The potential downsides to comparing ourselves to others are blatantly apparent. Making comparisons can often make us feel inferior, excluded, alone, and unfortunately, it’s never before been easier to do thanks to the internet and social media. However, there’s a potential psychological explanation for why we do this, and it’s particularly relevant to young adults.
Individuals have a psychological need for a sense of belonging to a human aggregate. This feeling of pertinence to a group forms part of our social identity, which essentially is how we define ourselves within a group. Building our social identity will require making comparisons between ourselves and others in order to assess our fit within the different groups we belong to, and ultimately, our fit in society. Therefore, there’s a very good reason why we can’t stop comparing ourselves; we’re looking for a sense of belonging.
The Human need for Belonging
American psychologist Abraham Maslow devised his hierarchy of needs, which simplifies human needs and motivations into a five-tier model, typically depicted as a pyramid. To become the most that one can be in life, individuals must first satisfy the four previous stages. A person’s basic physiological and safety needs must first be met, before they can develop healthy relationships and satisfy their need for love and belonging. It’s the fulfillment of these needs that builds an individual’s sense of self-esteem and gives them the strength required to attain self-actualization and live a full life.
Far from feeling self-actualized, many young adults often feel a sense of unease; we feel unsettled and worried about what to do, where to go, what to be…we want to have it all figured out as soon as possible and trust that when we do, we’ll be truly happy and in a position to work on becoming the best version of ourselves.
Arguably, this sense of unease during young adulthood stems from the fact that this is a particularly turbulent time for the purpose of satisfying our stage-three needs; our sense of love and belonging. We’re finally ‘adults’, left to make our own decisions and use our own devices to navigate ‘life’. Not only do friendship groups and even families disperse after university or school, but it’s also the time when we’re defining who we’re going to be in society; we don’t fit fully into our former identities any more.
So, it’s natural that we would seek to invest our energy towards nurturing our stage-three needs. We forge connections and establish our ‘tribes’, to cultivate the sense of love and belonging that’s going to give us the stability, support and esteem that we need to evolve into the adults we want to be. In defining what groups we want to belong to and where we want to fit within these, we’re defining our social identities.
Defining our social identity
Social identification is the perception of belonging to a human aggregate and it provides us with a way of both (i) defining others and (ii) defining ourselves within our social environment.
Our social identities come with a cognitive and an evaluative component. The cognitive component refers to our sense of ‘oneness’ (or belonging) with a particular group and the evaluative component captures the value that we attach to our membership within that group, which in turn influences how we think about ourselves.
For example, you might identify strongly as a member of the group of friends that you grew up with – it’s obvious to you that you belong because you’ve been friends for years (cognitive) and being part of that friendship group is a big part of your identity; it’s valuable to you (evaluative). On the other hand, you might not feel like a real member of the tobacco company you’re working for as it’s a temporary role (cognitive) and you’re not emotionally invested in it (evaluative) because you’re ashamed of what the company does, so you’re embarrassed to say where you work. Your friendship group is a big part of your social identity, whereas your temporary role at the company is not.
To make these evaluations and establish our sense of belonging, we need to make comparisons; it’s not a futile endeavor. This is how we assess the similarities and differences between ourselves and others within the group and define our own identity. It’s all part of the process.
Using comparisons to our advantage
Making superficial comparisons, be it on social media or elsewhere, isn’t in itself constructive; it’s just going to make us feel bad and we’ll end up defining our place in society subconsciously, based on where our negative emotions have lead us to believe that we fit.
But instead, we can choose to be proactive about how we define our identity. Consciously recognizing how a particular comparison makes us feel can be constructive, because we can decide what the feeling we each experience means for us. Is it a connection that’s building my self-esteem in any way? Is it an association I want to continue to have? Do I want it to form part of my social identity? What do I want to stand for?
So, comparisons are necessary; we use them to define our social identity and cultivate the intrinsic human need for belonging that will propel our self-esteem and give us the strength to become all that we can be. Just remember to listen to what they’re telling you, and use them proactively to make the best choices for you; soon you’ll find your tribe.
For a useful tip on how to avoid the downside effects of comparisons, see my post ‘Why you’re comparing yourself wrong’.