accomplish, or become serves as motivation to go out and get the information you need, acquire new skill sets, make new connections or develop a new outlook.

Now, the downside.  Or, the trap…

You compare yourself unfavorably to another person and you feel inferior, inadequate, or worthless, you could become anxious or depressed.

The trap is that when you compare yourself to someone who is richer, more skillful, better looking (or whatever characteristic you choose), you will always come out feeling inadequate.

This is a false comparison.

I did not say that you were inadequate.  You feel inadequate.

Now, suppose you choose to compare yourself to someone who is less skillful, financially successful, etc.  You look great in comparison and may feel superior.  However, this, too, is a false comparison as it says nothing about your own skills, financial situation, physical characteristics, etc.

Social comparison can be a trap because it appears to give you relevant information about yourself but only leads to a false feeling of inadequacy or superiority.

In fact, you are neither inferior or superior.  You are only you.

Let me give you an example.

When I was a psychology intern, I compared myself both to other interns who seemed more adept at engaging the client and starting a healthy therapeutic alliance.  This was not a skill I was good at.  I also compared myself to one of the supervising psychologists who was very adept at reading the tone of a therapy group and who seemed to be able, with relative ease, to decide on the best intervention to move the group forward.

Neither of these comparisons were “fair” when I made them.

Based on my comparisons, I decided (wrongly, yes, but this was my interpretation at the time) that I was not very good at doing therapy.

It was only after I started my career and had to engage my clients in therapy that my confidence grew and my skill sets improved.

In fact, I was “surprised” one day when I intuitively orchestrated a very successful intervention.  I say I was surprised because, when I thought about it, I realized that what I had done was as good or better than the Supervisor I had earlier compared myself to.   It just took me some time to develop the necessary experience and skills.

The insidious nature of social comparison can lead to depression if the comparison involves a characteristic which is both very important to you and difficult to change.

The message of depression is that you see yourself as hopeless, helpless, worthless, or some combination of these three.

If the characteristic is sufficiently important and you do not measure up, you may perceive yourself as worthless.  If change is sufficiently difficult than your perception of yourself as helpless and hopeless may grow in strength.

Social Media, today, has been widely criticized because of the tendency of others to use it as a model for making comparisons.  Young people have attempted or commuted suicide because they do not see themselves as measuring up.

While they fail to see many issues, it never occurs to these adolescents that whether they measure up or not to the social media exemplar does not reflect on themselves and secondly, that the picture painted by the social media post may not even be accurate.

If you are feeling anxious, inadequate or that you do not measure up to your own, or society’s standards,  you might try to alleviate these feelings by choosing to compare yourself to someone who is not as well off as you or who is not your “equal” in whatever category you are using to measure.

You may say something like, “Well, I’m not doing so bad, look at _____.?” or “Well, I’m a better (xyz) than _____.”

The issue here is that, while this comparison may bring you some temporary relief, it does nothing to motivate you to change.  Over time, you will once again feel inadequate, inferior, or lacking.

The type of comparison is a trap because it creates a cycle of feeling inadequate, artificially pumping yourself up with a downward comparison, and feeling inadequate again.

A healthier approach would be to master your anxiety and objectively (either by yourself, if you can, or seeking input from others) look at the comparisons you are making and the standards you are implicitly accepting as your own.

  • Do these standards tell you something about yourself that both needs changing and that you can change?
  • Are the standards you are saying you need to live up to artificial, based on someone else’s distorted view of the world, or impossible to meet?

The answers to these questions will tell you whether your anxiety is informing you of actions you need to plan for and implement or whether their really is no impending threat about which you need to stress and you can choose to ignore the standards facing you as inappropriate, unrealistic, or unimportant.

I welcome your comments.