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April 23, 2024 33 mins

Social comparison is the thief of joy - it will make us question everything that we have, doubt our own abilities, steal our sense of gratitude and peace. It also sometimes feels impossible to escape, especially in our 20s when we look to others for confirmation that we are doing something right. In today's episode we break down the 5 rules you need to stop comparing yourself to others and embrace the benefits of healthy social comparison, this includes: 

  1. Don't unfollow, don't suppress, recognise and expand
  2. Keep your judgements realistic 
  3. Do things for YOU first
  4. Water your own grass 
  5. Comparison as a motivator 

Listen now to learn how you can control your urge to compare yourself to others! 

Follow Jemma on Instagram: @jemmasbeg 

Follow the podcast on Instagram: @thatpsychologypodcast



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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:04):
Hello everybody, and welcome back to the Psychology of Your Twenties,
the podcast where we talk through some of the big
life changes and transitions of our twenties and what they
mean for our psychology. Hello everybody, Welcome back to the show.

Welcome back to the podcast. New listeners, old listeners. Wherever
you are in the world, it is so great to
have you here. Back for another episode as we, of
course break down the psychology of our twenties. Now, there
are a lot of things that cause us, I would say,
a great deal of stress and unhappiness in our twenties,

and a lot of it is beyond our control. This
is naturally a decade where we feel extremely lost. Things
are very much up in the air. But I would
say a fair amount of our occasional miss and our
self doubt comes down to things that we can change
when we kind of examine our mindset and how we

treat ourselves, and how we acknowledge our wins, our successes,
our best attributes. What we're talking about today is self comparison,
namely why it is that social comparison steals so much
joy from us, but also how we can learn to

stop tearing ourselves down by constantly measuring ourselves against others,
by constantly looking at their careers, at their relationships, at
their clothes, their body, their success, their financial situation, and
feeling like we are lacking. I think comparison is one
of those really hard parts about being human, right. I

find it so fascinating that, as a species we have
all the critical thinking skills in the world, we can
solve some of humanity's greatest problems. Our brains quite literally
contain millions of neural connections, and yet we choose to
use them in ways that may hurt our own feelings,

in ways that harm us more than they benefit us.
And one of those ways is by constantly comparing ourselves
to others and coming up short. It's like self imposed
psychological torture in so many ways. But on another level,
sometimes we don't feel like we can stop. We just
never feel good enough, and so we use social comparison

to reinforce that, perhaps as a form of self sabotage.
If our self esteem is already in the dumps, we
sometimes do things that don't serve us because we think
that we deserve to feel bad. We do things like
procrastinating or binge drinking, or self isolating, or looking into
the lives of other people and fantasizing about how much

better things would be if we were more like them.
I think this just perpetuates the cycle, and it steals
a lot of our joy. We're particularly prone to this
in our twenties, of course, because our identity already feels
quite unstable, and there is a great deal of insecurity
amongst people in this generation, and insecurity that stems from

uncertainty about the future and uncertainty about our place in
this world. From an evolutionary perspective, some psychologists would also
argue that we actually have an innate tendency to compare
ourselves to others, because in this way we learn what
we might be doing wrong, but also how to fit in.
So in that way, it serves this social purpose. Now,

this idea was first introduced back in the nineteen fifties
by a social psychologist known as Leon Fessinger. If you
are a bit of a psychology geek or a trivia master,
you'll recognize that name because he is also responsible for
the term cognitive dissonance. But Leon, he assumed that back
when we roamed the savannah in tribes, when we were

mere hunter gatherers. Comparing ourselves to others conferred a survival
advantage by providing information about our relative position within a group.
As a result, this helped us assess what kind of
resources we had access to, how we were kind of
like squaring up compared to others, what other people had

that we lacked. It also helped us conform because we
could look and observe how others were behaving and adapt
our own behavior accordingly, meaning that we were less likely
to be kicked out of the group because we were
doing everything right. Because we were basing our behavior on
the norm that we saw projected by others, so we

