We all compare ourselves and our lives with others’ constantly. Whether it’s our jobs, hair, clothes, body shape or size or level of happiness, we want to see how others are doing and how we add up. And now, with the popularity of social media and an incredible amount of information at our fingertips, comparing ourselves to others is easier than ever.

Believe it or not, comparison has been a human survival mechanism for as long as we have been around. Humans are social animals and have historically lived in groups. Social acceptance into the group is and has been incredibly important for survival; today, being outcasted means isolation and ridicule and can lead to loneliness and depression, whereas in prehistoric times it quite literally meant imminent death. So how do we maintain group membership? We compare ourselves with others to make sure that we are measuring up. We gather social information and determine how we are expected to behave based on how others are behaving. In many ways, this provides us with safety and security, but it’s not all good. Comparison has the ability to make us feel as though we are never good enough, never successful enough, and makes us fear not being accepted.

According to social comparison theory, there are two types of comparison, upward and downward. Upward comparison is when we compare ourselves with someone who we perceive as more successful or better than us, and downward comparison is when we compare ourselves with someone less successful. Both can yield positive results, and both can be negative. For example, upward comparison might be positive if we decide to strive for the traits that we see in another person and might be negative if we are jealous or envious of them. It’s important to make a distinction, here, between the traits that we should strive for and the ones that we should not. We might, for example, perceive someone to be successful because of the amount of money that they have and think to aim for that same success. In reality, it is often more beneficial to emulate the personality traits that got them there, like grit, determination and hard work. Likewise, downward comparison has the potential to be positive and negative. Negative downward comparison is common because focusing on someone that we perceive as less successful than us can bring out feelings of superiority, however, it is also possible to notice that someone is at a less successful place than us and use that as motivation. An example of this is a well-trained athlete observing a beginner, remembering what the experience of starting out was like, and using that as motivation.

When considering comparison in your own life, ask yourself if you are focusing on positive and achievable traits that you see in others, or if you are aiming for a moving goalpost. Using comparison to assess your position and determine goals for the future is great, but not if you forget to appreciate your current position. It’s common, these days, to think “I’ll be happy when…” instead of working towards being happy now. When it comes to social media comparison, understand that the people that you see online are providing you with a curated version of their lives. You aren’t seeing the mess, the emotional moments, and the tough spots. Comparing your life (which you see 100% of) with the best 1% of someone else’s life will only leave you feeling disappointed in yourself.

So, what can you do? First and foremost, work on self-acceptance. Learn to appreciate the journey that you are on and how far you have come instead of thinking that acceptance and appreciation can only happen when you reach a certain milestone. Take this as permission to really love yourself where you are today. You don’t have to wait until you lose the weight, get the job, or find the perfect partner, you can love and accept yourself exactly as you are in this very moment. And lastly, become aware of the comparisons that you make daily, and ask yourself if they are serving your self-growth and self-acceptance. If not, they’ve got to go.

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