The Social Comparison Machine

Do you find that your mind often compares you to others? Tells you that you are not as good as those around you? That you don’t have the best job, or you are not as kind, smart, funny, pretty, or courageous as the other people in your life? Does your mind beat you up a lot about that? I know mine sure does! Our minds are social comparison machines.

Our Caveman Mind

Have you ever thought about why your mind might be doing that? Turns out, it’s most likely just trying to protect you. When looking back at how humans have evolved, one of the reasons we were so effective as a species was not because we were the biggest or strongest animals out there, it was our ability to work together. To form a tribe. Being part of a tribe was critical for our survival. The humans that didn’t care about what others thought of them and didn’t care about being part of the group, well guess what happened to them? They became lion dinner. 

Basically, the humans that cared the most about what others thought of them, were less likely to be kicked out of the group, and were therefore more likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations. Our minds have evolved to be social comparison machines! In fact, today, social anxiety disorder (a pervasive fear of being judged by others) is the most common of all the anxiety disorders. 

The Newer Social Comparison Machine

A cruel thing about the time we are living in, is that not only do we have a social comparison machine between our ears due to evolution, but we also tend to carry one around with us all day. Our phones! I want to preface this by saying that I think today is the best time to be alive as a species. I’ll take the perils of social media over fighting lions any day. However, it is important to reflect on what exactly is happening to us right now, and maybe why so many of us struggle. We carry around these devices that give us an endless stream of images of our friends doing cool things… vacations, promotions, opening businesses, having children, getting married, you name it. This can kick our social comparison machine mind into overdrive… everyone is succeeding, I am not doing enough, I’m not as successful, what’s wrong with me! The answer is, there is nothing wrong with you! You are not alone. We are all comparing ourselves to others to see how we are matching up, this is how we have evolved. Deep down, what your mind is really saying is… don’t kick me out of the tribe please! Don’t make me lion dinner! 

What Do We Do?

From the model I am trained in as a therapist (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT, pronounced one word) we don’t try to stop these thoughts, you can’t really, they are there for good reason. In fact, there is a growing body of research arguing that the more you try to stop your thoughts, the worse it gets (more on that later). Instead, we use unhooking skills (also known as mindfulness skills) to change our relationship with our thoughts. How do we do that? There are 3 steps; notice, name, and normalize your thoughts. 

  1. Notice it: the first step is to notice what your mind is doing. You could say to yourself, I am having a lot of thoughts right now about not being good enough, that others are better than me. 
  2. Name it: you could call it the social comparison machine, or even make another name for it, like ‘AHA, there’s that caveman mind!’
  3. Normalize it: remind yourself that it is NORMAL, that you are not alone, that everyone else is doing the same thing, that your mind is just doing what it has evolved to do. You could even say to yourself, thanks mind! Thanks for trying to protect me from getting kicked out of the tribe!

Now this won’t make the social comparison machine go away, it will keep coming back, but by practicing these skills the idea is that you slowly learn to welcome it as a friend, rather than see it as the enemy. Over time, this can make everything a whole lot easier.  

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