Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Truth About Social Comparisons and Depression

We live in a society where it is impossible to escape comparisons. Growing up, your parents probably compared you with other siblings and in school you compared yourself with other students. As an adult, you continue to compare yourself with your peers at work, your neighbors, your friends and relatives, and people you come across on social network sites or other media outlets. There are two kinds of social comparisons (Taylor & Lobel, 1989): 

1. Upward social comparison: You compare yourself with others whose performance and abilities are better than yours.

2.  Downward social comparison: You compare yourself with others who are less fortunate than you are in the attributes you are comparing.

People compare themselves to others when they need an external standard against which to judge their abilities or opinions (Festinger, 1954). Comparison helps you manage your negative mood, especially with downward comparison, which makes you feel better realizing that there are people who may be faring much worse than you are. Upward comparison may help you by providing you with role models for improvement (Taylor & Lobel, 1989). The above is true when people are not feeling depressed and have a healthy self-image. However, in people with depression, especially with concurrent low self-esteem, social comparisons get distorted. People with depression are more likely to engage in not only more frequent social comparisons (Swallow & Kuiper, 1992), but also more downward social comparisons (Gibbons, 1986). It is hypothesized that people with depression make frequent comparisons because they may have low self-respect or lack of stable sense of self-worth or feel insecure or may base their self-worth on the results of comparisons with others (White et al., 2006).  However, frequent social comparisons come with a price. Research shows that people indulging in frequent social comparisons are more likely to experience negative emotions such as envy, guilt, and regret and also display behaviors such as defensiveness, lying to protect one’s self, lying to protect others’ feelings, and having unmet cravings (White et al., 2006).

When you compare yourself to those that appear to be doing less well than you, there is a temporary improvement in your mood as you feel that you are not so bad off yourself. However, this is a short term relief and offers you no experience or knowledge to help you cope better or learn new skills to deal with what you are going through. Comparing yourself to someone doing better than you can produce more hope, especially if you have high self-esteem (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1993). However, this upward comparison can backfire and make you feel more frustrated if you had a recent setback or faced a threat to your sense of self (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1993). For example, if you were recently reprimanded by your supervisor, then comparing yourself to your friend who just got a raise will only make you experience more negative emotions. However, this comparison would have been helpful if you were not faced with any setbacks or threats and had a more positive image about yourself.
Depression makes people feel trapped between a desire for praise and a conviction that they don’t deserve it (Swann, Jr. et al., 1992). Thus, when people with depression compare themselves with others who are less better off, then instead of feeling better, they may discount such comparisons as it doesn’t conform to their self-concept – “I don’t deserve to feel better when someone else is suffering.” Moreover, if a comparison turns out unfavorable for them, people with depression tend to dwell on such a comparison (Gilbert, 2001). The irrational thought processes of mind reading and labeling in depression may trigger a person to view an unfavorable comparison as to mean that others may also feel about them this way and that they actually are “inferior.”

While you cannot avoid social comparison, some strategies to guide you to be careful about social comparisons are below (Dyer, 1978; Gilbert, 2001, 2009; Lieberman, 1997):
  • Ask yourself why you are comparing yourself in the first place? Are you making the comparison to make yourself feel better or worse?
  • If you are comparing yourself to someone worse off to make yourself feel better, is it because then you don’t have to work hard on yourself to improve your situation?
  • Is irrational depressive thinking making you compare to people who are better off than you so that you can self-verify your existing situation?
  • Is envy or jealousy driving your comparison? If so, then don’t compare as these negative emotions will only perpetuate your depression.
  • If comparing yourself with others always makes you feel bad, then is there any advantage of comparing yourself with others?
  • Are you even making a reasonable comparison? Are you comparing yourself to someone who is not going through depression?
  • Compare to get inspiration and not to foster competition. Life is not a big contest and don’t let your own insecurities make you believe that somebody’s failure is your success.
  • Recognize that you are a unique individual who thinks and acts in their own unique way and comparisons are an exercise in futility as other people are unique in their own ways. You can emulate values and character of another person, but you cannot be another person.
  • Avoid doing upward social comparison when you are going through tough times yourself as this will only increase your depression.
  • Don’t be a victim of comparison trap thrown by others when they use statements such as, “Why can’t you be more like…?”
  • If a comparison brought on by you or by others on you turns out to be unfavorable, then recognize and be compassionate about your own strengths and qualities. Frame a more balanced response to the comparison highlighting your strengths and adding the statement “…and what I feel good about myself is that…” to the comparison. For example, “My friend has a higher paying job than me and what I feel good about myself is that I like the work I do and people like me for my work ethic.” When you identify your strengths, you challenge the irrational thinking pattern of disqualifying the positive brought on by your depression.

To learn more about evidence-based self-management techniques that are proven to work for depression, check out Dr. Duggal's Author Page.



Aspinwall, L. G., & Taylor, S. E. (1993). Effects of social comparison direction, threat, and self-esteem on affect, self-evaluation, and expected success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(5), 708-722.

Dyer, W. W. (1978). Pulling your own strings. New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.

Gibbons, F. X. (1986). Social comparison and depression: company’s effect on misery. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 140-148.

Gilbert, P. (2001). Overcoming depression: A step-by-step approach to gaining control over depression (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Gilbert, P. (2009). Overcoming depression: A self-help guide to using cognitive behavioral techniques. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lieberman, D. J. (1997). Instant analysis: How to understand and change the 100 most common, annoying, puzzling, self-defeating behaviors and habits. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Swallow, S. R., & Kuiper, N. A. (1992). Mild depression and frequency of social comparison behavior. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 11, 167-180.

Swann, Jr., W. B., Wenzlaff, R. M., & Tafarodi, R. W. (1992). Depression and the search for negative evaluations: more evidence of the role of self-verification strivings. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(2), 314-317.

Taylor, S. E., & Lobel, M. (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological Review, 96(4), 569-575.

White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch IV, J. C. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: the dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13(1), 36-44.

Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and an international expert on self-management of depression, this blog focuses on proven scientific methods of treating depression that go beyond medications and traditional therapy. It discusses elements of healthy lifestyle, positive psychology, relationships, values, strengths, communication, and wellness. The content of the blog is not to be construed as treatment advice.

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