Comparing Our Insides to Other People’s Outsides


Published Sep 29, 2017 on Lyra Blog

By Jennifer Gregg, PhD

No matter how many experiences I have in my life, I always seem to forget that everybody is struggling.  Logically I know, after almost 20 years of working as a therapist, that even the most put-together person has days where they are churning and burning like the rest of us.  But that doesn’t stop me from making the same false assumptions about “other people pulling it off better than I am” over and over again.

Here’s an example: I was at a conference recently, speaking with a friend who was doing a presentation with me.  We’ve both done this type of presentation dozens of times.  Still, every time I speak in front of a professional audience – or any audience for that matter – I always feel a little anxious.  I mentioned my anxiety to my friend and made a joke about how I must be the only person who still gets nervous doing presentations.

When I said this, she told me she had just had the exact same conversation with a group of our colleagues.  She was surprised to learn that everyone was nervous despite how put together they looked.  And I knew these people: They were really impressive.  They were people I looked up to, admired, and even felt a little jealous of.  I was blown away.

Comparing upward and downward

Studies show that I’m not the only one falling into this trap.  So-called “upward social comparison” is when you compare your life to others whose lives appear better, calmer or easier than yours.  This is in contrast to “downward social comparison,” which is comparing your life to someone really down on their luck.

Upward social comparison is sometimes really useful. It can give us information about what we want to be doing more of and serve as a motivator, like when you notice that your friend Joe is great at getting to the gym more frequently than you, and you try to be more like him.

As we’ve all experienced, however, there can be a downside to upward social comparison.  Think about the last time you checked out your favorite social media outlet.

Social media and social comparison

There is increasing concern about the impact of social media on our moods.  Social media posts often make everybody’s life look a bit more attractive than it is in reality.  When we look at these idealized posts and experience upward social comparison, the result is – big surprise – our own life seems not so great.

This doesn’t mean that we need to throw out all social media, although there are some people who find that to be the best option for them.  Studies also show that not everybody viewing other people’s extra-fun-looking lives on social media experiences an increase in depression.  Rather, increased depression seems to be related to a number of factors, such as how many strangers the person is following and whether they are socially comparing while using social media.

People who are in an okay place emotionally, who are seeing social media posts from real friends (so presumably they know more about them than just the shiny, happy version), and those who do not engage in social comparisons experience less sadness following social media engagement.

This is great news, because it means that the triggers that cause this kind of suffering are things we have control over: not using social media when we’re down in the dumps, not following a lot of strangers, and not comparing lives.  That doesn’t mean that breaking the habit will be easy, but just like any other behavior that causes us worry, we can work to change it.

Here are some things we can do to disrupt the process of social comparison and its potential negative effects:

1.  Set an intention. Be clear about what comparing yourself with other people does for or to you. If it’s something you want to change, set a clear intention for yourself to work on it.

2.  Pay attention. Becoming aware of when we are socially comparing is very difficult – we tend to do it on autopilot and aren’t even aware when it’s happening.  Check in with yourself, particularly when you notice your mood take a turn or when you are using social media.

3.  Be compassionate with yourself. Of course you compare yourself to others – that’s part of how we establish our sense of self and our place in the world.  We come by this behavior very honestly. Acknowledging that it’s natural and makes sense can sometimes make it easier to notice when it happens.

4.  Let go of what you can. Grasping at an ideal, even when that ideal seems to be lived by everybody else, is likely to bring more pain in the long run.  Allow yourself to let go of whatever you can let go of – your judgments about your career, income, or lifestyle.  Focus instead on the things you actually can change – your productivity and sense of accomplishment, how you help people, and the way you connect with family, friends, and colleagues.  Shifting your perspective will enrich your life more than competing to keep up with how you perceive others’ lives.

The next time you find yourself on the short end of the social comparison stick, remember to be gentle with yourself – you are definitely not alone.