Social comparison begins in childhood. As children, we look at other children’s toys, parents, and houses, and compare them to our own. In adulthood, social comparison is perfectly normal as well. However, systematically comparing ourselves to others can make us feel less capable. To avoid comparison anxiety, it’s helpful to be aware of how assessing our success based on a subjective view of how we compare to others may lead to unnecessary stress and poor mental health.
The science of comparison anxiety
Comparison anxiety has its roots in social comparison theory, which was initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954. Festinger wrote that as humans we employ social comparison to compare our own abilities and achievements against those of others.
Festinger recognised the importance of social comparison from an evolutionary perspective. Social comparison not only helps us make sense of our own behaviours and assists us in defining who we are, but it drives us to improve and raise to the level of the ones we perceive as the most competent around us.
For instance, being a fast runner would have offered protection against predators, and holding a high opinion of the fastest runners would have encouraged members of the group to practice running faster. Sizing up against those around us, and taking the necessary steps towards self-improvement, would therefore have provided us with an edge when it came to survival.
More recently, psychologists have confirmed the hypothesis that social comparison can be both upwards and downwards in nature. Downward comparison involves measuring ourselves against someone who we feel is inferior. This may make us feel better about ourselves by confirming that we are right to feel superior or better than someone else.
In contrast, upward comparison is when we compare ourselves to someone whom we perceive to be superior to us. For our ancestors, this might have been the best hunter or the most-skilled tool maker. Nowadays, it is more likely to be our peers at work, our friends or family, celebrities, sportspersons, or influencers we see online.
This form of comparison is common, especially with increased use of social media, and it may drive us to work harder or to learn a new skill — which is beneficial. However, near-constant upward comparison can also leave us with a sense of failure and inadequacy, which leads us to suffer from comparison anxiety.
The rise of comparison anxiety
Comparison anxiety can affect anyone, but there are certain risk factors that can predict to what extent it impacts us. Such risk factors include our levels of internal and external competitiveness, the intensity of our social media use, our overall self-esteem, and our mood.
In 2017, Dr Jin-Liang Wang and colleagues explored how we define ourselves through comparisons we make using social media. Because most of us only document the positive highlights of our lives on social media, giving a skewed view of our overall success and happiness, viewing digital representations of the seemingly near-perfect lives of others will naturally lead to upward comparison.
The researchers found that looking upwards was, in turn, associated with negative feelings and a greater chance of negative self-evaluation. Overall, social media use was found to result in lower subjective well-being due to its detrimental impact on our own self-esteem.
Further research in 2020 reported that although in some cases comparison on social media could lead to improved well-being, for those who engage in upward social comparisons, it is more likely to be associated with negative effects.
Concerns about what others think of us can also occur in real-life settings. Researchers Marina Micari and Pilar Pazos found that students taking part in group work could feel threatened by those they perceived as being better prepared or more confident in a task.
This threat of perceived inferiority hindered cognitive performance and “resulted in reduced ability to process information.” Peer-learning situations can therefore produce negative effects on performance if students are worried about how they compare to others. This impact may be heightened in those already battling low self-esteem.
When comparison anxiety occurs, we may try to soothe it with downward social comparison. If you have noticed promotions being awarded to your peers, you may start to feel anxious about your own achievements. This will be especially true if you are already feeling low or worried, or if you are competitive by nature.
To feel better, you may identify colleagues who have remained stuck in a role that is lower than yours, with the aim of helping you to internally ‘prove’ your own superiority and manage the comparison anxiety you feel. However, using downward social comparison is a mere bandage that doesn’t really support better mental health.
How to manage comparison anxiety
Although observing what others are doing may be beneficial in encouraging you to strive for more, comparison with others needs to be carefully managed to ensure that this process does not lead to reduced productivity, cognitive performance, and mental health. You can avoid the worst aspects of comparison anxiety by applying the following strategies:
- Practice strength journaling. This practice involves identifying your strengths rather than dwelling on any perceived shortcomings. This simple practice will help you develop resilience and boost your self-esteem. By highlighting our own achievements, it will be easier to avoid the anxiety associated with comparing yourself to others.
- Find role models. Whether you admire someone else’s creativity, motivation, or overall success, it’s possible to look up to someone else without feeling anxious. Move away from measuring yourself against peers whose constant achievements make you feel inferior because they feel unreachable. Instead, focus on someone whose success is within reach, which will make it aspirational and motivating. This will allow you to strive for more, while providing actionable steps for personal growth.
- Partner with a goal buddy. Choose one person to buddy up with and support each other in your self-development journey. Then, document your goals and have regular check-ins for motivation, assessment of progress, and celebration of achievements. Rather than being in direct competition, support each other in striving for more.
- Create a support circle. A support group can be another effective way to avoid comparison anxiety. Everyone in the circle should share a common goal such as achieving a promotion, launching a side project, or regularly exercising. In a similar way you would with a goal buddy, discuss your progress and challenges with the group on a regular basis. Rather than trying to out-perform the group, work together to support each other to succeed.
- Limit social media. If you use social media and often fall into the trap of upward comparison, try to put stricter boundaries in place to avoid overuse of social media and an increased risk of comparison anxiety. For instance, you may decide to restrict who you follow, how many minutes of social media you consume each day, or even take a break from it.
Comparison anxiety is a common phenomenon that can be heightened through our access to the lives of others via social media. Seeing a rose-tinted view of another’s life may lead us to believe that everyone else is happier, richer, or more successful than we are.
However, constant comparisons will not only provoke anxiety, but can also reduce cognitive performance and productivity. Identifying your strengths, finding appropriate role models, seeking the support of others and limiting access to social media will help you stop comparing yourself to others, and instead focus on your own journey.