It used to be the case that you might come across one or two people during your day and you think ‘Oh, I wish I could have her life’ or ‘I wish I was as rich as X’. We all compare ourselves to others – you can even hear kids on the playground arguing over who is taller or faster or better at jumping.
With the rise of social media since the early 2000’s, we are now bombarded with opportunities for such comparisons.
We can spend countless minutes, or even hours, each day scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, looking at a friend who might be on a glamorous holiday, an influencer who might be living a seemingly carefree and beautiful lifestyle, or even a co-worker who’s posting about their new engagement/baby/puppy/house. There is always someone to compare ourselves to.
Social Comparison Theory
According to Social Comparison Theory (Festinger, 1954), we have an innate drive to evaluate and judge ourselves, and we do this by comparing ourselves to others around us. Where do we feel that we fit based on what everyone else is doing?
Pre-social media, comparing ourselves to others at school, work, or in our personal lives might not have been so damaging – it might have even motivated us to work harder, to strive for more. We were comparing ourselves to people who come from similar backgrounds, people who live in our area or work in our field. We are seeing the whole person, not just what they want us to see.
Nowadays, we aren’t just comparing ourselves to our neighbours, we are comparing ourselves to company CEO’s, Hollywood starlets, Instagram models, YouTubers, and people the world over. People who might come from very different backgrounds, who might have very different starting points, different resources, and most importantly, people who are only sharing their successes.
Because social media is so pervasive, and can seem so much more personal than magazines or newspapers, we can feel like we really know someone that we are following, even if we have never met them. It can make someone with a wildly different set of circumstances feel like a neighbour. We find ourselves comparing our lives with theirs and perhaps wishing that we had their jet-setting lifestyle – rather than sitting in the break room eating last night’s leftovers for lunch.
Many of us know that when people post photos on social media, they might use filters or Photoshop to change an image. This can be damaging in itself – think of the type of photoshop that makes regular bodies into unattainably skinny poster girls in order to sell products – passing on the message that this is the ideal body.
Another type of filter is, not the way that a photo looks, but what photos are posted in the first place. It is very rare – depending on which accounts you follow – that you will see social media posts boasting about people’s failures. Social media is a way to put your best self out there, and many people curate what they post to show their successes. This is only natural – we don’t necessarily want to show off the things that haven’t gone so well. But what this means, especially for young or impressionable followers is that they are comparing their regular life with someone else’s highlight reel.
What is the Impact?
The impact of constantly comparing ourselves to others can include;
- Increased levels of depression
- Increased levels of perfectionism and anxiety
- Increased levels of body dissatisfaction
- Decreased levels of self-esteem
- Decreased levels of life satisfaction
Social media, and this ability to constantly compare ourselves to others, can impact people in various ways, and it all depends on how we interact with social media.
For some people, we go to social media to snoop on other people’s lives – it can be a form of escapism, a way to escape boredom while we wait in line at the supermarket or complete the last few minutes on the treadmill.
For other people, it ends up being a guilt-inducing exercise; Why can’t I be as successful/good-looking/handsome/rich/popular as so and so on Instagram? We end up beating ourselves up for not being as ‘good’ as someone else. We forget about the fact that they might have had their makeup and hair professionally done, we ignore the fact that the beautiful outfit was gifted by a company, we don’t think about the fact that their whole career is built through spending their time on social media – so they can spend 3 hours a day working out in the gym, tanning on a beach, or making their house look beautiful for those #homeinteriors shots.
However, for other people still, social media can be a place to gather inspiration – in a healthier way. They look to see who is doing what; who has built up a company from nothing? I can do that! Who has travelled to beautiful countries? I can work hard, save up and go there! Who has become a healthy and fit person after never working out before? I’ll join my local gym!
There is a thin line between blindly comparing yourself to others and understanding that; yes, that person might have different circumstances, but if they can do X, then I can do Y.
What can we do about this?
Social media is not going away anytime soon, nor is our need to compare ourselves to others. So what can we do about it?
Quite an easy step to take is to look at our social media feeds and figure out which accounts are making us miserable, jealous, upset, and generally feel down, and unfollowing them. In the same way that other people might curate what pictures they post online, you can also curate who you follow. Curate your own feed so that when you log in to have a good scroll, you end up feeling motivated and inspired rather than down on yourself.
Something else that can be quite interesting is to try to change your mindset around how you compare yourself to others. Do you even want what they have? Have you thought about the side of their life that you don’t see? Perhaps they are really lonely? Perhaps their relationship isn’t great? Maybe their life isn’t all it seems.
Just because someone else has had success in something, doesn’t mean that there is no room for you too. There is not a predetermined amount of success in the world, and just because someone else is successful, there is nothing stopping you from being successful as well. So, rather than looking at someone else’s good fortune and hard work and being jealous, try using it to motivate yourself – if they can do it, I can do it too.
Finally, remember that each person is unique, if you stop being you to try to be like someone else, then the world loses out. Focus on being the best version of yourself rather than being a second hand version of someone else.