Comparison vs Compassion

Have you ever found yourself comparing yourself to others? Looking outwards to a friend, family member, colleague or neighbour and reflecting that they have more than you in some way? Or crucially, that you are less than them in some way?

Maybe your intelligence, appearance, the things you have (cars, clothes, money, success) or your happiness? Well, the answer is probably ‘yes’, because social comparison is an exceptionally common thing that human beings do. 

In fact, there are some estimates that on average, 10% of our thoughts are about comparisons in some way.


Comparison vs Compassion

Why do we compare ourselves to others?

There’s lots of ideas about why social comparison happens, and some particularly interesting ones link to evolutionary theory. Professor Paul Gilbert, who developed Compassion Focused Therapy, has written and published a substantial amount on social rank theory. Social rank theory suggests that, like other animals, humans evolved needing to compete for resources to survive, and as a social dwelling species, also had to have fast acting mental mechanisms to allow them to navigate their relative rank in a hierarchy in comparison to others.  

For example, just like chimpanzees, we need to be able to tell whether we have low power and rank and therefore are wiser to be submissive, appeasing and cooperative to get by, or, for various reasons (e.g. strength and physical prowess as a dominant male chimp in a troop), able to dominate others with threats of violence. 

It’s suggested that whilst humans can orientate hierarchies around physical strength and dominance, we commonly do this more on attractiveness. Now, this isn’t just physical attractiveness, but rather, by showing competence, skill, gaining favour and being liked. If you think about, so much of what we see around us – whether on social media, on television or movies, or in magazines, involves the display of people with (often culturally and contextually defined) high competence, skill and attractiveness. So no wonder our brains are constantly getting bombarded with signals linked to social rank and upwards and downwards comparisons.

Regardless of the type of ranking style being focused on, social comparison is the mechanism that allows us to track ourselves in relation to others. In this sense, it’s an essential component for navigating interpersonal interactions, work and social relationships more generally.


Where do you rank yourself?

social comparison

Various researchers, including those interested in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and self-compassion, have found that it’s not just that we compare ourselves to other – or how often we do this that matters – but what type of comparison you do. Let me explain a bit more.

Research based on a questionnaire called the Social Comparison Scale has consistently found that when we compare ourselves negatively to other people, this is related to a wide range of difficulties. For example, the more you see youself negatively across a variety of areas – for example, how attractive, intelligent, popular and competent – to higher you’re likely to be self-critical, ashamed, low in mood and anxious.

In fact, getting a sense of your level of social comparison can be a helpful starting point in bringing change. Like with most things, awareness and understanding of a problem is the first step before we can do something about it. If you’d like to find out about your level of social comparison, take our online test here:

How can compassion help?

The good news is that people can shift from comparing themselves negatveily to others. One powerful way is through practicing self-compassion. In fact, at Balanced Minds we conducted some research on our 8 Week ‘Compassionate Mind Training’ (CMT) group, in which people learn how to develop their compassionate minds and practice being more compassionate to themselves. In our published study, we found that after practicing CMT skills for 8 weeks, participants didn’t compare themselves so negatively with others anymore. In a way, self-compassion helped them to feel less inferior.

How does compassion practice help with social comparison? Well, instead of being stuck in the social rank system, which tends to tie us to negative social comparison, shame, submissive behaviour and contingent self-esteem, we instead move to our care-based, affiliative system, which links to us feeling safe, cared for and supported. This care-based system is associated with important physiological responses that help our body to regulate threat.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can change the way you compare yourself to others, take a look at some of the ways we can help you below:

Dr Chris Irons, Director, Balanced Minds


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