Why comparing yourself to others can impact your self-esteem and how to flip it around

Have you ever experienced that feeling of becoming smaller and smaller as you started comparing yourself to someone else? Maybe it felt more like a critical voice growing inside of you and listing all the things you’re not as good at. Comparing ourselves to others can have a negative impact on our self-esteem and change our perception of our job, our relationships and our entire life.

To illustrate this, let’s start by playing a game! Looking at the picture below, which orange circle is the biggest, the one on the right or on the left?

Ok, maybe you know the trick, you’ll be your smarty pants self and tell me they’re both the same size. Which is correct! But I am sure that even if you know it, you still can’t help but feel that the one on the right is the biggest. Right?

That’s because our mind is constantly comparing stuff. This is true in a visual context (this specific one is called the Ebbinghaus illusion) but it’s also true for many other aspects in life.


Our mind doesn’t think in terms of absolute.


We use reference points to compare things and  judge whether something is the same or not, better or worse, higher or lower.

We also do this to ourselves. In our development as a human being, we first experience the sense of unification with the mother to progressively gain a sense of self as a separate entity. Our sense of self and our place in the group is defined in comparison to others. Being part of a group, developing love and belonging is critical for our specie to ensure our survival.


We are constantly comparing and judging ourself to a reference point.


There are two kinds of reference points:

  • Someone else (also called social comparison)

We compare physical appearance, clothes, job title, salary, houses, cars, social status, children, relationships, etc….

  • A past version of ourselves (also called nostalgia 😉)

We tell ourselves how life was so much simpler and easier in the past. How we were so much happier in our job and our relationships.

This begs the question: what’s a reasonable reference point? Our mind is not really making a fair and square comparison analysis.  It’s pretty much choosing whatever is around.

Social comparison theory distinguishes two types of outlook on the external world. Upward social comparison means comparing yourself to people you might consider as “superior” or displaying positive characteristics. On the other hand, downward social comparison means comparing yourself with people you might consider as “inferior” or who have negative characteristics.


How social comparison impacts your self-esteem


Upward social comparison can have a positive impact and serve as an inspirational goal for the kind of person you want to be. However, our mind has the tendency to focus more on the negative and the lack of. Neuropsychologists call it the Brain Negativity Bias (read more about it and how to overcome it here). This has a negative impact on people’s evaluation of themselves in comparison to others and their level of self-esteem (e.g. feeling capable, significant, successful and worthy).


In most recent years, the rise of social media has emphasized this upward social comparison phenomenon. Indeed, these platforms enable filtered, calculated and meticulous sharing of people’s ideal self-representation very distant from real life. In the study Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem published in 2014, Erin Vogel, Jason P. Rose, and Lindsay Roberts researched the impact of social comparison on Facebook users.

Here are some of their conclusions:

  • People tend to believe that other social media users have better lives than they do
  • After being exposed to upward social comparison, people had poorer state of self-esteem and gave themselves lower evaluations
  • On the other hand, downward social comparison did not seem to impact self-esteem


In other words, we tend to see the grass as much greener than it is elsewhere and this impacts negatively our perception of ourselves compared to others but also our own sense of worth. Interestingly, the opposite is not true. Making downward social comparison doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves. 


What to do when you find yourself caught up in social comparison frenzy #mylifesucks?


#1| Become aware of it and tell yourself to STOP

As you most probably know or have read in other articles on this blog, awareness is the first necessary step for any change. Hit pause and listen to your body to check how this is making you feel. Are you feeling bad about yourself? Or thinking that you’re not good, capable, fit, beautiful or any other kind of “not enough”? Is it making you feel sad, guilty, frustrated, ashamed? If the answer is yes to any of those, time to scream STOP (yes, you can say that out loud!) to yourself.


#2| Step back and listen to the underlying message

Passed the shock of that scream which hopefully drove your mind to shut up, you’re able to take some distance from those thoughts. You can ask yourself questions to understand what the comparison with this person is specifically triggering in you. Is it about external signs of success, love or happiness? Or skills and capabilities you feel you don’t have? What are your expectations about yourself? Are they coming from you? Or from what you think society or your family expects from you?


#3| Feel gratitude for where you are and what you have NOW

Switch your energy from judgment, criticism and scarcity to love, praise and gratitude for the person you are and the people and things you have in your life today. I know this may sound cheesy but it’s not about making a mental list. It’s about really feeling in your body that sense of gratitude. If it stays at the mental level, it won’t change how you feel about it.


Taking Action


ACTION 1| Make your “I am so jealous of you” list

Feeling envious is not a bad thing when you transform it into concrete actions for yourself. Here’s what you can do.

    1. Make a list of 3 people you’re jealous of
    2. Identify very specifically what makes you jealous
    3. Look for the “secret” desire your jealousy is pointing to
    4. Write down one small action you can immediately put in place directed at meeting that desire


ACTION 2| Write yourself a love letter

If there is a strong inner critic living inside of you and you have difficulty recognizing your qualities, this is an absolute MUST to boost your self-esteem (cheesy or not cheesy!). Take a nice piece of paper, a beautiful colored pen and write down everything and anything you love about yourself.

It might feel difficult at the beginning. So you can start with the “small” things like loving your smile or your sense of commitment, or the way you’re handling certain situations in your life… It should be about YOU not about the fact that you have an amazing friend or brother.

Have a minimum of 30 things and if you feel the inspiration flowing, keep going until there is no more ink in your pen! Once it’s all down on paper, I suggest you read it out loud to yourself.


ACTION 3| Have a gratitude ritual

Cultivating the energy of gratitude and love for what is and what you have is fundamental to feel happiness in your life. As we’ve seen, it’s not our natural bias so this might take some effort at the beginning but I promise you this habit will rewire your brain to focus on the positive and the opportunities  present in each life situation. This will help you moving from feeling the victim of life events to taking back the leadership of your life.

You can buy yourself a nice journal and take 5 minutes every evening before going to bed to write down 3 things you’re grateful for. Or you can do this practice in your mind. The most important is to feel that sense of gratitude in your body. Focus your attention on how the words are resonating with you.

Feel free to leave a comment below to share your own experience dealing with social comparison. How it makes you feel and how you’re managing to protect your self-esteem and grow from it.