Mental health discussions often address the ways we compare ourselves to others. It regularly comes with the same advice: “Stop.”

Whether they know it or not, those that suggest this are referencing part of a key and complex element of mental wellbeing – social comparison.

Social comparison is the act of determining one’s  self-worth based on characteristics seen in others. It is natural, instinctive and, at times, subconscious. People make social comparisons every day, often without realizing it. These comparisons help them stay grounded, and teaches them how to engage in socially acceptable behaviours, regulate emotions, self-motivate, and at times even find purpose in life.

It seems obvious why social comparison is important. The theory says people need to make comparisons with others to improve and feel good about themselves. By comparing, people can test how they differ from those around them, and how to become more (or less) like them. Yet conversations about mental health rarely address the complexities of this habit.

After all, how does an athlete know how they are performing without comparing their performance with others? How does one become a better parent without comparing themselves to their own family? Social comparisons guide people through learning and understanding. Comparing themselves to others teaches a standard for what is right and wrong.

But evidence has shown that social comparison can lead to lower self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression. One may feel inadequate and hopeless when their peers’ talents or achievements seem far better than their own. These feelings can worsen if it seems impossible to match those they see as their superiors.

In 1959, psychologist Carl Rogers said that everyone is driven to match their “actual self” (who they believe they are) with their “ideal self” (who they want to be). This is part of the natural human need for self-actualization – the social comparison within the self. It pressures people to improve their “actual selves.”

Mental health discussions often address the ways we compare ourselves to others. It regularly comes with the same advice: “Stop.”

Yet Rogers could not have predicted the invention and spread of social media, like Facebook and Instagram. These platforms rig the self-actualization process. People tend to solely show their “ideal selves” with select posts, stories and statuses. As users scroll, they immediately make several social comparisons between their “actual selves” and others’ “ideal selves.” It is a tortuous and unfair process for the ego and, when done often, to mental health.

Social comparisons have a complex impact on the workplace. Comparisons impact employees and an organization’s overall performance (like profit and productivity). According to equity theory, people rely on social comparison to judge if they are being treated fairly at work. They create symbolic ratios between what they put into their job, like effort and hours, and what they receive from their job, like pay and promotions. They also assign these ratios to their colleagues and compare. If an employee feels their ratios are not in line with their colleagues, they may work to fix the ratio. This may be motivating, like asking for a raise, or paralyzing, like deciding to put in less effort. If they fail to do this, they likely succumb to feelings of resentment for their colleagues and/or the organization they work for.

Social comparison has a complex impact on mental health. These examples represent only the surface of the depth of research dedicated to social comparison and mental health. There are decades of research on this intersection – but professionals, officials and those in the media rarely mention it.

Social comparison needs more attention and education. Simply put, “Stop comparing yourself to others” does not address the ways people work, function and potentially improve.

By Parco Sin

Categories: Articles