The pros and cons of upward social comparison
Social comparison is essential as it provides us with a benchmark for our skills and abilities, relative to other people. Unfortunately, it also serves to provide feelings of jealousy and bitterness if improperly executed.
There are two main types of social comparison, upward comparison and downward comparison.
Upward comparison involves comparing ourselves with someone we perceive as superior to us.
Downward comparison involves comparing ourselves with someone we perceive as inferior to us.
In this article, I’m going to focus specifically on upward comparison. I will break down the benefits and drawbacks and discuss ways to use it for good.
In my next article, I’ll cover the good and bad of downward comparison.
Let’s start with the benefits of upward comparison.
What are the benefits of upward comparison?
It makes us competitive
Upward comparison helps us push ourselves harder than we would if we were alone in our ambitions.
It provides us with a specific target
When you upwardly compare yourself with someone, you’re given a target to aim for and a specific goal to work towards reaching.
It helps offer us direction
When you upwardly compare yourself with someone who has achieved something you’d also like to achieve, you may be able to copy the recipe they used for their success.
What are the dangers involved with upward social comparison?
Though there are several benefits to upward social comparison, doing so can also be highly detrimental to our wellbeing.
You see, there are many variables at play when it comes to upward social comparison, some of which we often forget while we're doing it.
You don't know the full story of the person you're comparing yourself with
When you're upwardly comparing to someone else, you often don't know the full breadth of what this person is all about.
Let's say you upwardly compare yourself with a successful colleague at work. Someone who makes far more money than you do and has a superior position in the company.
It's easy to compare yourself with this person, feel inadequate and see yourself as inferior to them. But, for all you know, this person could be clinically depressed and have a horrible relationship with their spouse. Not to say we wish it upon them, but if you get too hung up on one area of your perceived inferiority, you'll miss out on the bigger picture.
You lose sight of your own strengths
Upward comparison has a horrible habit of making people laser-focused on one area of inferiority over someone else. So much so, you can forget your own strengths and the areas in which you yourself are superior.
You're often relying on unsubstantiated proof of someone else's superiority over you
This most commonly happens when you compare yourself with people on Social Media. The reason the person you compare yourself with seems to live an awesome, happy, carefree life is because they've carefully curated that perception of themselves for their online persona.
You can easily forget this when you're doing your upward comparison and, instead, buy into the fact that you're a loser and this person is a winner.
Everyone is different
If you have ambitions to achieve the same things as someone you are upwardly comparing yourself to, it's easy to forget that everyone is different.
Just because something worked for this person (or, at least, they've told you it worked), doesn't mean it will work for you.
The circumstances may have been easier for this person; they may possess a particular skill or ability that you don't; they may have been given a leg up by someone else.
When this happens, and you inevitably fall short of the levels the person you're upwardly comparing yourself has achieved, you're left feeling inferior and worthless.
You're chasing a moving target
When you look to mimic or aspire to be someone else, your goals will shift just as theirs do. Your success and progression is reliant on what the person ahead of you is doing, as opposed to something you've consciously decided you want to do.
So what problems do these variables cause?
The variables involved with upward comparison can manifest themselves in the following ways:
- You can start to form an unhealthy obsession with the person you're upwardly comparing yourself to.
- You can get into the habit of making bitter, snarky comments about the person you're upwardly comparing yourself to, in order to make yourself feel better.
- Your peers start to see you as a bitter, resentful and highly insecure.
- Your creativity is stifled. This occurs because you are so busy trying to copy someone else that you stop forming original ideas on how you can improve and better yourself.
- You can start to see the person you're upwardly comparing yourself with as so superior to you, that you think you should give up on your own ambitions because you'll never compare to them.
- You can lose focus of your own goals and ambitions because you're too wrapped up in someone else's.
How do we avoid the problems with upward comparison?
By using upward comparison for good.
When you consider using upward comparison for good, it's important to first mention, you should keep the use of it to an absolute minimum where possible.
You shouldn't be doing it every day and allowing it to become an obsession.
You should purely be doing it in instances where you can stand to gain genuine knowledge or inspiration from the person you're upwardly comparing yourself to.
Before you look to upwardly compare yourself with someone else, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
Do I stand to gain anything by making this comparison?
Is there knowledge or information I can extract from this upward comparison that I can use for personal development or self-improvement?
Is the comparison I'm making from a credible source?
Am I comparing myself with someone credible, or is the comparison against a potentially fake reality someone has created for themselves?
Can I approach this with humility?
Upon comparing, am I able to emotionally cope with the knowledge that will surface after I do it?
Will this genuinely inspire me?
Besides offering knowledge and assistance for progression, will the upward comparison genuinely provide me with inspiration?
If the answer is no to any of the above questions, you should likely avoid doing it at all.
Upward comparison is a fickle beast. If you can use it sparingly and only for education and inspiration purposes, it will benefit you.
Those who are successful at upwardly comparing themselves to others generally stick to comparisons against credible, realistically replicable role-models.
If you overuse it or use it for the wrong reasons, upward comparisons will only distract you. They will leave you feeling deflated and void of motivation.
Approach with caution.