Social Comparison And Its Effects On You – Part 2: Positive vs Negative Social Comparison


When is comparing yourself to others relevant or destructive? Or better still, is it totally wrong for you to compare yourself to others? The answer is ‘No’. It is not totally wrong. Now, if this is true, at what time or situation is comparing yourself to others benefitting or harmful?

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on social comparison and how it affects you. You can read the part 1: Understanding Comparison And Its Different Forms if you have not done so.

In this part, I will show you when you need to compare and when comparing yourself to others becomes a deadly game to play.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist said, “Comparison is rife with danger, but it’s understandable why we do it. We’re human beings and we naturally seek information.” According to Ms. Halvorson, one way to get information is to turn to expert. Another way is to look at those around us. From this, comparing or comparison in itself is not wrong. Although comparing ourselves to others has negative impact on our general well-being (which I will show you as we progress in the series), there are times or situations it’s wise and necessary to engage in social comparison. Comparing yourself to those better than you can be a great source of knowledge.

Using the words of Ms. Halvorson, “Upward comparison can be punishing and make you feel terrible,” “But you can also look upward to learn.” Without doubt, there are times and situations where we need to make comparison. The key is identifying those times and situations when and where comparison is necessary and being careful so that we use it to work towards becoming a better version of ourselves and make progress in the achievement of our goals.

Positive or necessary social comparison

Celestine Chua, founder of Personal Excellence, gave some instances of times or situations where making comparison may be benefitting to us. They are as follow:

  1. Diversity: Comparing for the purpose of getting a different perspective. For example, comparing your culture with other people’s culture to see differences in values and norms.
  2. Comparing to know the standards and what to aim for. For example, when you start a training course and you compare the benefits to other training courses in the same field.
  3. Comparing to use what others are doing as source of motivation, ideas generation and the like. An example is when you set up a new site and refer to other people’s sites to get new and better ideas for your own site. Another example is, when you watch athletes and you admire their fitness, rather than envying, or feeling jealous, you can use them as source of motivation to take better steps to improve your fitness level.
  4. Comparing for the purpose of improvement. For example, comparing your work (a piece of article, graphic design, a speech presentation, etc) with others’ works for the purpose of learning from them and improving the standard of your own work.
  5. Comparing to make a difference. Comparing ourselves to others is one of the many strategies used in the process of coping with threats, building resilience and establishing our identity (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons & Ipenburg, 2001). An example is comparing your competitors’ services/products with your own services/products so you can stand out from the crowd.
  6. Comparing for the purpose of modeling. When your aim is to follow the path of someone who is already a success in what you’re striving to do so that you can make faster progress. For example, comparing your relationship/marriage with another couple’s who is doing greatly so you can use their principles to also grow faster. Another example is comparing yourself with someone with qualities you admire, say he/she is disciplined and hardworking. Instead of envy, you strive to be more disciplined and hardworking also.

When you make comparison on the ground of any of the above situations or scenarios, then, it is positive and relevant.

Negative or harmful social comparison

To move on, comparing your life with others’ outside of the above stated situations or any other positive ground that is not mentioned here, is unnecessary and it’s sabotaging. I mean, it destroys and stops us from growing into a happy better version of ourselves.

When is comparing yourself to others harmful? Here are instances of negative social comparison.

  1. When the comparison makes you feel envious and jealous. For example, when you compare yourself with a friend who has just bought a new car or something you want and you’re jealous, then you’re engaging in a harmful comparison.
  2. When the aim of comparison is baseless and does not help you in anyway in making life better for yourself as well as others.
  3. When comparing makes you lose self-confidence and belief in yourself. In other words, when you allow other’s standards, accomplishments, looks, etc. to control the way you feel and think about yourself; when your self-esteem is determined by the way you see others.
  4. When comparison with other people’s life make you feel they are better than you’re and that you’re not good enough.
  5. When comparing make you change yourself with the intention of measuring up to others’ standard.
  6. When it makes you feel inadequate in your level of abilities, performance, etc. because of others seemingly better abilities, performances, etc.

Those are cases where comparison becomes a destructive exercise to engage in. As one who truly desires to live become happy and better every day, you are not expected to be in the unfruitful game of harmful social comparison.

I hope you got value from what I have just shared with you.

This is part 2 of this series, “Social Comparison And Its Effects On You.” In part 3, I will show you some of the ways the habit of comparing yourself to others can be destructive to you – the reasons why you need to stop comparing yourself to other people.

Social Comparison And Its Effects On You – Part 1: Understanding Comparison And Its Different Forms

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