Comparison does not make us better… (with very few exceptions which I will unpack below)
Take a moment now and reflect on the last time you looked at someone else and thought,
“Hmmm…. s/he must [insert thought related to appearance, job, home, status, friendships] “
[insert sigh] [cue emotional yuck]
“And I just… [insert thought related to appearance, job, home, status, friendships] ”
The leap from MUST to the JUST is a plain old emotional health disaster.
Actually, the MUST or the JUST without the leap are not helpful either.
The MUST infers ASSUMPTIONS. I see ‘x’ and I conclude ‘y’. It MUST be. I know it. And then we are TRAPPED by our assumptions which are fueled by our core beliefs… which may include thoughts like:
“My self and stuff and status and value reeeally are the MOST important…” [ouch]
“I KNOW if I only have __ and ___ and ___ and ___, THEN I will feel satisfied…” [nah]
Whether we compare “up” (i.e. his/her job, looks, status, stuff are so much better) or we compare “down” (i.e. well at least I don’t look, act, have, seem, do that), it hurts our view of self and our view of others.
And as a research-loving psychologist I’m going to share (briefly) how this has been documented empirically. Social comparison theory is attributed to Dr. Festinger’s 1954 publication on the subject. It’s “the proposition that people evaluate their abilities and attitudes in relation to those of others in a process that plays a significant role in self-image and subjective well-being.”
AND if that isn’t enough to check our comparison traps, let’s consider how we can also compare our way right into vats of BURNOUT…
There is a difference in our emotional response if we look “upward” and say, “Hmmm, why is it that everyone else gets their dream job, has great relationships and looks amazing? I can’t… could never…will never…” when we COULD say, “Hmmm, so I really could find a job that I love, talk through these relationship issues and start working out to better myself. I’m going to see what I can do!”
Our emotional response to comparing depends on the interpretation we choose with the information we have observed. It is possible to use comparison to motivate self-enhancement but in part, it depends on one’s level of self-confidence to begin with.
So if I compare myself to someone with a great job and think, “I can do that too!” and proceed to edit my resume, I’ve used comparison towards self-improvement.
The key question for reflection is:
“How much do I rely on comparison to determine my sense of self?”
Research has shown that the Emotional Exhaustion component of Burnout (Cynicism and Sense of Ineffectiveness/Lack of accomplishment are the other two components) is impacted by the direction of the comparison (upward comparison was related to health complaints and burnout) as well as how much control or autonomy the employee perceives having.
Nurses in a research study demonstrated that their emotional response to either an upward or downward comparison directly impacted their reported burnout.
- Comparison to others whom we perceive as better/having more OR to others whom we perceive as worse off/having less often negatively impacts our sense of self and well-being.
- Our current sense of self and how we use the information from comparison determines whether it may help or hurt us.
- The emotion attached to our comparisons may depend on direction of comparison (upward/downward) and other assumptions, beliefs, especially “How much do I rely on comparison to evaluate my own status?
American Psychological Association. Dictionary of Psychology. “social comparison theory”. Retrieved 3/16/20 from https://dictionary.apa.org/social-comparison-theory
Festinger, Leon. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, Retrieved September 12, 2007, from hum.sagepub.com database. Retrieved for this article 3/15/20 from
Buunk, AP, Zurriaga, R & Peiro, JM. 2010. Stress comparison as a predictor of changes in burnout among nurses. Anxiety Stress Coping, 23(2) : 181-94. doi10.1080/10615800902971521.
Michinov, N. (2005). Social comparison, perceived control and occupational burnout. Applied Psychology 54(1): 99-118. DOI: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.2005.00198.x