It is important to notice when our admiration of others turns into a negative comparison of ourselves. Making decisions for our own lives that are based on someone else’s journey can lead to a multitude of negative health outcomes.
What is the Cost of Comparison?
A large house with a perfectly manicured lawn. The perfect body leaving the gym. A mom with her three kids and the perfect Pinterest craft. A Christmas card with the Pottery Barn-worthy family gracing the front. The perfect career success.
Do these scenes sound familiar? Have you ever come across situations like these and thought to yourself, “I wish that was me.” or “I am not working hard enough...I am not enough.” Maybe it’s the other way around, maybe you have looked at someone else’s life and thought, “Wow, at least I am doing better than them.” If so, you are not alone.
Comparison is human nature. It is unavoidable. However, there is a very slippery slope between admiring others and making judgements about our own lives to theirs.
In some instances, viewing someone else’s success can motivate us to work harder to achieve our goals. Seeing someone’s misfortune can remind us to be grateful for the good things in our own lives. It is when these thoughts turn into negative feelings, low self-esteem, and arrogance that we begin to experience negative effects on our health and wellbeing.
Social Comparison Orientation (SCO) is a term used to describe the phenomenon of comparing oneself to others. A 2020 research study published in Current Psychology defines SCO as “the inclination to compare one’s accomplishments, one’s situation, and one’s experiences with those of others.” This study found that in some cases “upward comparison” (comparing oneself to someone better off) elicited positive motivational energy. And in the case of “downward comparison” (comparing oneself to someone who is worse off), it showed a small number of participants feeling relief and gratitude. This shows us that comparison can indeed have positive health effects!
On the flip side, this study also showed that more often than not when we compare ourselves to others, especially across social media platforms, we see negative outcomes and those negative outcomes can have great impact on our overall health and well-being. Impacts like loss of sleep, depression, lowered self-esteem, emotional eating, loss of interest in normal activities, and more.
In this age of multiple social media platforms (SMP), comparison is literally at our fingertips. With every scroll, there is an opportunity for our internal self-talk to say that we aren’t fit enough, successful enough, rich enough, happy enough, healthy enough, and so on.
Netflix’s popular docu-drama, The Social Dilemma, explains (among many other key takeaways) that individuals are actually seeking out costly plastic surgery procedures, to look more like photo and video filters, because they feel that the filters are more attractive than their real selves!
So, what should I be on the lookout for?
3 Signs comparison might be affecting your health
How do you feel? What are you telling yourself during these moments of comparison? Studies show that comparison can lead to feelings of depression, decreases in self-esteem, increases in stress and anxiety, and overall negative affects on our psychological well-being. If you begin to notice any of these effects creeping into your life, it is time to reevaluate your internal conversations.
VeryWell Mind talks about the stressors that come from social comparison. As we scroll our social media feeds and begin comparing our relationship or marriage to someone else’s, negative thoughts about not having a strong enough relationship can begin to creep in causing undue tension. If you find yourself experiencing stress and tension within your relationships it may be stemming from SCO.
Making decisions about your health, fitness, or appearance based on wanting to be like or look like someone else can take you down a dark road. These decisions can leave you feeling as though your true self will never be enough. Self-improvement and self-enhancement are only positive and healthy when they are based on the desire “to be our best true self.” It is when they are based on our individual differences making us feel lesser than, that they cause us to lose sleep, become stressed and anxious, and leave us with feelings of despair.
At this point, you’re probably saying, “Okay, okay Sarah, I get it, comparison is bad.” While I most certainly want to stress the overwhelming negative effects comparison can have on our health and well-being, I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn’t explore tools and practices that can actually help us reduce the impact of comparison in our lives. So, what do we do? If comparison is unavoidable, how do we reduce its negative effects?
Work on building your self-efficacy through goal setting
Joanna Hayden defines self-efficacy in Introduction to Health Behavior Theory, as “an individual’s belief in themselves to successfully achieve a goal or accomplish something they have set their mind to.” Improving our own self-efficacy goes a long way in the ability to stay grounded in our own strengths and fight the feelings of inadequacy from comparison.
A great exercise for building self-efficacy is to begin by setting simple goals. See someone that inspires you to want to be more adventurous in your life? Fantastic! Start by exploring your own adventures on a smaller scale and working from there. These goals should take you out of your comfort zone and into the early stages of the stretch zone (a place that challenges you). Working your way through those smaller mile markers until you reach the final map dot, the big picture. A great tool for this is our very own Healthy Habits Starter Guide.
I can’t stress enough how important gratitude is in our lives. When we look to our own lives with positive reflection, and seek to find the good things we do have, it helps shift our perspective. My favorite way to practice gratitude is through an exercise called “3 Good Things” created by Martin Seligman, one of the leading experts in Positive Psychology. The exercise is simple, at night before you go to bed think of three good things that happened in your day. Write these three things down in a notebook or journal. Then spend time reflecting on them, asking yourself what led to these good things and why they are significant. Start by committing to this exercise for one week and take note of how you feel. My family does our own version of this exercise at the dinner table every night...a speed round of 3 Good Things from each person!
Step away from social media or change the way you use it
If you find yourself spending too much time scrolling your social media platforms (SMP), and having negative self-talk by the time you put your phone down, take a step away. There are many great apps out there to help you track how long you spend on social media, and encourage you to shut it down when you’ve reached your time limit. In addition to reducing your time spent on SMP, change up the way you use it. Challenge yourself to make it a positive experience by starting your own personal positivity campaign. Everyday that you sign on to SMP create a post of positivity...share an inspirational quote, an uplifting or silly GIPHY, funny animal videos, beautiful landscape photos, etc. It is amazing the ripple effect sharing something positive can have, not only on how you feel about your own life, but it can lift others as well...I call that a double bonus!
Instead of looking at the lives of others and seeing all of the reasons you don’t add up, choose a positive comparison. What inspires you about someone else’s journey? How can you take notes from the choices they’ve made to add value to your own journey? You don’t have to do what they do, or how they do it, but you can derive motivation from their mindset. Seek to create connections instead of comparisons. Start a conversation with someone who inspires you and learn about their journey. Remember that everyone has a journey and where you see them now is not necessarily where they started.
As the great stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger, once said, “Let us take pleasure in what we have received and make no comparison; no man will ever be happy if tortured by the great happiness of another.” It is important to remember that we all have value and each of our journeys and purposes are our own. Seeking happiness based on someone else’s highlight reel causes us to chase goals and dreams that are not unique to our own strengths and personal values. Worse yet, it increases our risk for disappointment and a negative self-image.
Admire those around you. Appreciate their value. Take inspiration from their success. Make decisions and set goals based on what is best for your own personal journey! You owe it to your best self.
I would love to continue the comparison conversation with you! Let’s set up a call.
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