were more likely to be accepted, We were more likely
to learn from other people in the group, and we
were more likely to essentially survive in that way. I
think that social comparison also acted as a form of
validation and personal reassurance, both back in the day and
also these days. Right Like if Wendy from down the

street is wearing double denim and I am too well,
I must be doing something right, or at least I
have like an ally in this we reassure ourselves that
we're not doing anything that's too ghastly or too against
what people expect from us. Or you know, if your
good friend Dave took a gap year and still ended
up with a great job, by comparing yourself to him,

you feel like you can do that as well. We
use others as an example to assure us that we
are on the right path, that what we are doing
will be accepted because somebody else is doing it. But
also we use social comparison as a form of aspiration
and sometimes even motivation. I think, regardless of the purpose,
there might be some quote unquote benefits. It can also

make us feel pretty horrific when it goes untamed. I think.
Also compared to our ancestors, which is what leon Festinger
based his theory on, right, we now have so many
more opportunities to compare compared to those people back then.
We are exposed to firstly, just a lot more people

in our communities and in our environment compared to the
small tribes that he was operating his beliefs on. And
we also have social media, which means that at any
stage you can jump online and find the perfect example
of somebody who is going to make you feel bad
about yourself. So for the most part, it can really

give rise to a lot of feelings of jealousy or competition,
which ends up harming our relationships and sadly, how we
treat ourselves and how we treat others. It can make
us feel a lot less grateful for what we do
have because someone out there in the world is always
going to have more, and as a result, we never
feel quite satisfied because we're in this chual spiral of

chronic comparison. It is the classic idea that the grass
is always greener on the other side. That is a
tailor's oldest time. But something that I think contains an
equal amount of truth is that the grass is actually
greener where you water it. The ultimate kind of antidote
to social comparison is feeling confident enough in what you're

building and what you're doing, and spending more time nurturing
these parts of you then being distracted by other people's progress.
That is something I'm definitely working on in my own life.
But I'm also learning that when social comparison is used wisely,
it can also be used to our advantage. If we

switch from using social comparison as a form of self
sabotaged and trying to hurt our own feelings to an
opportunity to really take stock of our lives and what
we're actually grateful for, but also what we want to improve.
Sometimes it's rather useful. So today going to talk about
five tips I have for controlling the temptation to compare,

how to stop comparing yourself to others, or maybe more
a better way to put that is how to keep
the parts of social comparison that benefit you and say
goodbye to the other aspects. So we have a lot
to talk about today, a lot to cover, of course,
a lot of fascinating psychology. So without further ado, let's
get into it. The easiest way to let something control

you is to ignore it and suppress it. I think
anytime we try too hard to not do something to
you know, keep our hands behind our back, that just
really hands over the microphone, and it amplifies our insecurities
because we feel like that if we were to set
this thing free, if we were to allow ourselves to

compare ourselves to others as much as we want, it
would give it all the path, and we are so
scared of that reality that we actually end up focusing
more on the possibility of that happening as a result.
So what we really didn't want to happen becomes inevitable
because we avoided it for too long and we gave

it power over ourselves. It might sound counterintuitive, but if
you want to reduce the negative effects of social comparison,
you kind of have to give yourself a mission to
compare yourself to others whenever you would like. So this
is rule one. Don't unfollow, don't suppress, accept your need
to compare, and expand on your comparison. So let me explain.

I'm going to admit that in a past episode I
did on social comparison, I gave some advice that I
no longer believe in, particularly in regards to social media.
So I think this episode came out a couple of
years ago, and at the time, my advice was to
unfollow the people who made you feel bad. That woman
with a better body than you, with the lavish lifestyle,

the millions of followers, the person who was traveling to
the places that you really wanted to go to whilst
you were busy working. You're nine to five. If they
trigger your social comparison, avoid it, avoid exposure, unfollow. There
we go, You're fixed. Your social comparison is no longer
there because you're not experiencing it. I think I had

a rather immature viewpoint back then, and I was trying
to get the science to fit what I wanted to believe,
when honestly, all the psychology really disagrees with me on that. Yes,
there are some people you don't need to engage with
on social media or in real life, but if you
really want to gain power over your social comparison, you

need to realize that these people are not a threat.
Their brilliance, their luck, their successes, and your own are
not mutually exclusive. Just because they're doing really well for
themselves doesn't mean you can't feel good about what you have.
If we unfollow anyone who makes us uncomfortable or who

we feel jealous of, we end up in an echo
chamber of only engaging with people who we don't see
as a threat. And that really comes down to a
classic form of avoidance, turning away from things that make
us uncomfortable instead of engaging with them and learning how
to manage our feelings towards something that make us feel bad.

