Imagine that a good friend calls you in tears to talk about the painful, heart-wrenching breakup they just experienced. Would you say, “Oh that’s interesting because I literally couldn’t love my partner more and can’t even describe how well we’re doing!”
What about if you met a friend for lunch who had just been laid off? Would you say, “That’s really too bad. My job has me traveling to Italy next week! They’re covering every single expense; it’s basically a dream job.”
And if you knew a friend was struggling with body image issues? Would you email them pictures of yourself flexing your six pack in the perfect dim lighting that hides your stretch marks?
Unless you’re seriously the worst friend of all time, you wouldn’t do any of these things. And if you had a friend like this, you’d hopefully get them out of your life immediately! Yet so many of us subject ourselves to comparisons like these every time we hop on social media. Even though we often know that scrolling through our feeds will result in a self-esteem plummet, we often just can’t seem to stop ourselves. We’ve got a mean case of comparison-itis.
How Comparison Hurts You
Your friends on Facebook and Instagram aren’t trying to hurt you, but, just like we all do, they are showing you only the shiniest, happiest moments of their lives. And just like it wouldn’t be great for your self-esteem to hear a friend say things like in the examples above, it’s usually no better to read them while you’re browsing your feeds. Your social media friends aren’t aiming to make you feel less than them (usually) – they’re just trying to make themselves look as good as their friends – but you still end up feeling like a loser looking at your humdrum life in comparison to their sunny Bahamas vacay and disgustingly adorable pregnancy announcement.
Like Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
NPR, Forbes, The Atlantic, and many other sources have published articles in the past several years about professional studies done on the relationship between social media consumption and mental health.
NPR reported on a 2013 study from Germany which found that a group of 357 participants showed “a large number of what they called ‘envy-inducing incidents’ – most frequently related to travel and leisure, social interactions and ‘happiness.’” In other words, looking at other people’s posts about how happy they tend to make you feel jealous, not happy for their happiness. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who’s spent any time on social media.
What might be a little more surprising, though, is the results of a study from the University of Houston discussed in both Forbes and The Atlantic. The study, conducted by Mai-Ly Steers, found that it’s not only “upward” social comparisons (comparing yourself to people who seem better than you) that make you feel worse. Downward comparisons (comparing yourself to people who seem worse than you) – and even neutral comparisons – make you feel bad, too! All comparisons, the study showed, over the long term, “were linked to a greater likelihood of depressive symptoms.” This might feel counter-intuitive because you might feel a jolt of what seems like happiness when you witness someone doing visibly worse than you in some way on social media. But Steers’ study found the very act of comparison, no matter what direction it goes in, links to an increased likelihood of symptoms of depression.
How to Stop Comparing
It might feel like there’s no way to cure yourself of comparison-itis without totally getting off social media, which you might not want to do because of social media’s helpfulness in connecting with people. But the good news is there are some steps you can take to help yourself if you don’t want to quit social media entirely.
- Evaluate what triggers your negative feelings. You can use moments of comparison to learn about yourself. What particular kinds of posts set off your negative feelings? What underlying, ongoing insecurities do such posts bring up for you? By thinking critically about these moments, you can narrow in on unresolved feelings in your life that you should work on – whether it’s on your own, with trusted friends/family, or with a therapist – for your mental health in general, not just while scrolling social media.
- Engage with social media actively, not passively. NPR reports that a 2012 study found a difference in how social media affected users depending on how they used it. Those that went on to it not to post any content of their own or to interact with anyone else particularly, but rather just to scroll and browse – “passive” users, in other words – had a higher correlation to depressive symptoms. So if you try to limit your social media use to more deliberate, active, interaction-focused time, you’re more likely to get an emotional boost from it.
- Practice gratitude. It’s a well-known idea that the most powerful tool to combat envy and bitterness is gratitude. If you’re grateful for what you have, you’re not jealous of other people for what they have. Gratitude can be easier said than done, and you’ll probably have more success implementing it into your life if you’re really intentional about it, such as keeping a daily gratitude journal, for instance.
- Look for opportunities to build others up. We all love sharing the good news, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But try to think carefully about whether your own posts are more part of the problem or part of the solution of comparison-itis. You shouldn’t feel bad about sharing your happy times or successes for others to see, but do you ever use social media to encourage your friends in addition to curating your image? Do you use it to make others feel good in addition to building your own brand? Do you use it to connect with people you love or just to impress people you never even see IRL? Think about how you can be a part of making the whole environment a less toxic place for everyone who sees your posts.
In addition to these tips, remember that you can always do a social media fast if you feel like just scaling back a bit won’t do the trick. Pick an amount of time that feels right for you – maybe a couple of days, maybe a week, maybe several weeks – and detox the ugly comparisons from your system. Social media still be there when you want to go back to it – at least for the foreseeable future!
Constant comparison to others interferes with your own happiness and self-esteem. If this is a struggle you want to work on, our new online workshop, Daring Greatly™, might be a good fit for you. Click here to learn more about it.