We’ve all felt it: that pang of envy at a co-worker’s promotion; the flush of insecurity that you’re the only one not wearing a bikini at the neighbor’s pool party; an undercurrent of sadness after “liking” all of a friend’s family vacation photos on social media. Here, experts share how to stop that little voice in your head that points out all the ways you fall short — and the stress it causes — for good!
“We instinctively compare ourselves to others based on the social criteria we view as important,” explains Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, PhD, a psychology fellow at the University of Houston. But a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly found that women were more likely to be critical and have lower self-esteem when comparing themselves to others, while men had higher self-esteem and were more hopeful in their comparisons.
This unhealthy pattern takes root at a young age: Girls are less likely than boys to be praised for their accomplishments and are told more often not to brag. For validation, we start to benchmark against our peers: How am I compared with her? “Our self-worth becomes tied to our perceived status of others,” explains Susan Biali Haas, MD, Psychology Today columnist and author of Live a Life You Love. “This leads to feelings of unworthiness.”
And social media is one of the biggest comparison traps, adds Steers.
A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology revealed that more time spent on Facebook was directly related to a jump in depressive symptoms due to an increase in comparisons. Fortunately, there are simple strategies that can help transform toxic comparisons into total confidence.
The Trap: "She has more than I do."
As you walk into your friend’s new home, you take in the high ceilings, HGTV-caliber décor and gourmet kitchen, and you try to be happy for her. But all you can think is how small and cluttered your home is. “This has a double-negative effect,” notes psychologist Tecsia Evans, PhD. “Your self-esteem takes a hit and your friendship suffers because you’re never truly happy for her.”
The Fix: Anchor in your truth.
To create a loving shield against feelings of lacking, Dr. Biali Haas suggests listing five things you are grateful for each morning. “It protects you from what you’re going to see throughout the day because you’re coming from a place of already knowing what you have,” she explains. “So when you do come across people or images that prompt comparisons of ‘they have more than I do,’ you’re more grounded in your truth of what you do have — which is certainly a lot!”
The Trap: "My life isn't full enough."
You log on to Facebook and your feed is filled with photos of your cousin’s trip to Paris, then you read that a high-school pal was named CEO. You’ve never really wanted to go to France and you’re happy with your job, but you still feel hollow. “Social media shows us people’s experiences we wouldn’t normally be privy to,” says Steers, “so we feel we should be doing so much more.”
The Fix: Try this instead.
In short, Steers suggests logically determining if someone else’s experience would positively impact your life, not impact your life, or negatively impact your life. For instance, if you had your friend’s job, it may negatively impact your life because you’d have to work long hours. “Deciding where it fits in among your values eases any negative feelings,” Steers says. “And if something can positively impact your life — like taking a trip to Paris — use it as motivation!”
The Trap: "She's thinner than I am."
You’ve been sticking to your diet and have lost 15 pounds. But when a woman at the gym boasts that she’s lost twice as much in the same amount of time, self-doubt creeps in. And you’re not alone: The journal PLOS ONE found that negative social comparisons among women trying to shed pounds resulted in a higher chance of giving in to cravings and a lower rate of weight loss.
The Fix: Fill in the Blanks.
“When you’re feeling discouraged, create a backstory that prevents further comparisons by trying to see the other woman as a full person with challenges,” says Dr. Biali Haas. She advises making a mental list of all the things you think you may know about her, then relate them to your life. “You may say, ‘Maybe she’s younger and thinner, but maybe she doesn’t have kids. I sure love my kids and grandkids,’” she explains. “This can help us see what we wouldn’t want to trade.”
The Trap: She's always perfect.
You’re in between errands when you run into a woman from your church on the street. She’s holding balloons and is wearing a beautiful dress. Later, you see photos on social media of the perfect birthday party she threw for her niece with 40 people in attendance. You marvel at how she pulled it all off while thinking, I could never do that, I’d be a mess!
“It’s hard enough assuming people’s lives are better,” says Dr. Biali Haas. “But when social media shows things only in the best possible fashion, it feels like a confirmation that they’re perfect, and we aren’t.”
The Fix: Broaden your lens.
Everyone’s life is busy and chaotic — a brief encounter on the street or a post on social media only offers happy snapshots. To avoid equating the snapshot with the real thing, think about what’s happening before or after the photo or the moment.
One way to do this: “Ask yourself if the things you post on social media are a true depiction of the ups and downs of your day-to-day life — for most of us, it isn’t,” says Steers. “Acknowledging that you are also curating your feed helps you see that this isn’t all real, plus helps you break free from comparing yourself to the ideal.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.