Comparing yourself to others happens at every age, from noting who has the best toys in the preschool sandbox to whose grandkids got into what college. But comparing oneself to others is especially rampant among young adults. Life-changing milestones happen quickly and often—graduations, engagements, career advancement—and it’s all on display on social media, the motherlode of FOMO-inducing social comparison.
The technical term for ‘comparing yourself to others’ is upward comparison. This means comparing ourselves to someone we perceive to be better off or more proficient than ourselves. By contrast, there is also downward comparison, which is comparing ourselves to those worse off or less proficient, like “There but for the grace” or, less eloquently, “Sucks to be them.”
Comparisons may be part of human nature—I’m sure cavemen once envied their neighbors’ fires and wheels—but when it gets out of hand, it leaves you feeling inadequate and insecure, not to mention depressed and anxious. What to do? We’ll cover five ways to stop comparing yourself to others.
5 Ways to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
- Feel the power.
- Find your purpose.
- Reinterpret what’s behind material possessions.
- Purge your phone.
- Remember you don’t have the full picture.
Let’s dive deeper into each tip.
Tip #1: Feel the Power
People with power—those in influential or leadership positions—can make decisions, override objections, and have others carry out their decisions.
But power is also a state of mind. Those who feel powerful approach social comparisons differently than those who don’t feel powerful, which is to say, they pretty much ignore them.
A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology induced participants to feel more or less powerful by recalling in detail a time at work when they either had power over another person or someone had power over them.
Next, they read a description of a supposed recent graduate from their university. For some participants, the description was deliberately intimidating, with the fictitious grad racking up many impressive achievements and successes.
Finally, each participant rated themselves on six traits: Academic achievement, intelligence, competence, work ethic, likeability, and success.
Social comparisons magically seem less relevant when you’re busy saving the world or otherwise pursuing a goal you truly believe to be worthwhile.
The result? Those who had been induced to feel powerful and then read the about their fictitious peer’s FOMO-inducing achievements were more like rubber than glue with social comparisons. Even in the face of an accomplished striver, they still felt good about themselves on the six characteristics.
And what about the low power group? When they compared themselves to the fictitious striver, they felt bad about themselves, rating themselves lower.
So take back your power wherever you might be giving it away unnecessarily. You don’t need to turn into a spittle-spewing autocrat with bulging neck veins, but remember you are the CEO of your life and choices.
Tip #2: Find Your Purpose
Worried you can’t fake the C-suite attitude? No problem. You can get a similar effect with a different mindset: Purpose.
Another study, also in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that people with a sense of purpose were less swayed by feedback on social media. It’s not to say they didn’t notice ‘likes’ or comments at all, but they didn’t rely on them to feed their self-esteem.
So think: Why were you put on this planet? What do you care deeply about? Social comparisons magically seem less relevant when you’re busy saving the world or otherwise pursuing a goal you truly believe to be worthwhile.
Tip #3: Reinterpret What’s Behind Material Possessions
Okay, now, how to handle comparisons about material possessions—your neighbor’s new Tesla, say, or your office frenemy’s Birkin bag?
Well, in an individualistic society like the U.S., where personal choice and self-expression are emphasized, people use their possessions to express who they are—Patagonia jackets and Subarus for the NPR crowd, Vans and PBR for hipsters, and so on.
Research shows that this tendency to define ourselves by our consumerism goes into overdrive when our idea of ourselves is threatened. For instance, one study showed that people made to doubt their intelligence suddenly became more interested in buying brainy accessories, like fountain pens and classical music. Likewise, those made to feel powerless became more inclined to buy expensive cars.
One study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin asked participants to write a brief essay about the three domains of their life—including intelligence, creativity, appearance, career choices, relationships, and more—that made them feel the most confident and certain. By contrast, the other half was asked to write about the three areas of life that made them feel the most doubtful and insecure.
Once primed, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their car and whether it expressed how they saw themselves as a person or was simply utilitarian. They agreed or disagreed with statements like “My car makes me feel good about myself,” and “My car helps me establish the kind of person I see myself to be,” as well as statements like, “My car makes it easier for me to structure and organize my daily life.”
The result? When made to feel doubtful and uncertain, participants rated their cars as a way to define themselves.
In short, we use stuff to buffer ourselves against uncertainty and doubt. All this is to say that you can read between the lines when you see your friend’s new drool-inducing shoes, bag, jeans, or car. You’re not trying to be catty, of course, but can quietly reframe their flaunting a new purchase as wearing the universal struggle with self-doubt on their sleeve.
Tip #4: Purge Your Phone
Unfollow any blogger or guru who makes you feel anxious and inadequate. Delete the apps that drag you down. If you spiral into an insecure funk every time you scroll through Instagram, get it off your phone. You can always reinstall it. But try an experiment—go without for a few days, and see if your self-image magically re-inflates.
Tip #5: Remember You Don’t Have the Full Picture
By now we know that social media is the curated highlight reel of others’ lives. But so is everything else we see in public. Your coworker’s big house might be worth less than he owes on it. Your friend’s new promotion might be inducing stomach ulcers and a secret wish to quit and make artisanal goat cheese.
Comparing the mundane, or worse, the low-lights of our lives only to the publicly available lives of others isn’t fair. Refrain from comparing your apples to others’ apple pie.
Another way to look at this is to remember that you and the object of your comparison are two completely different people. You have different personalities, aspirations, mindsets, histories, drives, vices, and downfalls. In other words, you are unique, and therefore, by definition, incomparable.
Unless you decide you’re both awesome and amazing. Then, compare away.