Dr Imren Sterno, Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist

What role does comparison play in your life?

1 May 2024

Blog by Dr Imren Sterno – Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist, AXA Health

We all compare ourselves to others, consciously and unconsciously all the time. Why we do it, what benefit it has and how it impacts on our mental wellbeing is a conversation worth exploring.

After years of working as a clinician in the field of mental health, the negative impact of comparing ourselves to others has been part of many of my patient’s mental health distress.

Comparison is everywhere in society. We actively look to compare the products we buy, the strategies we use to make decisions, in order to ensure we are getting the best product, and making the right decision, to gain something. But what are we trying to gain?

One way of viewing the function of comparison is that it provides a way for us to understand the world around us and helping us fit in to different social groups and be part of a wider culture. A great example of this can be seen in the playground in any primary school.

During play time you can often see children playing games, to determine who is the fastest, who is the funniest, who is the smartest and so on. Children are comparing themselves and want to join and be part of a group, to fit in and to feel safe. This also creates hierarchy and social status, which is part of all human communities and cultures around the world.

This playground interaction continues throughout our adult lives, and we are constantly striving to improve ourselves and to enter into different groups to:

  • either get the better job,
  • be included into a higher social status,
  • or to get ahead or be viewed as being in a higher social position.

Evolution and comparison

From an evolutionary perspective, Festinger’s 1954 social comparison theory1 argues that humans cannot define themselves independently but only in relation to others. Therefore, comparison is a fundamental part of our own self-discovery and self-definition.

We are social animals and survive better in a group than on our own. Historically, and in the present day, we co-exist with others in a group environment, in order to learn from each other and support each other. This is how we have developed and survived.

Comparison not only serves as a way of determining how alike we are to others and help us belong, but it also serves as a way of defining us and highlights how different we are to others; helping us understand who we are.

This also helps us work out which social group we belong to and what social status we have. Therefore, by comparing ourselves to others, we are understanding who we are. I am sure you have all said to yourself:

  • ‘I wish I was like her’,
  • 'he is so much better at his work than I am’,
  • or ‘I am so grateful I don’t have their temper; they’re always getting into trouble’.

Overall, we have all compared ourselves to others, our peers, colleagues and friends, using a trait that we value or consider as being desirable, for example: money, beauty or success.

How does social comparison impact on our mental health?

We have never had a time like we do now in our history where we have direct access to so much information at our fingertips.

The internet allows us to access and to compare everything from our homes, careers, appearance and even our social achievements. I am sure you have all spent time scrolling on your phone, looking at others’ lives, as a window of access to how others live.

However, recent studies have found that this constant comparison can serve as both inspiration and positive goal setting (Collins, 20002; Verduyn et al., 20213), as well as have a negative impact on our self esteem and sense of not being good enough.

It can create a sense of ‘lacking’ something and further exaggerating our ‘lack of achievements’ compared to our peers and can create feelings of inadequacy (Primak et al., 20174; Hu at al., 20215) for example, ‘by the age of 30 I should have had children, bought a house, got the promotion like my friends’.

>Read more on How does technology impact your mental health?

How to help with comparison

So, what can we do if we fall into this trap? Unfortunately, it’s an automatic response to compare ourselves as we have explored, but there are ways to escape the negative feeling comparison can evoke.

It is about how we interpret the information we obtain from such comparisons, one size never fits all, so here are some suggestions to get you started:

1) Being aware we are doing it

If we acknowledge we are spending a lot of time looking at our ‘lack of’ by comparing ourselves all the time, and this is creating a lot of negativity, then ask yourself, how useful is this for you? How is this working for you? If it is not helping you and making you feel worse, why are you doing it?

2) Limit your comparison time

Whether it is that time you spend scrolling through social media, or overthinking how different you are to others and how ‘inadequate’ you are in comparison, try to put a time limit to these activities.

It might sound an odd thing to do, but it can really help if you put a limitation and a boundary around these activities (e.g. put a timer on your phone for 15 mins at a time for when you are scrolling on an app). This can really be helpful.

3) Write down 3 positive physical attributes you have, 3 achievements from your working life and 3 positive things a friend would say about you.

By doing this, you are focusing on the positive. Although this is not something that comes naturally to us, we need to find our own way of evaluating ourselves without comparing but by acknowledging the good, which is there, but we are not good at focusing on it.

On average, an adult has 45 thoughts a minute and 80% of these are negative6, therefore we are naturally drawn to the negative and need to focus on the positive to help us see they do exist.

4) Compete less, be grateful more

For some, writing down one thing they are grateful for each day really helps them gain perspective on their life and what they have built for themselves, instead of rating their achievements on others' lives.

5) Remind yourself...

People only show you what they want you to see! Individuals show the good parts of their lives and share the positive more than the negative, as they want to present themselves in a certain manner. Don’t forget this, what you see is not always real or the truth.

6) Try mindfulness and self-care

If we can spend time focusing on calming our thoughts, finding ways to celebrate the positive in our lives, this does promote better wellbeing and can have a positive impact on our mental health (please look out for more on mindfulness and self-care in future blogs).

It is important to acknowledge some comparison is healthy. It can help us fit in or aspire to achieve more, but when it makes us feel negatively towards ourselves and knocks our self-esteem, this is when it has gone too far, and it might be worth reviewing how well this is working for you.


  1. A theory of social comparison processes - American Psychological Association
  2. Collins, R. L. (2000). Among the better ones: Upward assimilation in social comparison. Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research, 159-171.
  3. Verduyn, P., Gugushvili, N., Massar, K., Täht, K., & Kross, E. (2020). Social comparison on social networking sites. Current opinion in psychology, 36, 32-37.
  4. Primack BA, Shensa A, Sidani JE, Whaite EO, Lin LY, Rosen D, Colditz JB, Radovic A, Miller E. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. Am J Prev Med. 2017 Jul;53(1):1-8.
  5. Hu, Y., Zhou, M., Shao, Y. et al. (2021). The effects of social comparison and depressive mood on adolescent social decision-making. BMC Psychiatry 21, 3. 6
  6. Negative Thinking: A Dangerous Addiction – Psychology Today