I'm going to let you into a secret. I've got a terrible case of comparison syndrome. So much so, it even applies to writing this blog.
It's been a while since I've written a thought piece. And I put it off for a bit, thinking about all the people who could do it so much better than me. See what I mean?
Of course, it's natural to compare ourselves to others to some extent. It helps us to gauge our own abilities, attributes and skills. It can motivate us to achieve more – at work and at home.
But social comparison can also have a downside, particularly if you allow yourself to become preoccupied with the perceived success and happiness of others.
Social comparison can make us feel dissatisfied with our own lot, dent our feelings of self-worth, and even lead to poor mental health.
Social comparison theory was first introduced by Theodore Festinger back in 1954. Today we have several similar terms to describe its negative effects, such as comparison syndrome, comparisonitis, and obsessive comparison syndrome.
Upward social comparison is a common form. This is where we consider someone to be doing better than we are. For me, that might mean comparing myself to friends who, like me, have a busy work and family life. But (unlike me) seem to manage to keep their houses in pristine condition. As someone who lives in fear of the casual visitor, this is a level of togetherness I can only dream about.
Sometimes upward comparisons can have a motivating effect. For example, you might be inspired to work hard to emulate the success of your boss. But such comparisons can also lead to feelings of inferiority, particularly if what you're aiming for seems way beyond your reach.
In contrast, downward social comparison is where we take comfort from the fact that someone else is worse off than us. I do that very thing when I watch TV shows where household clutter has taken over people's lives and they get experts in to help them out. As all their possessions are laid out before them in a warehouse, I tell myself, "At least I'm not as bad as that!"
While downward social comparison can make us feel better about ourselves, it's not a particularly healthy outlook, and it can also remind us of our own fallibility. If I'm already prone to hoarding things I don't need, how soon before I am in the same situation as the people on those TV shows?
Does my gender have something to do with my tendency to compare myself to others, I wonder? While some research suggests that women may be more likely to engage in social comparison than men, the research is complex, and far from conclusive on the matter.
You may see social comparison used interchangeably with impostor syndrome. They're not quite the same thing, though they are closely linked.
Business coach Kara Lambert points out that the former is brought about by external factors, whereas impostor syndrome (feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt) tends to come from within. Where the link can occur is when we compare ourselves to others and turn their successes into our own shortcomings and a fear of being "found out." It can even lead to self-sabotage.
With the prevalence of social media these days, there are more opportunities than ever for us to compare ourselves to other people – from friends to celebrities and even complete strangers. Whether it's through Facebook posts, our Instagram feeds, or LinkedIn updates, we're constantly being fed a diet of other people's activities and achievements. It can be hard for us to keep perspective, and even harder to switch off.
I certainly experienced this back in lockdown. While I struggled to juggle homeworking with homeschooling, on social media I was met with a wall of updates showcasing decluttering and home-redecorating projects, and beautiful home baking. Some days it would leave me feeling pretty low, and sometimes even resentful or angry. Why wasn't I doing all this stuff too?
And then one day, I accidentally locked myself out of my main social media account. I was forced to step away from the endless scrolling. And this confirmed what I already knew. Comparison syndrome was taking over, and it was taking more than I was getting back.
If you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others in an unhealthy way, you may suffer from comparison syndrome. Other signs to watch out for include:
If you're worried that comparing yourself to others is taking over, there are plenty of things you can do to help you break the habit:
One thing that I think it's important to keep coming back to is that it's easy to build a narrative around someone else's abilities, successes or shortcomings without having the full picture.
The friend with the perfect house might do chores till midnight before you call round. That person on the TV might have a health issue that explains why their home is overwhelming them.
We all have our own stories. And that's the point. We can be inspired, moved, or feel envy when we compare our lives to others'. It's what we choose to value and do with our own that really matters.
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