I think in that space, with this perspective, we give
our social comparison the power that it wants, meaning that yes,
we will inevitably be exposed to someone who was doing
better than us, who is making more money than us,
who was absolutely crushing it. Whatever it is, it just
isn't the big deal anymore. I think suppressing a bad

feeling doesn't lessen its sting. It doesn't make it go away.
The root cause, which is most likely your sense of insecurity,
is still there. It just makes us less prepared or
emotionally strong to deal with with feeling unpresent when inevitably
this person will come along, right like we just live
behind a wall. We just never challenge ourselves. Instead, when

you feel like there is that siren call to compare yourself,
I'm gonna say the thing that you probably least expect
me to say. Let yourself do it, but then expand
on your comparison. For example, if you see someone on
LinkedIn who just had a huge promotion, and she's your age,
you went to university together, her career has taken off,

yours has kind of stalled. Yes, you can get upset,
you can let yourself feel really shitty and assume that
her success says something about yours. But you can also
add on to those judgments. So I'm going to give
you an example of what this sounds like. Adding on
to our judgments that come from our need to compare

basically shows up that our initial thought around what this
person has that we don't is not the full picture. So,
for example, with this woman you see on LinkedIn right,
what you can say is this person is doing so well,
and so am I. We just have different paths. I'm
so jealous of what they're achieving, and I'll get there

one day as well. I wish I had what she had,
and it's great because I already have so much, So
I'm so close. Her body is like so amazing and
so beautiful, and so is mine. How amazing. The reason
this works is that you don't scold yourself for comparing
and therefore make it feel taboo or give it power.

You just make your judgments more nuanced and you don't
let them only take on a negative spin. On that
note of LinkedIn and career comparison, let's talk about why
social comparison seems to be impacting us so much more nowadays.
Social media means that we are experiencing an insane level
of information overload, where by any moment, you can be

exposed to the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people.
All you have to do is open your phone and
you are going to see a highlight reel of everybody's lives,
all the things that they know will get them likes,
all the pictures that will match their aesthetic. It really
warps our sense of what is normal, especially because social

media was built to be performative, and when we get
so much about information about the world, about trends, about
what we should be doing, about what's called from social media,
that means that our view of what is normal becomes
quite skewed. So that brings me to rule number two.
Keep your judgments realistic. I know I sound like a

broken record, but truly from somebody who does this themselves,
I'll admit it. Everything you see online is curated. Everything
I post online I think about a million times. I'm
not posting like the random screenshots of like where my
ruber is. I'm not posting like the photo I took
of my Wi Fi password on, like the back of

the modem, or like all the rubbish that I need
to get collected. Even the videos you see of people
who are complaining or tired or sad or going through
a breakup or a stepback, whatever it is, that is
still not the full picture. And it's often very strategic
because we know that that kind of content, that vulnerable content,

draws people in, but it's still not real. It's still
not the full picture. In that way, we often comparing
ourselves to a reality that doesn't even exist, not even
for the person who is advertising it as such. It's
why I'm such a big fan of those influences or
those pages that do post the unpost gym shots, who

do post their messy homes and their unblemish skin and
they're just everyday life. I think it's so comforting to
see somebody who was breaking like the fourth wall of
the Internet, who was literally looking at you and going,
this is not real. None of this is real, and
yet you are basing your perceptions of your own life

on someone else's sugar coated version that they post online.
Even in our real lives, even in like our everyday
interactions with people, no one is coming out and saying
exactly how they were feeling. No one is vessing up
to half of the emotions that they're trying to manage
their insecurities, you know, the time that they spend alone,

