Coping with Social Comparison

As we move into the New Year, it is common to not only create resolutions but also to reflect on the past twelve months. We may also share our intentions and reflections with others in our communities or on social media. As we are bombarded with highlight reels of people’s lives during this time, we must be mindful of how we engage with this content, the effects of social comparison, and how our self-esteem may be impacted.

Social Comparison Function

At its core, the function of social comparison is to be able to better assess ourselves by comparing certain aspects of ourselves or traits we possess to others. While the intention may be to collate ourselves with a realistic and achievable standard to help determine how “on track” we are to meeting our goals in life, this method can result in comparison to an unrealistic criterion, which in turn can lead to developing low self-esteem. Social comparison is motivated by the desire to evaluate, improve, and enhance ourselves and, therefore, our lives. Since we are unable to form an objective opinion about our own abilities, we often look to external sources that are similar to ourselves to create a level of aspiration.

Upward vs Downward Social Comparison

Upward social comparison involves comparing ourselves to someone we perceive to be performing better than us whereas downward social comparison is constituted by comparing ourselves to someone we perceive as doing worse than us. While upward social comparison can be motivating especially when the comparison is covert, aligns with our values, and doesn’t put us at risk of judgment, it can also lead to developing feelings of inferiority. Downward social comparison, on the other hand, can be a coping mechanism that temporarily boosts self-esteem and reduces anxiety particularly in scenarios where our sense of self has been threatened.
Nevertheless, downward social comparison can also remind us of our own perceived flaws and result in lower self-esteem as well.

Depression and Social Comparison

Experiencing depression alongside social comparison can wield mixed results. Sometimes depressed individuals may experience increased positive mood when assessing easily accessible goals; however, other times their mood may decline if the level of aspiration is too challenging to meet. People with traits such as self-consciousness, empathy, sensitivity, narcissism, low self-esteem, and neuroticism are not only more likely to engage in social comparison, but are also more likely to be impacted by it.

Social Media and Social Comparison

Social media has become a prime pathway towards engaging in social comparison, particularly upward social comparison as social media is primarily utilized to share positive memories and highlights in the user’s life. Increased social media use is correlated with more adverse feelings such as increased depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem, and negative body image. Because we engage in more social comparison online than we do in real life, social media usage can be overwhelming and detrimental to our mental wellbeing without the presence of healthy boundaries.

Coping with Social Comparison

While social comparison impacts everyone in different ways and often occurs subconsciously, we can take steps to manage its effects through implementing boundaries, building self-worth, and exercising gratitude. Consider what effective boundaries might look like for you – both in person and online. Identify your core values and shift your energy towards goals and interests that reflect those values. Express gratitude no matter how big or small. All of these practices can increase positive affect, improve quality of sleep, boost optimism levels, and promote prosocial behavior. If you are struggling with social comparison, consider speaking with a mental health professional. Embrace Therapy is here to support you!

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