When you scroll through social media, look at the online lives of others or watch their stories - do you ever start to compare a part of yourself or elements your life with others? It is an easy habit to fall into, and one which we tend to revert to often. Unacknowledged and excessive comparison can negatively affect our mental health.
Ironically most of us start our day scrolling through social media, without awareness around our mental habits and perceptions we are cultivating. We could be setting ourselves up for the day filled with a negative body image, poor self-esteem and dissatisfaction.
Why do humans tend to compare?
Comparison is a natural human inclination which we tend to engage in, we are hard wired to compare ourselves to others in order to evaluate and understand ourselves. In fact, comparison allows you to better understand who you are, what you are good at and what you are not so good at. It is a spontaneous and almost automatic response we engage in when we see, interact and meet others. Our comparison-targets, those we compare ourselves to, tend to be individuals within our social networks that we identify with. We tend to compare things that we value for example; status, lifestyle, health, appearance, wealth, social lives or achievements.
Comparison and Social Media
The problem with our natural inclination of comparison comes with our current lifestyles and the age of social media. Social media exploits our impulse to compare, and usually not in a healthy way. Social media gives us increased access to more comparison-targets than ever before, with algorithms focused on feeding you relatable content.
Before everybody was posting their highlight reel for all the world to see, we would have only been exposed with comparison points intermittently. Now we have constant, live updates on more people and more 'information' about these people, information which is filtered, edited, created and unnaturally natural. So not only are we comparing ourselves to an unrealistic and false image of someone and their life, we are also comparing ourselves in domains which we may not deeply care about but which are cropping up regularly on our feed.
A good example of how comparison was negatively affecting me is related to my yoga practice. My feed often leads me down rabbit holes of incredible, talented, professional yogis doing the most incredible poses. Yes sure, a handstand with eagle legs or flying compass pose is pretty, dam impressive but it is not something I deeply care about, because that is not why I practice yoga. I feel my practice is deeply personal, a part of my wellness routine which grounds me, clears my mind, reminds me of the importance of breathe and lets me meet and honour myself. These incredible poses are not a standard or comparison point I should measure myself against. The comparison I was unconsciously making was not inspiring me, it was just leaving me feeling inadequate and shamefully inflexible, not to mention weak. I never felt satisfied with my practice. Once I became aware of social comparison, I made a concerted effort to spend time in reflection and clarify for myself personally, with no external noise, what I cared about deeply in my yoga practice. It was only once I addressed the habit that I realised what I was doing to my wellness and mental health through something as simple as comparing myself to a comparison point which I do not deeply care about and is frankly, for myself, unrealistic.
Ironically, whether we compare something we feel inadequate about or something we are esteemed about, the end result is generally not positive. When we compare that which we feel inadequate about, we only increase our feelings of inadequacy. The habit of checking social feeds in down time is also not helping, as this is when we tend to be more self-reflective. Comparing our inadequacies is a disastrous recipe for us to feel inferior, dissatisfied and demotivated. When we compare that which we regard ourselves as having or being better than others, we feel superior and maybe boost our self-esteem a little. This superior comparison results in us being perhaps motivated, which is positive, but predominantly it can make us pretty self-righteous.
The Neuroscience in a nut shell
For myself, the science behind my behaviours is always of interest. The neuroscience of our habit to compare is rather sobering. The act of comparison and occasional positive feelings we experience once in a while when we compare ourselves and feel similar to or accepted by someone we relate/ aspire to activates reward centers in our brain, releasing dopamine. Once the brain associates a certain situation or activity as pleasurable, it seeks out the activity again, driving us to compare ourselves again and again. Just like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine increase the amount of dopamine released by our pleasure center in the brain , comparison on social media can truly become addictive.
Our attitude and habits empower us
What is the solution? Ultimately it is not social media itself that is eroding our sense of self , self-esteem or making (some of) us into unpleasantly self-righteous people, it is how we use it.
I thought I would share some tips to help you take control of your mental health and stop letting comparison be the thief of your joy. Remember small habits for big changes:
Unfollow or remove friends/ celebrities or accounts which constantly prompt you into a comparative state
Get apps which monitor your time on social media and provide much needed ‘stop signs’ (just like a book has a chapter to signal a possible stopping point we need to build these into our social media use, I use a timer)
Be conscious and aware while you scroll, monitor where your feed is taking you and the thoughts you feed as you look at feed and content
Sometimes realizing you’re are particularly good at something or lacking in a part of your life can be a good thing and serve as a signal to make changes
Be clear on your values and what is important to you, don’t lose sight of what you value because social media is pointing you towards other comparison points
Maintain an abundance mindset and focus on the positives in your life
Never forget that this is a highlight reel on social media and content is curated, no one woke up like that
A strong sense of personal identity and healthy self-esteem will allow you to overcome the comparison trap
Focus on what you admire and can positively gain from those you are comparing yourself to instead of allowing it to cultivate envy or a scarcity mindset
Try compare yourself to yourself, there is nothing more rewarding than noting our own personal growth.