the fears, the doubts, the fights. I just think that
it's good to remind yourself that it's not the truth.
Keep that in mind. This brings me to rule number three.
Do things for you first, and sometimes for you only.
Unhealthy social con comparison can be a huge time waster

because it makes us doubt our own decisions and our
path and therefore kind of keeps us in this loop.
It gets us stuck because we spend so much time
thinking about what other people are thinking rather than actually
just doing. I think that comes from this weird realization
we have that the fact that we are comparing ourselves
to others means that people are comparing themselves to us,

and they're measuring themselves up against our actions and our lives,
so we better put on a really good show, right.
This makes us quite insecure, I think, because we want
to impress them, so we get stuck in trying to
do things perfectly or according to what we think others
want or will find esthetic or attractive or worthwhile. And

a lot of that stems from a sense of self
doubt that if we were to come out and just
do what we would want to do to be authentic
that that might not be accepted. I like to use
the example of choosing an outfit in the morning, right, like,
not a huge risk, not a huge time, not brown groundbreaking.
If you did think about what others were thinking, or

didn't pay much attention to how they might be comparing
themselves to you, you would wear whatever you wanted. You
would pick up the first thing you saw, regardless of
whether your top matched your pants, which matched your shoes.
And if you were, you know, not thinking about other
people's opinions, you would be ready out the door in
five minutes. In contrast, if you are contemplating the judgments

and the opinions of others, trying to anticipate their thoughts
and their feelings towards you, suddenly every choice takes on
a whole new level of gravity. You start putting yourself
in the mind of every person you walk past, the
person that you're going to meet, the stranger, your own age.

The focus on what other people might be thinking about
you makes every decision takes so much longer. And it
all derives from social comparison and realizing that there is
this weird mind game going on between everybody where we're
looking at others and they're looking at us, trying to

figure out what's cool, what's normal, what we should be doing.
If you want to beat social comparison, go with your
gut instinct. Don't fall into the game of thinking about
what other people want from you. What do you want?
If you want to post that photo on social media,
that video that TikTok, don't question, just do it. You

want to wear that outfit you like that you don't
think is like trendy or stylish, don't think, just put
it on. You want to buy those weird shoes because
you really like them, go ahead. You want to go
to the gym in your sports bra, even though your
body doesn't look like hers or doesn't look like his,
or those shorts you think other people might have a
problem with. Feel the fear of judgment, and do it anyway.

People's opinions are their problem, not yours. If they want
to spend their time and like, let's be honest, they're finite,
precious energy making themselves feel better by looking at you
and putting you down. That is their burden to bear.
The antidote to social comparison is authenticity, and it's a

muscle that you have to build. Social comparison, by nature
asks us to converge to the norm, to prevent sticking
out as an outlier, to do what others are doing
so that we're never the one sticking out in the crowd,
never the one who's going to be judged. So the
way to be that is to do the absolute opposite.

If there is something you want to do, do it.
And you'll soon find that as you adjust to this
new mindset, your urge to compare will start to fade
because the information that you're getting from others' lives and
whether they're better or worse than yours, whether they're judging
you their opinions, it doesn't really matter anymore. It doesn't

serve you because you're coming to the table with the
perspective of I'm just going to do it. I'm just
going to be the person I want to be. I'm
going to act the way I want to act. This
is who I am, this is what I look like,
this is what I'm doing, And you know, nobody else's
opinions are going to be a factor. They just don't matter.

So rule four is very similar, kind of falls onto
the same category. It's about watering your own grass, and
I know we just kind of spoke about that, so
I'll keep it brief. I think a lot of the
time we get stuck in the comparison spiral because there
is something that we are unhappy or secure about, and
so when we look at somebody else's life, the fact
that they do have the thing that we don't makes

us feel worse and makes us experience a level of
cognitive dissonance. Right, either we can tear somebody else down
and therefore elevate our own way of doing things, or
we can feel worse about ourselves. What option, off the
top of your head do you think we're most likely
to take? Obviously, option A, because that is what protects

our ego, That is what protects our brain from feeling rejected,
from feeling less than, from feeling hurt. So it's the
path that keeps us safest. But knocking somebody else down
is a really unhealthy defense mechanism. Instead, I think that
we should respond as your ideal self would, by seeing

somebody else's successes, seeing their beautiful, amazing life, and deciding
you can also experience that joy by doing something that's
good for you. You know, if you see someone at
a music festival or overseas or like, surrounded by all
of their amazing friends on the weekend. You can be
sour about it, and that is of course our natural inclination.

