Comparing Yourself to Others Can be Toxic: Tips to Nurture Self-Compassion & Reduce Social Comparison Stress
Have you ever had the experience of scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, taking in the series of smiling faces, beautiful vacation scenes, and announcements of personal accomplishments, as your life begins to feel dull and unsatisfying? You wish you could join your cousin on the Caribbean vacation she just posted about. You wish you looked as fabulous as the selfie of your high school classmate who was out on the town with a bunch of fun friends. You wish your life was as exciting and happy as everyone else around you. You feel personally dissatisfied with your life.
Social Comparison Theory
Feeling this type of personal dissatisfaction is all too common in this age of social media. As human beings living in communities, we are wired for social comparisons. In fact, Social Comparison Theory states that each of us determines our own self-worth based on our perception of how we compare to others we consider within our social group. We are making evaluations of ourselves and others throughout the day based on a variety of factors: attractiveness, wealth, skill, athleticism, etc.
Edited Version of Reality
The trouble is that we’re constantly evaluating OTHERS based on the very best versions of themselves that they choose to edit, filter, and post on social media. It’s easy to scroll through Facebook or Instagram posts and forget that this only represents a small sliver of the human experience. Conversely, we’re evaluating OURSELVES based on our most vulnerable moments when we’re struggling and overwhelmed. These are the very moments everyone edits out of their social media posts. That moment before the beautiful photo of the friends hugging on the beach, there was another moment when one of the girls was feeling left out and the others were giggling at the spinach stuck in her teeth.
Social comparisons certainly extend beyond the edited posts on social media. We also compare ourselves to the successful coworker, the crafty room parent, the star soccer player. These comparisons can sometimes serve a helpful function to challenge us to become our best selves. We can observe people we admire and learn from their strengths. The key is to remember these people are human too, with a full range of strengths and weaknesses, highlight reels and bloopers outtakes.
Our Own Worst Critic
As a psychologist, I have the unique perspective of seeing into the inner lives of people from a wide range of backgrounds; from addicts who live on the streets to CEOs who own several homes, from lonely adolescents to busy moms with a houseful of kids. This has allowed me the opportunity to hear the inner thoughts of people from a broad range of social groups as they often judge and degrade themselves. I’ve discovered that each of us tends to be our own worst critic, harping on ourselves when we make minor mistakes like calling a neighbor by the wrong name or running to the store with a shirt on inside out. We even assume others are thinking the same harsh thoughts about us.
To avoid these perceived judgements and fears of social humiliation, many people put great effort into APPEARING TO HAVE IT ALL TOGETHER. But this effort to appear attractive, successful, and collected all the time can become an incredible burden. Maintaining this false front is a great deal of work and creates emotional distance from others. Because beneath this façade they are thinking, “If others knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.”
The Antidote to Painful Social Comparisons
The antidote to this pattern of negative self-evaluation and the resulting isolation is SELF-COMPASSION: LEARNING TO ACCEPT OURSELVES EXACTLY AS WE ARE. This type of radical self-acceptance can feel incredibly liberating. This means we even accept our tendency to judge ourselves and others. But rather than getting stuck in judgement and defining our self-worth based on these evaluations, we find compassion for ourselves.
Tips to Nurture Self-Compassion & Reduce Social Comparison Stress:
- Take some time to consider what social expectations you have of yourself and see if this is a realistic expectation you’d have of others. For example, do you expect your best friend to always be beautiful, smart, and funny?
- Tell yourself over and over again that you are doing your best. You have value and worth that aren’t fully represented by your outward appearance or successes.
- Learn to think of yourself in the process of change, accepting the process above the final outcome.
- Challenge yourself to be uncomfortable by entering a social situation without presenting a false front that might typically hide behind.
- Find a greater purpose and meaning in your life that goes beyond your social status.
- Practice daily appreciation, noticing the small moments in your life that feel satisfying and the people who brighten your world.
- Extend compassion to others as they’re likely just as hard on themselves as you are on yourself.
- Maintain a sense of humor, knowing we all have our blooper moments we’d like to edit out though we actually often learn the most from those tough moments.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.