Break Free from the Comparison Cycle: 5 Strategies for Authentic Self-Discovery

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And I think most of us can agree that when it comes to comparison on social media, it truly is.

You’ve likely had an experience where you were going about your day, feeling somewhat pleasant and then you start scrolling. Soon, you notice that you’re thinking you don’t have enough friends, aren’t progressing in your life quickly enough, or that your apartment needs a complete makeover. What happened? Why did you go from feeling pleasant to feeling jealous, lonely, dejected, or unworthy?

Are you comparing yourself to online versions of people that don't even exist?

It’s natural for humans to compare themselves to one another and sometimes we benefit from upward comparison (comparing ourselves to those who appear to be doing better in life than us), while other times we might benefit from downward comparison (comparing ourselves to those who have it worse). For example, upward comparison is helpful for inspiration and motivation and downward comparison can be beneficial when we need a dose of gratitude for how good we actually have it.

Before social media, our comparisons came from in-person interactions with colleagues, roommates, friends, and family members. We knew them in a more three dimensional and dynamic way, so even if we found ourselves in an upward comparison, we also knew some of the things in their life that weren’t so wonderful. This knowledge gave us a bit of freedom from the comparison since we knew first hand all of the imperfections that existed. In contrast, many of today’s comparisons come from online observations of people we might not truly know. We see their curated images and carefully crafted captions. We end up comparing ourselves to a version of them that likely doesn’t even exist.

A 2014 study that focused only on college students and FaceBook found that when these young adults engaged in upward comparison on social media, their self-esteem dropped significantly (Vogel et al. 2014). In other words, when the college students saw someone online who they felt was more attractive, healthier, or had more virtual likes, comments, and followers, their view of themselves and their life plummeted. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

Nothing about these college students changed. They were the same people prior to viewing online profiles and posts and they were the same people after. They had the same achievements, successes, and goals. All that changed was their perception of themselves, which they were basing solely on what they viewed online. On someone’s carefully curated highlight reel. 

Isn’t that wild?! You could be feeling so proud of the internship you recently scored and like you’re totally on track for your goals and then boom! You see a post of someone from your program about the paid job she just landed with a way more impressive title than your internship. You’re deflated and start thinking that your internship is a waste of time and that you should just give up.

How to Get Out of the Comparison Loop

  • Get good at noticing when you’re in it. This might mean doing a quick check-in with how you’re feeling before you start scrolling or before you hang out with your friends. Because you’re aware of how you’re feeling, you’ll be better able to recognize the change in feelings when they occur.
  • Label it for what it is. Labeling our emotions as jealousy, envy, disappointment, frustration, etc. helps our brains create a bit of space between feeling and action. We become less reactive to the intense emotions.
  • Remind yourself: feelings aren’t facts. Just because we feel like someone else has it so much better than us doesn’t mean it’s true.
  • Pause and reflect. Ask yourself why this particular person or situation is creating such strong feelings for you. Do they have something you want? What can you learn from the situation? Are you being influenced by societal expectations rather than what’s aligned with your own values? Do you truly want to change course?
  • Get into a state of gratitude. Our brains change immediately when we feel gratitude. Notice what’s going right in your life and focus on the things you have (not on what you don’t). Think about an old version of yourself and write down how far you’ve come.

Comparison, while a thief, is a normal part of life. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, that you’ve screwed up, or that you’re off track. But if you find that you’re constantly comparing yourself to others and that you just can’t get out of the loop no matter how hard you try, you’d likely benefit from some additional support. It doesn’t have to be this way. Reach out to a brain coach, psychologist, therapist, or school counselor so you can create long-lasting change. 

Recognized nationally for her expertise, Dr. Melanie has been invited to the White House to discuss the paramount importance of teen mental health. To learn more about mental health and find ways to overcome anxiety or self-limiting beliefs, check out Dr. Melanie McNally's Therapy Bootcamp.

Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222.

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