Or you can go and do something that you also
enjoy instead of feeling miserable or weakened. When you fixate
on what you don't have, you let it shape your
life and you let it have power, and it makes
you feel like you're quite powerless. You don't have agency
over what's happening, because you're seeing this other person who

has everything that you want, who has all the friends,
who has the job, who has the clothes, and you
think that you can't have that as well, and so
that makes you quite frustrated and insecure, and it makes
you resent them. But when you water your own grass,
when you shift back to what is going to make
you happy, when you nurture your friendships, when you build

your career, when you go outside and move your body,
when you prioritize doing fun things on your weekends, you
no longer feel threatened by what somebody else has because
you realize that you can also create that life for yourself.
So this brings me to our final fifth rule, using

comparison as a motivator rather than as a means to
tear yourself down. So something that we have spoken about
yet is this distinction between upward and downward social comparison. So,
downward social comparison involves comparing oneself to others who are
perceived as less fortunate or less successful, as a way

of boosting our own sense of self esteem and providing
almost a sense of relief that we're better than this person,
that when we are compared, will come out on top.
It's honestly, often unconscious and very shallow, and it gives
us an immediate sense of satisfaction, but at the expense

of somebody else, and it's going to fade away pretty quickly.
This is the kind of social comparison that we engage
in for self enhancement sake. On the other hand, upward
social comparison involves comparing ourselves to those who we think
are more successful or superior quote unquote in a particular domain,

either because they are more successful, they're more attractive, they
have a greatest status, they have more money. This type
of comparison is often what leads to feelings of inadequacy
and envy, and it's really on the rise. Upward social
comparison is a lot more common. There's a few reasons why.
Perhaps it's this fascination with like celebrity culture, the rise

and idolization of people who are very, very successful, an
increasing competitiveness in our society. But upward social comparison can
also be very useful. It's a very powerful source of motivation.
Think about it. If you see somebody who has something

that you want, that just serves as a confirmation that
this goal you have, this life, this achievement is possible,
and instead of feeling bitter that you don't have it yet,
you now have something to strive towards. You have somebody
to learn from, to replicate, you have a vision for
your future self. I think that this strategy is about

turning the part of you that naturally wants to be
jealous into someone who wants to feel inspired, who is
a cheerleader for others. So, in one study, they found
that when people were asked to speak about someone they
admire in a positive light in the days and even
weeks afterwards, they became more productive and focused compared to

the people who were asked to criticize people that they admired,
they actually became less disciplined in another kind of domain.
Another study they wanted to look at this in regards
to people who were recovering from eating disorders, and the
researchers found that the comparison effect was actually quite positive

when people were exposed to individuals who were further along
in their recovery journey, because it was kind of driving
self improvement, especially amongst people who are particularly competitive. Right,
obviously we need to proceed with caution, especially in the
case of a serious mental health condition that has a
very high rate of relapse. But at the core of

both of these studies is this message that you can
use your desire to compare to motivate you. You can
use your desire to make yourself feel bad by looking
at what somebody else has. You can use that as
a catalyst to change yourself and your own life. I've
seen this personally. I think about this a lot when

I think about like running content that I see on Instagram.
I'm really getting back into running recently. It's something I
used to love doing. I just like kind of fell
off the bandwagon and I've been of course, my algorithm
has adjusted to this new interest, and it keeps showing
me all these videos of people who are doing like

they are sinking miles. They were doing half marathons before
they go to work in the morning, and full marathons
on weekends, and for a while it actually left me
feeling quite disappointed in myself. I kept being like, well,
why am I not at that level? Why do I
not have what they have? And I could unfollow. I
could say like, well, if I was their size, if

