I just got back from spending four days surrounded by 11,000 other dietitians at the world’s largest meeting of food and nutrition experts. Between sessions, meetings and networking events, I couldn’t help but compare myself…
I just got back from spending four days surrounded by 11,000 other dietitians at the world’s largest meeting of food and nutrition experts. Between sessions, meetings and networking events, I couldn’t help but compare myself to my colleagues. If she has 30,000 followers, I thought, why can’t I? If she is creating and selling multiple online courses, what am I doing wrong in my own business? It didn’t feel great.
I bet you can relate: With social media at our fingertips, it feels impossible not to compare ourselves to others — even when we’re not physically surrounded by 11,000 peers. But here’s the good news: Not only is social comparison a totally normal part of being human, but there are also ways to manage those thoughts so that you don’t react as strongly to the comparisons that your brain makes.
You see, “social comparison theory,” as its called in the academic world, has been around much longer than Facebook or Instagram, I learned at a session put on by Marci Evans, a registered dietitian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In fact, the theory was first proposed in 1954 with the premise that the desire to learn about one’s self through comparison to others is a universal human characteristic. Some theorize it comes from an evolutionary need to measure one’s strength against that of one’s competitors. There’s even neuroscience to support it: Your brain’s reward center lights up not just when you perform well, but when you perform better than others.
Typically, comparison is made upward, toward a person who is better off or more successful than you. More rarely, comparison happens downward, toward people who are worse off. Unsurprisingly, downward comparison makes people feel better about themselves while upward comparison makes them feel worse. This is the case even if someone else’s performance has nothing to do with your own. For example, if I compare my website to the website of a large online business, I start to feel bad about myself — when in reality, our businesses are totally different.
So while not new, the tendency to compare ourselves to others is heightened in modern times because we have so many more opportunities to do so. We’re not just eyeing the handful of cavepeople in a neighboring tribe, we’re pitting ourselves against people we’ll never meet. Today, rather than determining our personal worth based on how many boars we can spear, we constantly compare our success, money, appearance, attractiveness, intelligence and other characteristics to those around us, and those not around us.
While some level of social comparison can be healthy and motivate positive change, certain people are more driven to regularly compare themselves to others. This can then foster negative feelings such as inadequacy, guilt and dissatisfaction, and can lead to behaviors like dieting and disordered eating. People who rate high on the social comparison orientation scale — meaning they compare themselves to others more frequently — tend to have lower self-esteem, are more self-conscious and have more depressive tendencies. So if our brains are wired this way, is there anything we can do to overcome it? Turns out, there is.
1. Develop self-compassion and mindfulness techniques.
Strong self-compassion skills are associated with better coping and resilience, increased motivation, more personal accountability and better health behaviors. Employing self-compassion when you feel social comparison kicking in can help to overcome the negative emotions that the comparison can bring. Practice expressing gratitude for the things that you do have or the things you are good at. Employ a growth mindset, seeing challenges as a chance to grow rather than an obstacle. Instead of criticizing yourself in comparison to others, find inspiration in their successes. Being mindful can help you practice self-compassion more easily. Be in the moment and aware of what is happening, without judging or labeling yourself.
2. Strengthen interoception.
Interoception is the internal signaling and perception of your body’s sensations and emotions like feeling hungry, tired, nervous, thirsty or hot. When you feel a certain way, your body responds. When your stomach grumbles, you eat. When you start to shiver, you grab a blanket to keep warm. Strengthening your awareness of these sensations, and what they mean to your body, helps you to stay true to yourself instead of being swayed by external factors. Practice mindfulness and start to note when certain sensations arise and what they mean.
Social media is a place where anyone can manufacture a perfect life, relationship and body — whether or not they’re real. This exacerbates our evolutionary wiring and triggers constant social comparison. While we can’t control what people post on social media, we can control how much time we spend on it, who we follow and, therefore, what we see. Unfollow any accounts that trigger negative emotions or comparisons, including any that make you feel bad about yourself or your body. Instead, fill your feed with accounts that feature positive messages and ones that stoke a more positive feeling. But just varying your feed isn’t enough — monitor how much time you spend on social media and cut back when you notice negative feelings creeping in.