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March 8, 2023

Calling Time on Comparison Syndrome

Catriona Macleod

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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.

What Is Comparison Syndrome?

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?

Social Comparison and Gender Difference

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.

Comparison Syndrome and Impostor Syndrome

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.

Social Media and Comparison Syndrome

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.

How to Spot the Signs of Comparison Syndrome

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:

  • Frequently feeling like a failure when you learn of others' achievements.
  • Finding it hard to congratulate others on their successes.
  • Spending a lot of your free time scrutinizing other people's social media profiles and posts.
  • Struggling to start new projects at work because you worry your colleagues could do them better.
  • Setting yourself timelines for life milestones such as key career achievements, finding a life partner, or having kids.

Confronting Comparison Syndrome

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:

  • Spend time assessing your personal values. What things matter most to you, and make you feel happy and fulfilled? How can you bring more of them into your life at work and at home? This helps to switch the focus from what other people are doing. You might even want to turn your values into a personal mission statement to help you feel positive and grounded.
  • Celebrate your own successes. At work, use your one-on-ones and performance reviews to reflect on, and give yourself credit for, what you've achieved this week, this month, and this year. Journaling can be another way to keep track of how you've developed and grown. It can also help you to reflect on and process any difficult emotions along the way.
  • Practice gratitude. Break the cycle of yearning for things you don't have by focusing on the things you do have to be grateful for. There are apps you can use to help with this.
  • Try some positive affirmations. For example, take inspiration this International Women's Day from some empowering quotes from inspiring female leaders.
  • Give yourself a digital detox. If social media time is causing you to feel low, jealous, frustrated, or angry, it could be time to take a proper break.
  • Keep things in perspective. Remind yourself that social media shows you a curated version of people's lives. You're comparing yourself to their edited highlights. We all face challenges and difficulties, and have parts of our lives that are pretty mundane. But we're far less likely to share the bad stuff!
  • Open up to a friend, a trusted colleague, coach, or counselor. Finally, if constant comparison is getting you down, talking to others can help you to tackle feelings of low self-esteem and isolation. You may even find that they've experienced similar thoughts and feelings themselves. And they may even be able to offer you some advice and tips.

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.

Cat MacLeod

About the Author:

Cat began her career with a national radio station before moving into the heady world of advertising as a copywriter. She now has over 15 years experience writing, editing and managing content delivery for our learners, from animated video to infographics and e-learning. As senior managing editor, Cat currently manages our in-house team of writers. Away from her desk, she's a mum, an unpaid dog walker and occasional wild swimmer.

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