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Stop the Negative Self-Comparison Spiral

Psychiatrist and Entrepreneur in Residence Dr. Samantha Boardman has four tips to turn unhealthy habits upside down.


From Samantha: President Franklin Roosevelt called comparison the “thief of joy” but research suggests that in some contexts, “benign envy,” as psychologists call it, can be a positive force and a powerful motivator. Another’s success can provide clarity about your own goals and inspire you to take action. In certain contexts, the achievements of others can serve as a reminder of what you are capable of accomplishing.

That said, there are downsides to social comparison, especially “upward comparison” to people who seem to have it all. Learning about someone else’s promotion at work or their recent engagement can trigger feelings of low self-esteem, especially if your self-esteem is low to begin with or if you perceive their accomplishments to be out of your league. It’s why singling out exceptional students has been shown to discourage other students from working hard. Instead of inspiring them to emulate the exemplar’s performance, if the achievement feels unattainable, the other students think, “I could never be that awesome, so why bother?”

Thanks to social media, we are drowning in visuals of other people’s “perfect lives” featuring their amazing vacations, cool dinner parties, chic living rooms and award-winning children. The endless stream of images shouting, “isn’t my life the greatest!?” can undermine self-worth and confidence. So quickly we forget that these pictures are curated to portray people at their best. Few are posting pictures of themselves having a really tough day (unless of course it is a #humblebrag).

The irony of social media is that it is not particularly social—a recent study found that users spend only 3.5% of their time on social media interacting with others by commenting or chatting. The rest is spent browsing. Studies show there is a psychological cost to scrolling through images all day long. Girls who spend time scrutinizing online photos of themselves and their friends have been shown to feel worse about their own physical appearance.

When you compare your reality to someone else’s filtered perfection, it is hard to feel good about yourself. Here are four strategies you can use when upward comparison is bringing you down:

Stop the Negative Self-Comparison Spiral

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1. Do a reality check

The important thing to keep in mind is that these images are not reality. Studies show that when images are viewed with this in mind and with an understanding that the images represent a fantasy, they have less of a negative effect and can even improve one’s mood. As the saying goes, “You will never look like the girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.”

2. Go deep

What is it about the other person’s life that is triggering envy in you? What do you admire about them and what they have accomplished? Transform envy into an opportunity to better understand your own values and goals.

3. Say thank you

Expressing gratitude for what you have protects you from dwelling on what you don’t. It helps put things in perspective and defangs the paralysis that envy can bring. Remember, another person’s achievement is not taking away from what you are capable of.

4. Reframe it as inspiration

Instead of asking, “Why not me?” ask yourself, “What can I learn from the other person’s success?” Let their achievement be your study guide. Explore the steps they took to reach their goals. What will you do differently? Let their success fuel your desire to succeed.

For more from Dr. Samantha Boardman, read her recent articles or visit her online at PositivePrescription.com.

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