She looks great, I thought, admiring a mom walking down the street in a cute pair of boots with her newborn baby in a sling. I looked at my infant daughter with her mismatched outfit and my sneakers and yoga pants. Should I be that put-together?
Later, my mom texted the family chat an article about the winter Olympics. I read it on the couch, a now-former competitive athlete wondering if I would ever win anything again—I certainly wouldn’t at that level, at least.
And that evening, my Twitter feed seemed as full as always with announcements of book deals and publications. Meanwhile, my current book manuscript still has DRAFT in the title.
In bed that night, my head whirred with a familiar thought cycle: I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never make it. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never make it. What should I be doing now instead of sleeping? Could I right these wrongs tonight!?
I shouldn’t have been surprised, as I spent the entire day comparing myself to others. Social comparisons have powerful effects on the self. They influence how people see themselves, how they feel about themselves, and how they behave.
As humans, we can’t help but compare ourselves to one another. While a little competition is a good thing, it can go south when it turns into comparison anxiety.
So what is comparison anxiety and how can we overcome it? First, let’s look at one explanation for our tendency to compare ourselves to one another—social comparison theory.
Social comparison theory, first proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, is the proposition that people evaluate their abilities and attitudes in relation to those of others in a process that plays a significant role in self-image and subjective wellbeing.
According to the theory, social comparison is split into three types:
All three play different roles in our thought processes. Upward social comparison can make us work harder or feel crappy about ourselves, while downward social comparison can make us feel better about ourselves or make us feel superior to others.
Nope! Traditionally, social comparison theory has held that upward comparisons promote a sense of inferiority and thus are associated with negative changes in self-concept (the contrast effect), but recent research suggests that, depending on the circumstances, upward comparisons instead may promote inspiration and be associated with positive changes in self-concept (the assimilation effect).
Still, comparing ourselves to others can negatively affect us when it turns into comparison anxiety.
No! Social media does have a huge impact on how often we compare ourselves to others. Since idealistic information presented through social media has increased social comparison norms, the more time people spent on social media, the more likely they would believe that others have better lives and are happier and more successful, reducing their self-esteem.
It gives us easy access to the inner—but potentially stylized—lives of others, but we can feel comparison anxiety when comparing ourselves to anyone in any situation.
When amateur athletes watch competitions like the Olympics or Super Bowl, theater fans see Broadways plays, or writers hear about new books making the New York Times bestseller list, there is the potential to feel comparison anxiety—they feel like they’ll never “make it” in whatever area they’re passionate about.
Again, as a new mom, I have been feeling loads of comparison anxiety about baby milestones and development. I experience it frequently on social media because of the easy access to lots of information, but it happens to me even when I’m out in the world. If I see a mother who I think looks more put-together than I am, I feel like I don’t have my life together. When I see couples with babies smaller than mine out enjoying themselves at restaurants or breweries, I think about how hard it still is for me to get out of the house with my baby girl most days.
And that comparison anxiety keeps me from remembering or acknowledging any successes I have had (and really, there have been many).
Having a strong social network contributes to positive mental health and wellbeing and social media and the internet have done so much to help overcome the barriers of time and distance, so you don't have to abstain from social media completely. If social media is how you stay in touch with friends, family, and peers, it can be good to have that social connection.
Using social media to actually be social can also help put things in perspective. For example, I saw a friend posting amazing photos of her vacation on Instagram and felt crappy that I was sitting on my couch in my apartment. Instead of leaning into my comparison anxiety, I sent her a message about how beautiful her photos were. She sent me a note back saying that they were the only good ones she got, as it had rained almost the entire time she was on vacation! So things don’t always look as rosy as they seem.
If there are certain accounts, platforms, or pages that heighten your anxiety or don’t bring you joy, spend less time on those and more time on ones that fulfill you.
That can be scary, because it means there’s no playbook for what we “should” do. When our brains search for what is “normal” in terms of success or happiness and fall back on comparing ourselves to others, potentially kickstarting feelings of comparison anxiety, it can be helpful to just take a minute to consider what success or happiness looks like for us.
What are the things that we are comparing? Do they have to do with relationships, work, our physical appearance, achievements, or something else? If we’re comparing ourselves to others in these areas, maybe that just means that these are areas of our lives that are important to us.
So what do we want? What brings us joy? When do we feel most authentically ourselves? When do you feel like you’re in a state of flow or the most fulfilled?
For example, maybe when you watch the Olympics, you feel like you’ll never be able to run or swim or ski at that level. But you know that when you go for a long run or simply spend a day at the pool, you feel rejuvenated. That’s okay.
It’s also okay if you’re not at a certain level right now—or ever! Unfortunately, concepts like “good enough” or “making it” are fluid, and anyone with impostor syndrome knows that sometimes you’ll never feel like you’ve “made it” no matter how much you have achieved.
Think about what happy looks like for you in ten years, five years, one year, and six months. Maybe you would be happy to just go skiing three times a year or make it down a certain run. Your day-to-day doesn’t have to have the pressure of someone competing at a certain level—it just has to be what makes life happy for you.
Instead of not thinking your thoughts, acknowledge them, take a step back, and question them. The space and time you take to examine your thoughts, even for a minute, can give you some clarity about your next steps and will allow you to pause and practice self-compassion.
Notice the people or events that prompt your feelings. Practice being grateful for what’s good in your own life. If social media is what's bringing you down, try to utilize cognitive reframing strategies to combat comparison-triggered emotions, such as viewing others’ triumphs or beautiful moments shared on social media as inspirations, or taking a step back to think about your own strengths and achievements.
Social comparison plays a role in not only the judgments we make about ourselves but also the way we behave. If you compare yourself to others, think about how these comparisons might influence your self-confidence, attitudes, outlook on life, behaviors, habits, and motivation, and explore any negative feelings that might come up. And if you feel your comparisons verging on comparison anxiety, a therapist or coach could help you learn to reframe, cope, and use your comparisons for good.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.