How to “measure up” without bringing yourself down

You don’t have to look too far these days to find someone to compare yourself to—whether it’s at morning PT, the school drop-off line, or your news feed. Comparisons come in different forms. For example, when you compare yourself to people who seem to have it better than you, it’s called an upward social comparison. When you compare yourself to those who seem to have it worse, it’s a downward social comparison.

Comparing yourself to others is a natural process that can be helpful or harmful, so it’s important to understand how you react to those comparisons matters when it comes to your well-being and performance.

When comparisons hurt

Sometimes engaging in upward social comparisons can lead you to lose confidence. For example, using the PT stud in your unit as your fitness yardstick might deflate your motivation. You might think, “My run time will never be as good as his,” so you might be less willing to push yourself. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are now a daily part of life for most people, and they can encourage more unhelpful comparisons. Your friends and even celebrities often portray their “ideal” selves through carefully crafted posts, retouched photos, and edited statuses. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing the untouched reality of your life to the airbrushed ones you see online.


Remember what you see online is often like a glossy ad—highlighting the best—while reality lies hidden somewhere in the fine print.


How to make comparisons help

Comparisons don’t always have to hurt. Making comparisons in more productive ways can help you manage stress, beat burnout, boost performance, and improve how you engage with others. Increase your awareness of how comparisons can help you perform better with the following strategies:

  • Choose awe. Seeing others who are doing better than you sometimes can be a letdown, but you still have a choice in how you let things affect you. You can choose to feel bad. Or you can flip the script. Witnessing good stuff can motivate you to work harder and improve. What can you learn from the people who are doing better? Think about how hard they worked to get there—and let their success uplift and inspire you.
  • Be grateful for your strengths. It’s important to remember everyone brings different strengths to the table, and not everyone is good at the same things. Since most people spend a lot of time thinking how they fall short, think about who you are at your best. Instead of focusing on what’s missing from your life, it might help to grow some gratitude and appreciate what’s good.
  • Mentor others. Do you ever compare yourself to those who might be worse off? How might you help them practice and improve? Mentoring is a great opportunity to help someone else meet his or her goals, and teaching others can help you grow and build your skills as well.
  • Check your social media habits. Your online habits also can impact your well-being, so get smart about how you use social media. Remember what you see online is often like a glossy ad—highlighting the best—while reality lies hidden somewhere in the fine print. Instead of passively consuming content, try to actively support and encourage others. You can form deeper, more personal connections when you actively engage with people online too. The infographic on the right has more tips on how to make best use of social media.

Bottom line

Make your social comparisons work for you. Being aware of how you compare yourself to others can help you understand why social comparisons sometimes make you feel better and sometimes worse. Managing those thoughts, feelings, and actions that come from comparisons with accuracy and confidence will not only help you feel better, but perform better as well.

Resources

Buunk, B. P., Ybema, J. F., Gibbons, F. X., & Ipenburg, M. (2001). The affective consequences of social comparison as related to professional burnout and social comparison orientation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31(4), 337–351. doi:10.1002/ejsp.41

Carmona, C., Buunk, A. P., Peiró, J. M., Rodríguez, I., & Bravo, M. J. (2006). Do social comparison and coping styles play a role in the development of burnout? Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79(1), 85–99. doi:10.1348/096317905x40808

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Suls, J., Martin, R., & Wheeler, L. (2016). Social comparison: Why, with whom, and with what effect? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 159–163. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00191

Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222. doi:10.1037/e512142015-699