“She is so charming, interesting and friendly, while I come across as so boring and dull.”
“He is so charismatic, funny, and entertaining! Why am I not like him?”
“I was feeling good about myself at the party until the extroverted, friendly John turned up. I suddenly began to feel bad about myself as I found myself comparing myself to John. In fact, I wondered how I could have felt good about myself at all!”
“I am behind in many ways compared to my college classmates. I find myself feeling anxious and low after seeing their pictures on Instagram. “
These are characteristic statements of social comparison made by some of my clients with social anxiety. Yet, social comparison is a tendency that is prevalent in mankind. It is said to have its evolutionary roots in prehistoric times when belonging to a social group ensured survival, but rejection meant sure death. Monitoring one’s status within the social hierarchy was imperative to ensure safety and prevent being ousted from the tribe.
The two factors that are said to be utilized to help determine one’s level of belonging (crucial for survival thousands of years ago) are said to be:
1) social rank: focused on power and dominance.
2) social affiliation: focused on reciprocity and intimacy.
While the social rank system monitors social hierarchy, the affiliation system promotes social connectedness and intimacy. Effective social functioning depends on the individuals’ ability to move flexibly between social rank and affiliative modes in response to changing situational demands. People with social anxiety are said to over-utilize the social rank system and under-utilize the affiliation system (Aderka et al., 2013; Peschard et al., 2019).
Socially anxious individuals typically view themselves as being deficient particularly when it comes to them having qualities that make them likable or “good enough” to be accepted by others. Social rank theory suggests that people who have concerns about having undesirable characteristics view themselves as being lower in social rank (Gilbert, 1992, 2000) and therefore experience greater fears of rejection.
People with social anxiety tend to view interpersonal situations as more competitive than affiliative (Tone et al., 2019). They often think that the best solution to achieve their end goal of acceptance would be to aim to be the best in qualities that ensure approval. In such instances being the most interesting, liked, or entertaining person in the room will often be the expectations they have of themselves. Or, as one of my clients put it, “I want to be in the top 3%”. It is not surprising then that they often use social comparison as a metric to check how they are doing relative to others.
Hazards of Social Comparison
Not a reliable measure:
When you really think about it, the metric of social comparison can vary from moment to moment for a variety of reasons. It was not surprising that my client who saw himself as among the most friendly and interactive person in the room suddenly saw himself as failing when the extroverted John appeared on the scene!
Loss of authenticity:
When focused on social interactions with the aim of being the most interesting, liked, or entertaining person, people want to win the prize of the best “performer”. This would mean always going prepared with what to say and how to behave, with the goal of winning this “prize”. This approach makes it almost impossible to be true to oneself or to make genuine connections with others. Needless to say, it also increases anxiety. It becomes akin to being a performer on stage with the audience being monitored to know if you are doing a good job.
Social interactions become exhausting:
Doing everything possible to be “liked” or “loved” would involve excessive planning, monitoring, and making social comparisons through it all to ensure that you are doing well. This can make socialization a process that is neither fulfilling nor enjoyable. In fact, it becomes hard work and leads to fatigue. It is not surprising that many of my clients with social anxiety talk about social interactions being exhausting.
Negative emotions of envy, depression and anxiety:
To ensure that you are doing well or “among the top 3%” you would need to compare yourself to people who are better than you. Making frequent upward social comparisons leads to constant awareness of your deficiencies and leads to self-criticism as well. It also takes your focus away from social interactions and conversations as you battle feelings of inferiority, anxiety, and low mood. This makes social interactions uncomfortable and difficult. Being with people becomes associated with negative feelings and something you would rather avoid.
I have sometimes had my clients who often compare themselves to others tell me that they do so because they are trying to better themselves and want to emulate the individuals, they compare themselves to. They harbor no feelings of hostility or malignant envy towards the people they compare themselves to. This benign form of envy works well if the social comparison is not excessive. When used a lot it can contribute to feelings of inferiority and loss of self-confidence.
In addition, the excessive focus on meeting others’ expectations or trying to be like someone else to ensure acceptance/approval causes one to disconnect from one’s intrinsic self. It becomes all about other people instead. I have often had clients talk about feeling disingenuous and disconnected with themselves and tell me, “I do not know who I truly am because I have been so focused on other people.”
Frequent comparisons to others who you perceive as being better can also lead to feelings of malignant envy and bitterness as the constant message you are receiving is that you are failing, and others are succeeding or better than you. This can trigger feelings of hostility towards others and prevent socially anxious individuals from their valued goal of affiliating and connecting with others.
Moving towards value driven authentic connections:
When people with social anxiety are faced with the question about their valued goals in their social lives, they invariably talk about building a connection with others. However, what is not recognized is the fact that this valued goal becomes challenging when they get caught up in the social comparison mode.
Often the values that are focused on by the socially anxious although worthwhile can become sullied when the comparison mode operates. For example, one can value being helpful or a charitable person. However, when social comparison comes into play, the value morphs into becoming the among the most helpful or charitable person around. That changes how one’s behavior is guided and impacts well-being too.
It is not surprising that I have had some of my clients talk about not being as successful, friendly, or talkative as others and how that causes them to avoid interactions for fear that they will be rejected on those grounds. However, they always say that they themselves would never reject anyone on such premises and nor do they see that playing out among people they appreciate or cherish.
Values guide us in the choices we make in our lives and help us decide how we interact with others and what kind of social world we would like to build for ourselves. When we use our values to make choices, life gets intrinsically linked to our authentic selves and also makes life a more enjoyable ride.
Leaning into gratitude and pride in oneself:
Gratitude and awareness of one’s positives is an effective antidote to the negative impact of upward social comparison as it helps to shift the focus away from one’s deficiencies and focus instead on our adequacies and even abundance.
Applying the affiliation mode more:
The rank order social mode would be necessary in certain situations eg. in work situations. However, in many social situations, the affiliation mode is what helps with social connectivity. Almost all my clients have mentioned that if they were to be given the choice of being friends with the most powerful/entertaining person they know or someone who is kind (or share similar interests for example), they have chosen the latter. Clearly it is not the social rank that is important for building connections.
Today the rank order mode is not as important for survival as it was thousands of years ago, and affiliation is what matters more than ever. Affiliation is a special ability of the human race: the ability to connect with non-kin which has helped us survive millennium after millennium.
Working on social anxiety:
Social anxiety makes one prone to using social comparison excessively and in turn also worsens social anxiety. Getting the right treatment for social anxiety will help you build genuine connections. What would be truly beneficial is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is the gold standard for treating social anxiety.
For additional information about CBT for the problem of social comparison, see this earlier blog article.
Aderka IM, Haker A, Marom S, Hermesh H, & Gilboa-Schechtman E (2013). Information-seeking bias in social anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(1), 7–12.
Gilbert P (1992). Depression: The evolution of powerlessness. Hove. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gilbert P (2000). Overcoming depression (rev. ed.). London. Robinson Publishing.
Peschard V, Ben-Moshe S, Keshet H, Restle H, Dollberg D, & Gilboa-Schechtman E (2019). Social anxiety and sensitivity to social-rank features in male faces. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 63, 79–84.
Tone EB, Nahmias E, Bakeman R, Kvaran T, Brosnan SF, Fani N, & Schroth EA (2019). Social anxiety and social behavior: A test of predictions from an evolutionary model. Clinical Psychological Science, 7(1), 110–126.