How To Overcome The 21st Century Social Comparison Trap 

How To Overcome The 21st Century Social Comparison Trap 

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

To start off this piece, I have to drop some of my undergrad psychology knowledge on you, sorry! 

So, in the 1950s, a psychologist named Leon Festinger was shaking up the field with some groundbreaking studies that looked at the nature of human behavior. He’s the guy behind the well-known (to psychology nerds like myself, anyway) cognitive dissonance theory and the social comparison theory which is what I’m going to be talking about here.

The basics of the social comparison theory are that humans love to compare themselves to their peers to determine how they feel about themselves. We look to others to determine how we feel, think, and what we should be doing.



This comparison goes in two different directions:


Upward social comparison is when we look to those who are doing “better” than ourselves so we can use them as role models. We go this direction when we are trying to improve ourselves in some way. 


Downward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to those who are objectively doing “worse” than us. We do this to make ourselves feel better about our own lot in life because we feel better knowing we are at least not doing as poorly as that guy. 


When done as intended, we may feel a little bit motivated (upward) or a little bit comforted (downward) when we engage in these behaviors.

However, thanks to the prevalence of social media, we often do the opposite of what Festinger observed in the 50s to create his social comparison theory. We now find ourselves comparing ourselves to those around us and think that we are fundamentally doing worse off than our friends on Instagram and Facebook, and then we feel even worse about ourselves. 


I’m certainly guilty of this social comparison.

I have a bad habit of finding people in my life who are better than me at something I am insecure about, and I envy what they have. I sometimes use this envy to motivate myself to do better like Festinger would have wanted, but mostly I just sulk and feel bad about myself and hate that person just a little bit. It’s terrible. I blame the Scorpio in me for my scorched earth mentality. 


And if you identify as a woman and mom, chances are pretty good that you do this too.

We yearn for something we don’t have and then we look to someone who seemingly has it and think,

“What’s so great about them? Why do they have what I want? They suck.”

Does this sound even a little bit familiar? 


I’ve run into this trend with my world as a woman/mom/professional/business owner and it feels icky. I see a mom who dropped the baby weight while I’m still carrying around the telltale tummy pooch and then I feel bad and skip dessert which makes me feel even worse.

I see a professional who is getting recognized for their contribution to the field and I’m jealous and think I should be doing more. I see a business owner making more revenue when we technically started around the same time and I am crushed to think that maybe I’m doing something wrong.

And I observe parents with patience for days and I’m burdened by whatever psychological wounds I’m probably putting on my kids that they’ll have to go to therapy for later.


It’s a messy cycle of feeling crappy about myself and I don’t think I’m alone in that. 


A few years ago, I was talking to some colleagues about this new social comparison theory phenomenon, and one of them said something that will stick with me for forever, even if I can’t recall who said it. 


They told me not to compare someone else’s highlight reel to my cutting room floor.


The idea here is that, as therapists will tell you ALL THE TIME, social media isn’t real. It’s a carefully cultivated series of images and posts designed to tell a desired narrative and to strategically leave out a significant chunk of information to create a façade of “everything is awesome.”

So, when you see people post their successes both personal and professional, there is a whole mountain of information left behind that which shows the trials and tribulations. That smiling photo of the perfect looking family isn’t telling the whole story, and deep down we know it.


We just need to remember that.

And if you’re looking at that photo when you are feeling particularly awful about yourself, you’re basically comparing someone’s peak moment with one of your basement ones, and that’s not fair either. We are all moving through stages of life where both successes and failures are about equally common, and we need to remember that we are more than just the moment we are currently in. 


It’s also important to remember the power of and.

When you are observing someone else’s success point in their journey, remember that they can have this moment—and you can also have one. They can be cool and you can too. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe they are excelling at this chapter and your chance is coming. Or maybe you are freaking amazing at this other thing and that’s your moment to shine.


As I’ve written about before, success is not finite. 


So, if you are finding yourself feeling crappy because you’ve done too many comparisons and you feel pretty bad about where you are and what you are doing, I recommend taking a break from social media.

Go and connect with the people in your life who boost you up. Get a confidence boost from your tribe who are ready and willing to tell you how awesome you are. And then try to reflect on the fact that:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

—Eleanor Roosevelt 

We hope you found this post about social comparison theory enlightening. Tell us in the comments below if this has inspired you to change any of your social habits or how you view your social media!

How To Overcome The 21st Century Social Comparison Trap PIN