Guest post by Ray Lardie, see more here: Neo Lyceum
Social comparison is a risky mindset that can either inspire you to achieve beyond your highest goals or drive you to abandon your dreams. Tilting the scale to helpful social comparison challenges our ingrained thoughts about ourselves and our place in the world. I’m not convinced that the scale starts out tipped towards the unhelpful side, but I’ve encountered many people with such a scale. Let’s figure out how to avoid it, but first, what are we avoiding?
Social comparison is what happens in your brain when you see or hear about somebody else and automatically compare that to yourself. This happens with projects, grades, weight, sports, job promotions—there is sadly no limit to what can be compared. (I’ve seen people compare the severity of their sport injuries, which indicates a host of bad news.)
Sometimes social comparison can be good—if what you see/hear inspires you to work towards your own goals, that’s great!
But if your response is characterized by self-doubt and/or guilt (for not doing something better/faster/cooler), then that’s no good, especially if it pushes you to give up on a project because you feel like you aren’t good enough.
Negative social comparison can do more than stifle the creative spirit—it can short-change your identity and self-realization. My friends have specific, intense reactions to not getting enough exercise: irritability, inability to sleep, no motivation, etc, that manifest in feelings of worthlessness. When I compared that to myself to them and saw that I didn’t lose days to anxiety from my sporadic-at-best exercise, I concluded that exercise wasn’t as important to me as it was to my friends.
False on all accounts. I overlooked my own adverse reactions to lack of exercise because they didn’t match up in intensity to the reactions my friends have. I do react—I get anxious slowly, vibrating on the inside until I manifest that anxiety outwards. This took me months to figure out, because I compared my response to my friends’ and expected a match.
If expecting a match in exercise needs is unhelpful, imagine how damaging comparing unrelated areas can be. If person A gets a promotion at work, and you’re self-employed, does it make any sense to compare situations? No—you’re on entirely different tracks.
Even when on similar tracks, negative social comparison is harmful. Seeing your friend paint a beautiful picture after they’ve been painting for years, shouldn’t make you feel badly about the art you’re making in the second week of your first painting class.
I want to make it clear that it’s not your fault your head is responding like that—society is full of unhealthy competitive messages that get in the way of our becoming. How many times have you been told to eat dinner ‘because starving kids wherever don’t have any food to eat’? The underlying message—be thankful for what you have—gets drowned out by the newer message of “your life is so good, you don’t have anything to complain about”.
This is a vicious message, because it forces us to declare our feelings and experiences invalid. This is unhealthy and will only lead to deeper feelings of dissatisfaction and guilt. We need to learn how to avoid that.
The first major component to beating social comparison is to recognize that what you’re feeling is legitimate. If you had a rough day, you had a rough day. Just because person C has an illness does not mean your day wasn’t rough—you lead different lives on different tracks. Keeping your eyes on your track will help you stay focused and decrease the likelihood that guilt will gnaw at your insides.
The second tactic to countering negative social comparison is to breathe. This is a deeply ingrained habit. When you catch yourself thinking, “oh, so-and-so’s new project is so exciting; why don’t I ever do anything cool”, pause and take a breath. Remind yourself that your life is not a competition; there is no first place, no A+. You are allowed to move at your own speed doing your own thing.
Finally, the third big help to avoiding social comparison is remembering that someone is in your shoes. Yes, really—there’s someone out there looking at you and thinking, “wow, they’re so amazing, look at that awesome thing they did! I wish I could do something like that.” Chances are, if you actually heard someone say that about you, one of your responses would be ‘you can do something like that!’
And it’s true for you as well. Negative social comparison discourages new projects; positive social comparison creates them. The next time you see your friends doing something that inspires you, realize that you can—and do!—do inspiring things as well. You have in the past, and you will in the future.