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Q. Is it ever helpful to compare yourself to others?
President Franklin Roosevelt called comparison the “thief of joy,” but research from Tilburg University in the Netherlands suggests that in some contexts “benign envy,” as psychologists call it, can be a positive force. Another’s success can clarify your own goals, inspire you to act, remind you of what you are capable of accomplishing, or motivate you. For example, a runner may want to emulate the performance of a fellow runner who beats her by a tenth of a second. Comparisons can make us more grateful for what we have and put disappointments and hardships in perspective.
That said, there are downsides to social comparison, especially “upward comparison” to people who seem to have it all. Someone else’s promotion or recent engagement can trigger feelings of low self-esteem, particularly if your self-esteem is low to begin with or if you perceive his or her accomplishments to be out of your league. It’s why singling out an exceptional student has been shown to discourage other students from working hard. If the achievement feels unattainable, other students think, I could never be that awesome, so why bother?
Comparing ourselves to others has changed dramatically with social media. The endless stream of images can erode self-worth and confidence so quickly that we forget these pictures are curated to portray people at their best. Here are four strategies when upward comparison is bringing you down:
- Do a reality check: A Flinders University/University of Toronto study shows that when social images are viewed with the understanding that they don’t reflect reality and represent a fantasy, they have less of a negative effect and can even improve one’s mood.
- Go deep: What is it about other people’s lives that triggers envy in you? What do you admire about them and what they have done? Transform envy into an opportunity to understand your own values and goals.
- Say thank you: Expressing gratitude for what you have protects you from dwelling on what you don’t. It helps you see the big picture and defangs the paralysis that envy can bring. Remember, another person’s triumph is not taking away from what you are capable of.
- Reframe it as inspiration: Instead of asking yourself, Why not me? ask, What can I learn from other people’s successes? Explore the steps they took to reach their goals. What will you do differently? Let their wins fuel your desire to succeed.
Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com. (opens in new tab)
This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
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