Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Escaping the Comparison Trap: How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Reading Time: 8 minutes

It’s natural to compare yourself to others. It’s part of how we define and understand ourselves. But while everyone plays the comparison game to some extent, young adults are more susceptible. They compare themselves to others in all kinds of ways: grade point averages, job titles, income, physical appearance, dating success, vacations taken, parties attended, number of Instagram followers … the list goes on. 

Not surprisingly, people who engage in social comparison on the regular are more likely to feel discouraged and depressed. Constantly comparing ourselves to others guarantees we’ll fall short: There will always be someone who’s smarter, richer, more popular, and better looking. Breaking out of the comparison trap is one of the healthiest things a young person can do.

Key Takeaways

  • The comparison trap is a vicious cycle in which people frequently compare themselves to others, leading to feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness, and more comparisons.
  • People who routinely engage in comparisons can struggle with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or suicidal ideation.
  • Social media magnifies social comparison because it presents unrealistic images of people’s bodies, relationships, and lives.
  • Limiting time on social media, practicing gratitude, and celebrating others’ successes can help young adults avoid the comparison trap.

What Is the Comparison Trap?

Do you constantly feel inferior and dejected—or superior and self-important—because you’re measuring your appearance, abilities, accomplishments against other people’s? If so, you’re stuck in the comparison trap. It’s not an unusual place to be. One study found that 12 percent of young people’s thoughts were comparative in nature. 

Comparisons help animals determine pecking order. While a wolf might compare its hunting skills to those of other wolves in the pack, modern humans compare resumes, education levels, or income brackets. According to American psychologist Leon Festinger, who proposed Social Comparison Theory in 1954, humans have an innate drive to self-evaluate. 

Inherently social creatures, humans can trace the impulse to compare to an evolutionary need for self-protection. Ancient peoples who could measure how they stacked up against others had an advantage. They understood whether they needed to elevate their position or improve their performance to ensure survival in a tribal setting.

Today, highly competitive young people who want to enhance their own status might criticize or undermine others’ success. Feeling envious and resentful, some might try to cut their colleagues down to discourage them from succeeding further. People who experience the effects of this kind of sabotage suffer from Tall Poppy Syndrome. Common targets are people who work in highly competitive industries or disadvantaged groups, including women and people of color.


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The Most Common Young Adult Comparison Traps

Whether at school, the office, the gym—or especially online—young people today are bombarded with images and information that can provoke or intensify envy. The longing for another’s qualities, possessions, looks, or good fortune is experienced across age groups. One study, however, found that envious feelings were most prevalent among the young. Eighty percent of people under 30 reported that they’d felt envy in the last year in both close relationships and distant ones.

The domains that aroused the most envy in young people were:

  • Scholastic success
  • Social success
  • Romantic success
  • Appearance.

While men envied occupational success more than women, women envied looks more often than men. 

Know the Facts

Looks are the most envied domain among young women between 18 and 29 years of age.

The Mental Health Impact of Comparing Yourself to Others

Frequently comparing yourself to others can cause a host of mental health problems. While the tendency to be in comparison mode often comes out of insecurity and low self-esteem, it also makes those feelings worse. Thus, the more you compare, the more you perpetuate a vicious cycle. 

Young adults who engage in frequent comparison are more driven to keep up with their peers, as well. Striving to match or surpass them on physical, academic, or financial levels can cause some young people to develop perfectionism or engage in toxic productivity

When they’re continually measuring themselves against someone else’s yardstick, young people can feel like failures. They demand unattainable levels of excellence from themselves, which can lead to mental health issues or make existing issues worse. These include chronic anxietydepressionobsessive-compulsive disordereating disorders, even suicidal ideation. Left unchecked, constantly comparing yourself to others can itself become an affliction. 

What Is Obsessive Comparison Disorder?

If you can’t stop comparing yourself to others, you may be suffering from obsessive comparison disorder. Though not an official diagnosis, obsessive comparison disorder (also known as constant comparison disorder) is characterized by a compulsion to compare yourself to others that borders on (or becomes) a behavioral addiction.

Author Paul Agnone coined the term in 2012 and wrote about it in his book, 101 Secrets for Your Twenties. Agnone argued that obsessive comparison disorder is the smallpox of his generation. He said 20somethings are prone to compare themselves to others in every aspect of their lives—from friends and family members to looks, fitness, education, career, income, and material possessions.

People who suffer from obsessive comparison disorder spend a lot of their free time scrutinizing other people’s social media profiles and posts. The more they do it, the greater the likelihood of mental health issues, according to a survey of 1,787 US young adults. Compared to those who used two or fewer social media platforms, young people who used more than seven social media platforms had a much greater likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Convinced other people’s lives are infinitely better, people with obsessive comparison disorder are consumed by feelings of discontent.

Like having to run outside to light up a cigarette, our addiction to comparing is uncontrollable and killing us.

Paul Agnone
101 Secrets for Your Twenties

How Social Media Magnifies Comparison to Others

It’s not hard to understand how social media feeds the comparison trap. TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram all bombard people with images of others’ exotic vacations, impressive accomplishments, perfect bodies, and happy relationships. These apps are highlight reels of other people’s lives. And they can cause many people—especially the young—to question their own lives and choices, damaging their self-confidence and well-being.

