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Avoiding the Social Comparison Trap

Others may be wealthier or better looking than us, but what we make of it is up to us.

Key points

  • Our self-esteem can take a hit when money becomes the standard for judging ourselves.
  • By changing our perspective, we can value ourselves in other ways than by the size of our bank account.
  • One change in perspective is to recognize what we can control, or what is up to us and what is not.
Source: geralt / Pixabay Commons
Source: geralt / Pixabay Commons

Herb had a problem with money, but money wasn't the real problem. The problem was what money represented to Herb—his self-worth. He knew he had enough money to meet his needs and ensure his future security. No, it wasn’t a question of dollars and cents. It was about not having as much money as his cousin Arthur and expecting he never would. In his eyes, he was a failure because he always came up short compared to Arthur when measured by their bank accounts and stock holdings.

Herb recognized his thinking was irrational, saying to himself, “It’s silly to compare yourself to others. You know there’s always going to be someone wealthier than you, no matter how wealthy you are.” But he just couldn’t let himself off the hook, coming down hard on the belief that Arthur was a success, and he wasn’t, the proverbial bottom line.

The Trap of Social Comparison

In cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), we seek to identify the faulty ways in which people set mental traps for themselves, such as basing their self-worth on their bank accounts and on social comparisons. These beliefs cascade into other self-damning beliefs such as “I should be more successful at my age.” We can become prisoners of these “shoulds” and “musts,” with a few “coulda's” and “woulda's” thrown in. We put ourselves down when we see others on social media sites leading lives that seem so much more fulfilling or when comparing ourselves based on physical appearance or numbers of so-called friends or followers.

To avoid the online social comparison trap, we could just take a break from social media. It may be hard to believe, but people had led happy and full lives for millennia before social media came on the scene. But if that’s too radical a suggestion, why not try a change in perspective the next time you check out what the rest of your social world is up to?

Shifting Perspectives

One way to change your perspective is by applying a dose of ancient wisdom laid down by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. Among the leading philosophers in the Stoic tradition was the 1st-century Roman Epictetus (circa 55 – 135 AD), who emphasized the importance of knowing what we can control and what we can’t. His general prescription for a good life was embodied in the very first sentence in the Enchiridion, a collection of his teachings compiled by one of his disciples. It reads: “Some things are up to us and others are not.” The well-known Serenity prayer offers a modern-day reflection on the importance of knowing the difference between the things we can change and the things we can’t. Or, put yet another way, controlling what we can and letting go of the rest.

Taking a Lesson (or Two) From the Ancient Stoics

The Stoics challenge us to accept our place in the natural order of things. We live, we die, and the world goes on. We can measure the quality of our lives not on what we acquire, but on how we lead our lives. The Stoics believed in enjoying the good things in life while cautioning that we shouldn’t become slaves to our desires and wants. The Stoics reminded us to be happy with what we’ve got, rather than spending what precious time we have chasing rainbows and every want or desire. Nor should we waste time dwelling on the “if only’s,” but rather come to appreciate life as it is. There’s a word for this—acceptance. This doesn’t mean adopting a demeanor of resignation or passivity with our life situation. Rather, it calls for embracing living day-to-day and appreciating what each moment has to offer. By contrast, spending precious time wishing, wanting, and demanding things is a prescription for personal misery.

Practicing new ways of thinking takes time and especially effort, but it is time and effort well spent. In my practice, I see patients applying this way of thinking by talking sense to themselves:

  • I can control what I can but I can’t control what I can’t.
  • Think before you react.
  • Just deal with it.
  • I can only do the best I can, nothing more.
  • It’s not the end of the world; it only feels that way.

Don’t Conflate Facts With Opinions

Stuff happens, and we all face bumps in the road of life, even some real zingers. It is reasonable to feel upset in the face of disappointing or frustrating events. But upsetness doesn’t lead to the Three D’s of depression, despair, and dejection without the mind exaggerating, misinterpreting, or distorting events and mistaking opinion for fact. What we say to ourselves under our breath about our experiences are opinions, not facts. No, it's not the end of the world; but believing it is makes it feel that way. Our beliefs determine our emotional reactions to events we experience, not the events themselves. The Stoics taught that events we experience are essentially neutral or indifferent, having no emotional valence in themselves. They just are. What we make of them determines how they affect us.

Back to Herb

In therapy, Herb began chipping away at his self-downing beliefs by repeatedly practicing alternative ways of thinking, such as by posing challenging questions to himself:

"Might there be other explanations for Arthur's greater financial success than my inadequacies?”

"Are there other standards by which I can judge myself—as a husband, a father, a man—than financial success?”

“Am I judging myself more harshly than I would someone else in the same situation?”

Over time, he became more accepting of himself, judging himself by other yardsticks of success than financial status, such as his relationships with his wife and children and what he was able to accomplish day to day.

There will always be “Arthurs” who are wealthier than us and "Pamelas" and "Pauls" who are better looking, not to mention all those who shine on the playing fields or in corporate offices. We may all have an Arthur in our life who is wealthier, more athletic, and better looking, but what of it? That, Epictetus might say, is up to us.

General Disclaimer: The content here and in other blog posts on the Minute Therapist is intended for informational purposes only and not for diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders. If you are concerned about your emotional well-being or experiencing any significant mental health problems, I encourage you to consult a licensed mental health professional in your area for a thorough evaluation.

© 2024 Jeffrey S. Nevid

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