Why Social Comparison Can Be To Our Self-Concept’s Detriment

People Evaluate Themselves by Comparing Themselves to Others

Have you ever looked at someone and thought:

  • “That person is so much better than me. How come I cannot be like that?”

OR thought:

  • “Wow! This person is really horrible at this. What a shame.”

OR even thought:

  • “They are struggling with that just as much as I am. I guess I am not as awful as I thought I was.”

If you have, then, in that moment, you were socially comparing yourself to others, and as a result, it had an impact on how you feel about or view yourself. We tend to do so with others who are similar to us in relevant ways, such as in race, age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, educational level, strengths, abilities, interests, etc.

Social factors have an influence on our self concept; the collection of beliefs we have about ourselves. This includes who we think we are, the image we have of ourselves, the image we think others might have of us, our personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals and roles. As people, we tend to evaluate our abilities and attitudes in relation to those of others to make sense of who and what we are, which has a significant impact on our self image, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

The schooling system, social media and/or the work environment are good examples of spaces that operate/thrive under the same principle. If you do not do the comparison yourself, then definitely, others, such as your peers, your teachers or your employers, will do it for you in order to evaluate and determine what rewards you might deserve, be it a promotion, praise from your peers, a pass mark in school, etc. It is how the world operates in trying to make sense of what is happening in and around it, and if we are not careful, and immerse ourselves too much into this social construct, it can have a significant impact on our mental health.

Types of Social Comparison:

There are 3 main types of social comparisons that human beings tend to engage in, knowingly or unknowingly.

  1. Downward Social Comparison
  2. Upward Social Comparison
  3. Lateral Social Comparison

Downward Social Comparison

It entails one comparing themselves to another who is perceived to do less well than or is inferior to them.

Upward Social Comparison

It involves one comparing themselves to another who is perceived to do better than or is superior to them.

Lateral Social Comparison

It entails one comparing themselves to another who is perceived to be more or less their equal.

As human beings, we are more likely to engage in vertical social comparison, that is, downward and upward social comparison, as it is the easiest way for us to determine how we should feel about ourselves. Especially downward social comparison as we are naturally biased to ourselves. It is how most of us are wired. Horizontal comparison, that is, lateral social comparison, is healthier, but less likely to occur. This could be because it entails one being more self-aware, practicing self-compassion, and utilising their wise- mind, instead of just their emotional or their rational mind.

The Effects of Social Comparison:

As we know, engaging in social comparison often leaves us feeling a certain way about ourselves, which then has an impact in the way we behave. This could be good, bad or in-between.

The type of social comparison we tend to gravitate towards can be learned from our environment, either from observing others doing it to themselves or to others, OR from how those around you would always compare you to others as a way to “evaluate” or rank you. For example, your parents always comparing you to your “more intelligent” sibling or cousin, and expected to be the same, which often left you feeling inferior, not worthy or stupid. After a while, it becomes easier for you to believe that about yourself, especially if it is constant. So, when we are being too hard on ourselves when we compare ourselves to others, it is important to bear that in mind and try practice self-compassion.

Ways of Dealing with Social Comparison:

When we constantly look outward to try ascertain how we should feel about ourselves, it might be an indication of low self-esteem and/or low poor self-concept, which are deep-rooted issues that one cannot work on by themselves. It is difficult and needs a lot of internal work. Accordingly, psychotherapy might be helpful.

Psychotherapy can be a safe and conducive space for one to explore and learn about themselves. The clinician would challenge one where necessary and provide one with the tools needed to journey to self and well-being.

“Life is not a competition.”

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