One study found that more frequent Instagram use, for instance, was associated with higher levels of social comparison. As people share carefully curated photos and videos that present them in their most appealing light, it’s hard for young people not to compare themselves to what they see. 

Plus, researchers have found that the negative thoughts and feelings that arise from social comparison on social media ironically cause people to compare themselves to others even more. The result is a self-perpetuating negative cycle.  

Young adults working out are often comparing themselves to others

8 Evidence-Based Tips for How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

It’s impossible for human beings not to compare themselves to others on occasion. But as we’e seen, engaging in relentless social comparisons is guaranteed to lower feelings of self-worth and 

self-acceptance. To sidestep the negative effects of the comparison trap, try shifting your focus to your own life. Here are eight ways to stop comparing yourself to others.

Limit Time on Social Media

There are certainly positives of social media. But it’s best to use it in measured doses rather than all the time. Stop following accounts that make you feel bad. Decide how much time you’re going to spend scrolling through your feeds, and stick to those limits. Turn off your phone or computer at the scheduled time and do something else: Go to the gym. Read a book. Call a friend. Notice if you feel happier when you spend time focusing on your own journey instead of someone else’s.

Identify and Avoid Your Triggers 

Social media isn’t the only thing that compromises well-being. Think about the people, places, and situations that cause you to engage in comparisons. Maybe it’s lunch with a colleague who brags nonstop about his achievements. Maybe it’s a trendy club where people compete to look fashionable. Maybe it’s a family event where you field questions from a certain relative that leave you feeling inadequate. List who and what you compare yourself to and how you feel when you do. The next time an opportunity to engage with that person or situation arises, consciously avoid it.

Remind Yourself That You Don’t Know the Whole Story

When you’re staring at the picture-perfect images posted by colleagues and acquaintances, remember that’s only part of the story. Most people don’t post photos of themselves battling an addiction, fighting with their boyfriend, or feeling lonely at a party. People carefully select photos and use selfie filters to show the version of themselves they want to present to the world. Don’t let yourself get tricked into believing that someone else’s “highlight reel” is an accurate representation of their life. In real life, everyone has struggles, but few share them in detail in person or online. As often as you can, remind yourself that you’re only privy to a sliver of the truth.

Focus on Your Strengths

You can be proud of what you’ve accomplished, without believing your accomplishments make you superior to others. Write down your achievements, big or small. Maybe you’re proud of graduating college, getting a promotion at work, helping a friend out of a crisis, or doing volunteer work. Write down every strength you can think of. Post your list in a place you see every day, or keep it on your phone. When you feel yourself thinking about someone else’s achievements, look at your list and remind yourself of your own strengths.

Practice Gratitude

Rather than ruminate over other people’s accomplishments and possessions, be grateful for what you have and what you’ve done. Think about, write down, or declare out loud what you’re grateful for. It might be a physical or mental attribute, a friend or loved one, a cherished pet, a way you’ve grown, an obstacle you’ve overcome, or where you live.Developing a gratitude practice is powerful because it shifts your focus from what you lack to what you have. And that makes you more resilient and less vulnerable to envy, jealousy, and comparison. 

Compare Your Present Self to Your Past Self

When you feel yourself leaning into comparison, see if you can stop comparing yourself to someone else (whether it’s a celebrity, friend, or colleague) and instead compare yourself to your past self. Think about who you were two, five, or 10 years ago. Acknowledge and appreciate your personal growth. When you reflect on how you’ve developed over time, you can see how far you’ve come.

Embrace the Competition

You can look at others’ achievements and attributes as a threat (what’s known as malicious envy), or you can use them as motivation (benign envy). Instead of stewing in feelings of jealousy and inadequacy, think about what you can learn from successful people. If you’re on a first-name basis with someone you admire, ask them for advice. If there’s a celebrity you look up to, read articles or books about how they got to where they are. Use the achievements of others as a form of inspiration to help you reach your own goals.

Celebrate Other People

Comparing ourselves to others is ultimately a self-centered act. To break free of the comparison trap, encourage someone else. Pick someone in your life who might benefit from your support. Tell them in person, over the phone, in a text, or in a note what you admire about them. Validate their strengths. Congratulate them on their successes. Cheer them on as they work toward their goals. If you can, help them realize their dreams. Make sure they know what you appreciate about their presence in your life. As you shift your focus to celebrating what you love about others, you’ll get outside of your own head. When you’re less self-absorbed, you’re less apt to ruminate and compare.

Treatment for the Causes and Effects of Comparison Disorder

Young adults with comparison disorder struggle with thought processes that can cause or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and loneliness. At Newport Institute, we understand that what underlies most mental health conditions is a lack of human connection. 

Thus, our integrated and tailored approach to treatment helps young adults build authentic connnections with others. As they feel less isolated and more connected, they’re less likely to fall into the comparison trap. Moreover, we support them to build self-worth, gratitude, and healthy coping skills.

Our whole-person philosophy of care addresses young adults’ physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs, enhancing their self-awareness as well as their strengths. Contact us today to find out more about our specialized programming.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the comparison trap in psychology?
  • What causes people to compare themselves to others?
  • What is obsessive comparison disorder?
  • How do I stop comparing myself to other people?

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Empowering Young Adults / October 2, 2023