In this article, I discuss how comparing yourself negatively to others is an example of distorted thinking which you can address with skills from cognitive behavioural therapy.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I often work with clients who engage in negative social comparisons. This involves having thoughts which focus on not doing well compared with another person, a group of people, or people in general. Negative social comparisons can focus on beliefs regarding coming up short relative to others in areas such as abilities, personal characteristics and performance at work or school, finances, sports and relationships.

In most instances, the negative mood effects of such comparisons are the result of the person using distorted thinking when they compare themselves negatively to others. This usually involves inaccurately determining whether and how much the person falls short compared to one or more other people on a particular evaluative dimension.

In the following sections, I will discuss how distorted thinking fuels negative social comparisons and how you can use skills from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to reduce the negative emotional impact of making social comparisons.

How distorted thinking fuels negative social comparisons

Negative social comparisons are fueled by the use of cognitive distortions. These are negatively skewed ways of thinking in terms of the available evidence. Cognitive distortions add to the intensity of various difficult mood states such as depression, anxiety, anger, frustration and guilt.

The distorted thinking driving negative social comparisons entails inaccurately assessing how you compare to others on or more of the evaluative dimensions I mentioned earlier in this article. “Why don’t other people get stressed like I do?”; “Ted and Melissa don’t have relationship problems like we do”; and
“Everyone else knows what they’re doing at work” are examples of the distorted thinking inherent in negative social comparisons.

Using cognitive behavioural therapy to make effective social comparisons

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you make more effective social comparisons by executing the following steps. 1. Accurately determine how you compare to others on a particular evaluative dimension; 2. Take steps to address areas you would like to improve in.

The first step involves looking at the evidence which supports and does not support the particular negative social comparison which is affecting your mood negatively. For example, you could assess the evidence supporting and not supporting negative beliefs like, “My relationships are terrible compared to other people’s” and “Other people have it together a lot more than I do.”

One man walking up and the other man going down

Given that these social comparisons are negatively distorted beliefs, you will usually be able to find at least some evidence not supporting them and in many instances you may find substantial evidence not supporting them. Critically examining the beliefs driving your negative social comparisons will then allow you to form more accurate views of how you compare to particular other people and to people in general.

So instead of having distorted thoughts like those I mentioned in comparing yourself to others, you can now engage in more accurate social comparisons such as “Even though the evidence indicates some people are doing better than me, the evidence also indicates I am doing well in many ways and am doing better than many other people.”

Benefits of using balanced thinking regarding social comparisons

This balanced thinking has two positive effects on social comparisons you make. The first is that it improves your mood substantially. The second is that it puts you in a better position to take action to improve yourself in areas you feel you need to improve on. That is, it is much easier to engage in self-improvement if you are in a good mood as a result of balanced thinking than if you are in a negative mood because of comparing yourself to others in a negatively distorted way.

May you use balanced thinking to address your negative social comparisons,

Dr. Pat