I'd been doing it for this long, I could do
that as well. Oh, like they just they're not working
as hard as I am, so they have more time
for this. I could say that I could be in
this kind of like sulky mindset, but what it would
mean is that I would miss out on so many tips,
so much inspiration, so much growth because they're doing the

thing that I want to do. Their proof that I
can get where I want to go. So instead of
looking at somebody else and feeling bad because you're not
squaring up to what they have, just see it as
a target. See it as confirmation that everything you want
in your life is possible because they've done it. So

I want to give you two final speed round tips. Firstly,
despite all that we've talked about, sometimes we do still
find ourselves feel really shit about where we're at and
thinking that we are behind, that we are failing, that
we aren't who we want to be. Everyone else is
better than us. You know, you get the picture. In
those moments, I want you to immediately counteract that thought
by saying five things that you're good at, or listing

five things that you've accomplished this past week, this past
month in your life. You don't need to be humble.
You have done amazing things. You've probably done a lot
of really cool things, and when you hide them from yourself,
when you spend too much time being self deprecating or
trying not to seem egotistical, sometimes it's easy to forget.
So when we see somebody else who is willing to

be open about their accomplishments, we kind of forget that
we might also be at that level. We're just not
as willing to talk openly about it. Finally, remember that
the person you're comparing yourself to is probably doing the
exact same thing to somebody else. There is somebody in
their mind who is better than them. They are compared

caring themselves to that person. Probably right now, that person
may even be you. You have no idea what is
going on internally in somebody else's mind. We often think
we're the only person with doubts with insecurity, when it
actually is one of the most universal parts about being human.
But when we get stuck in our heads and don't

filter our experience through the lens of our humanity, it
makes us feel more shame for something that is so normal.
I want to remind you there is not a person
out there who does not have the same thoughts that
you are having now. And if that person does exist,
either they came out of the womb at like the
peak of spiritual enlightenment, or there is something very psychologically

wrong with that person. Because what our social comparison stems
from is an awareness of others and an awareness of
where they're at in their lives, what they're doing, and
that awareness is important for so many other things in
our life. Right, It's important for empathy, it's important for connection,
for inspiration. It's like two sides of the same coin. Right.

Being more socially conscious comes with a lot of perks,
but it also means that we can be more self conscious,
so we have to learn how to treat it correctly.
We have to learn to use it for its advantages
and to not use it as a form of self
sabotage or a form of self destruction, whereby the only

time we compare ourselves to others is just to make
ourselves feel worse. You are a cool person, You are
an interesting person. You are an intelligent, successful, beautiful person
in your own right. So don't let what somebody else
has their beauty, their achievements, their cool factor, their job,
whatever it is. Remember those things are not mutually exclusive.

You can both be those things. It doesn't detract from
everything that you have. I just want to finish on
that reminder. So I really hope that you have enjoyed
this episode. Thank you for putting up with my voice today.
I'm a little bit sick, so hopefully it wasn't too grading.
But you know, I just felt that this episode needed
to be done. I feel like social comparison is such

a curse that we manage in our twenties. But it's
like a curse that we don't need to suffer through
because there are so many solutions, and it really does
come down to how we think about it, right whether
we think about it as something that is meant to
harm us and something that is meant to make us
feel bad, or something that can really ignite our sense
of purpose and be inspirational and does come from a

deep like recognition and connection with others. So thank you
so much for listening. I hope that you've got something
from this episode. If there is somebody who needs to
hear it, please feel free to share it with them
and make sure you're following along on Spotify, Apple Podcasts,
whatever you're listening, so that you know when new episodes

go up. As always, if you have an episode suggestion, firstly,
make sure we haven't done it. You can just search
it wherever you are looking the keywords, or shoot me
a DM on Instagram and I'll point you in the
right direction. Otherwise, give us a suggestion. We would love
to hear from you. We would love to know what
you want us to speak about when it comes to
our Tenney's, when it comes to psychology, there is so

much to be sad, So thank you again for listening.
Until next time, be kind to yourself, be gentle, stay safe,
and we'll see you back next week.
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