In my work as a CBT therapist, many young people share their thoughts about not “being good enough”. By this, they may mean not feeling popular enough, not feeling smart enough, not feeling attractive, slim or funny enough. Whatever the concern, it almost always relates to a judgement about them failing to make the grade in one or more areas of their lives. Such judgements are often driven by comparisons with their peer group. This can leave them feeling lacking (when making an upward social comparison) or overly competitive (when making a downward social comparison). So how do we understand social comparisons? What can young people do to manage the negative impact of living in a world which encourages comparison?
It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. In fact, we love to compare. We love a ranking and we love to be better than each other. All of this makes sense. Our brains have evolved to ensure that we fit in with our social group and one effective way of achieving this is through assessing our own and others’ social standing, strengths and weaknesses. Young people learn about themselves and develop their identity through social comparison. They try to work out where they stand in terms of their beliefs, preferences and attitudes. Social comparison can also inspire and motivate young people. When our friends are doing well, they can inspire us to be and do our best. Comparisons can also help us appreciate what we have. However, social comparison has a big downside, particularly when individuals determine their own self-worth based on how they measure up against others. This can be hugely detrimental to self-esteem, creating a judgmental, self-critical outlook with worries of being inferior, incompetent or not good enough.
Social comparison in the real non-digital world usually involves the individual and a few others. However, the digital universe of social media presents almost limitless potential for young people to compare themselves against others. This magnifies the negative impact of social comparison. That’s because the majority of time spent on social networking sites, involves young people looking at their peers’ profiles and photos. They are constantly comparing themselves to carefully curated images of a peer group presenting picture-perfect lives. As a result, a young person’s average day is compared to the ‘greatest hits’ of others. I find in my own clinical practise, that young women in particular, attach a lot of importance to so-called “ideal” body and appearance. Whilst they acknowledge that weight and shape should not be important, it remains extremely challenging for them to avoid the edited lives and airbrushed photos of peers, celebrities and fashion models. The resulting pressure and expectations around their own appearance and weight leaves them feeling more negative about their bodies.
So, what can you do to reduce the impact of social comparisons having a negative impact on your mental health? Here are a few suggestions:
Notice what triggers comparisons: The first step is learning to be aware of social comparison and how it plays out in yourself and others. Although comparisons are often automatic, monitor the times when you’re most likely to look at social media. How do you feel before and after using social media? Are there particular triggers and if so, how can you avoid them and make different choices?
Focus on your strengths: When you find yourself making comparisons, remind yourself of your own unique strengths and talents. We’re all good at something whether it’s caring for animals, being a good listener, working hard or a multitude of other things. Remember what you value in life and what is most important and meaningful to you. To learn more about your top character strengths, take the VIA Institute’s free survey.
Avoid Frenemies: Try and avoid or at least minimise contact with those people who seem to constantly criticise and judge and make you feel worse about yourself.
Practice gratitude: It’s important to focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have. Experiment with keeping a daily journal or list of things that you are grateful for or appreciate and discover for yourself how this can help keep negative comparisons at bay.
Compare you only with you: The most helpful person to compare yourself with is you. Reflect on who you were 6 months or a year ago and think about how you have grown, what you have learned and achieved. Think about the person you want to be and the goals you aspire to achieve.
Accept you for who you are: Remember that everyone, no matter how attractive, clever or slim has vulnerabilities, insecurities and flaws. Everyone feels inadequate at times, although few choose to reveal that that’s the case. Accepting yourself as imperfect is part of learning to value and accept yourself for who you are.
Be kind to others: This may seem counterintuitive, but next time you find yourself feeling bad about somebody else’s achievement, make the decision to acknowledge their success and make them feel good about themselves. This single act of kindness can have a really positive effect on our mood.
Un-plug: Experiment with limiting your social media use and see what effect it may have on your mood. When you feel the urge to pick up your mobile phone, practise overriding the temptation to scroll and do something else instead such as taking a walk, reading a book or watching a movie.
It’s harder than ever to avoid the social comparison trap. My hope however, is that by trying out some of the above tips, you may be able to keep unhelpful comparisons at bay.
4 May 2020