Ever wondered, “why do we compare ourselves to others?” Some people have been compared to their siblings since they were born. Others have been upset when coworkers with less experience were offered promotions when they were not. Many social media users will tell you their feeds are filled with engagement photos, wedding announcements, and a friend with a baby every week, lingering on the fact that they may not have reached that point in their life yet or have simply chosen a different path. Social comparison is a part of being human, but too much comparison and not enough self love can take a toll on anyone’s mental health.

Why do we compare ourselves to others? Social scientists have explored this topic at length, and many believe that it is an innate part of human nature. Whether you are interested in learning more about human comparison, or would like to know how to stop comparing yourself to others, here is an introduction to human comparison and some ideas about how to keep it from becoming a harmful influence in your life.


Why Do We Compare Ourselves to Others?

Most people compare themselves to those around them in one way or another, but we seldom ask our own self, “why do we compare ourselves to others?” One of the most accepted explanations for why humans feel compelled to compare themselves to others is called the Social Comparison Theory. This theory states that humans determine their social and personal worth based on how they measure up to others. As a result, humans constantly make evaluations across various aspects of life including attractiveness, success, and intelligence.

Social Comparison Theory

Social scientist Leon Festinger developed the Social Comparison Theory in the 1950’s. His hypotheses and findings identified a few overarching ideas as to why people compare themselves to others. Two of his main findings include:

“There exist, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities.”

This branch of his theory speaks to the fact that humans have an innate desire to assess their skills and abilities; we want to know how well we performed on a task and what other people think of our performance. Humans typically feel validated when they succeed or are equal to others, and feel defeated when their own abilities are less than those around them.

“To the extent that objective and non-social means are not available, people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing respectively with opinions and abilities of others.”

Essentially, this means that if there is no objective measure of success or failure, people will evaluate themselves based on how others think they did, and how their performance compares to others. For example, say you are watching the 400-meter run in the Olympics.

Many people may not pay attention to the clock, but instead to who finishes first and who finishes last. It may look like the person who finishes last is a slow runner because we are comparing them to the person who finished first.

However, if an average person raced the final finisher in the Olympic 400-meter run, the Olympian would most likely be significantly faster. That person simply looks slow because they are being compared to a sampling of exceptionally fast people.

The Downside of Social Comparison

While comparing yourself to others is in human nature, constantly measuring yourself against others can take a toll on your mental health. If you find yourself frequently caught up in how you compare to others, consider the following:

  • Comparison does not help you achieve success. Pining over another person’s success will do nothing to fuel your own success, it is only diverting your energy away from your own hopes and goals. (see below: how to turn comparison into inspiration)
  • There is always more to the story. A person in your office or neighborhood may seem to have a perfect life, but everyone has challenges. Instead of putting that person on a pedestal, take a step back and consider if you are really making an accurate comparison. Many people have a habit of comparing the worst parts of their lives to the best parts of other people’s lives.
  • Comparisons often create excessive negativity. Comparisons have a habit of not only making you feel bad about yourself, but also creating feelings of resentment toward people who you feel are more successful.

4 Ways To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

While a bit of healthy competition can be beneficial, excessive social comparison can bring any person down. Many methods can be used to help you stop comparing yourself to those around you:

  • Practice Gratitude. Gratitude can be a great solution to fighting social comparison. Instead of focusing your attention on things you wish you had, take some time to think about the things you are grateful for in your life. Try listing your own accomplishments, taking time to thank people you are lucky to have in your life, and thinking about all of the things that make you happy. These small steps can help you refocus your energy on yourself instead of others.
  • Turn Comparison Into Inspiration. Does someone in your life have a successful job or great relationship? Instead of getting stuck on the fact that you may not have those things in your life, think of ways you can achieve those things yourself. If someone in your life has a successful job they love, how did they get there? What could you do to move into a position that makes you as happy? When you see others who have things you would like in your own life, think about how you can turn that desire into inspiration, then into improving your own life for the better.
  • Instead of Comparing Yourself to Others, Measure Your Own Progress. While people often get caught up in how they measure up to others, the most beneficial comparison may just be focusing on your own growth as a person. An Olympian can easily win a race against a casual athlete. But is that Olympian improving or simply looking good compared to the other people around? Channeling your comparison to create small improvements for yourself can be a tangible way to grow as a person. You may consider setting goals or benchmarks you would like to achieve in various aspects of your life. This can help you channel that competitive energy through into productive personal growth instead of harmful social comparison!
  • Take A Break From Social Media. When everyone is broadcasting their best selves to the world on social media, it can be difficult to stop comparing yourself to others. However, many people tend to create an unrealistic picture of their lives on social media, because they share things they are proud of but choose not to post about negative aspects of their lives. Taking a social media detox may help you stop comparing your own life to the others around you and instead help you focus on the things you care about.

Now that we’ve helped answer the question of why do we compare ourselves to others, it’s time to start embracing your own success with these simple self-esteem building exercises.

Megan Herndon
Author

Megan is a Seattle-based writer who covers health and wellness. She has worked in content marketing and journalism for a number of organizations including The Seattle Globalist, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and The Jakarta Globe. She has a BA in journalism from the University of Washington and is currently working on her second UW degree, a Master of Communication and Digital Media. Born and raised in Hawaii and currently embracing the Pacific Northwest lifestyle, Megan loves all things active and outdoors including hiking, camping, outrigger canoe paddling, and yoga.

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