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  • Writer's pictureBirch Cooper

How Comparison Impacts Self-Esteem

Birch Cooper, MA, LMHC

Based on material previously posted by Birch Cooper, MA, LMHC

Our capacity to compare most likely has evolutionary roots. The ability to determine which stream had cleaner water or which prey would feed more people would have been a useful faculty for survival. Although this skill is still useful at the grocery store when picking out a melon there are times when comparison can be less helpful. For instance, when we compare ourselves to others.

In the mid-1950s psychologist Leon Festinger named the phenomenon of comparing ourselves to others, social comparison and started to develop the theory. Broadly, social comparison is the attempt to make accurate evaluations of ourselves by seeing how we measure up against others. Social Comparison Theory goes on to include the tenet that individuals tend to determine their own social and personal worth based on those evaluations. It is this conclusion about self-worth that makes social comparison somewhat problematic.

Individuals whose self-esteem fluctuates drastically with external events or those with lower self-esteem are most likely to have a negative, undesired consequence from social comparison. Although stable, positive, or higher self-esteem is a protective factor in this process, seeing one’s worth as higher or lower than another’s will result in self-esteem that fluctuates.

Social comparison is complex, nuanced, and arguably useful at points during our development. Some are convinced it can be motivating. However, research reliably shows that social comparison is more likely to cause feelings of depression, resentment, guilt or remorse (Baker and Algorta, 2016). It can also lead to destructive behaviors like lying or disordered eating (Argo, White and Dahl, 2006; Pinkasavage and Schumacher, 2015). Finally, if it leads to self-criticism it will actually reduce goal attainment (Powers, Koestner and Zuroff, 2007).

Most social comparisons are unfair, or misleading. When choosing a melon there are a handful of traits to compare. Humans on the other hand are infinitely more complex. Reducing a person to one trait or metric is misleading because it obscures the full picture. Although one trait can be measured against an ideal, the reality is we are not better or worse than one another, we are different. With differing circumstances, responsibilities, stressors, skills and talents. What we find meaningful or what we value also varies. Looking at any one of these or only one of these factors is unfair because it lacks context. 

If you would like to compare less…

Since we have the capacity to make social comparisons in an instant the first step is identifying when you are doing so and in what situations or environments you are more likely to compare yourself to others. If you would like to compare less, shift your mindset when you find yourself comparing. Another method is to focus on something else entirely. 

Stay curious. If you actively shift your mindset about what you do with the information, comparison can be a source of motivation toward growth. Seeing others as potential teachers rather than competitors is key. The majority of people are happy to pass on the knowledge of what has been useful to them. If you don’t have access to the person you can reflect on what can be learned from their success or the skill, knowledge or area of expertise they have that could be valuable to you. 

Keep the focus on you. No one can authentically show up as you, better than you. Reflecting on what is meaning to you and showing up for yourself can be an empowering part of that process. It is healthy to seek improvement when the pursuit is balanced with self-compassion and acceptance. Setting goals that resonate with you and are personally meaningful is a deeply affirming act. Acknowledging and utilizing your innate abilities and strengths will ensure any external achievement is the manifestation of qualities within you that can be applied to any task. Tasks and achievements aside, looking within is where we find our true value and worth. 

A reminder: There may be times in your life when you are expected to play using the scorecard of others. These moments can be a test of qualities that are not easily measured. Try not to be swayed by the opinion of what others think is important. Your self-esteem or the regard that you hold for yourself should be based on what you think of what you do, what is meaningful to you and what you value. 


Argo, White & Dahl (2006). Social Comparison Theory and Deception in the Interpersonal Exchange of Consumption Information. Journal of Consumer Research, 33, (1), 99-108.

Baker and Algorta (2016) The Relationship Between Online Social Networking and Depression: A Systematic Review of Quantitative Studies. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, (11), 638-648.

Pinkasavage, Arigo & Schumacher. (2015) Social comparison, negative body image, and disordered eating behavior: The moderating role of coping style. Eating Behaviors, 72 (7).

Powers, Koestner & Zuroff (2007). Self–Criticism, Goal Motivation, and Goal Progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26 (7), 826-840.

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