Self-Esteem: How to Cultivate It In an Era of Comparison

Isabella Lagarto, Staff Writer

In today’s society, rapid technological advancements surface almost daily, yet social media stands out as one of the most notable. Social media site MySpace first appeared in 2004, marking the beginning of a social media-dominated era influencing pop culture forever. Since then, new social media apps have emerged: Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and more. 

Social media encourages connectivity among people and allows some to keep in touch with loved ones. Many also turn to social media for information and awareness about world problems and their local communities. However, social media also promotes social comparison–– the idea that individuals determine their self-worth based on how their lives compare to that of others.

The growing popularity of social media contributes to social media addiction, a phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent in adolescents, especially girls. Studies demonstrate that greater social media use contributes to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Compacted with societal expectations, social media can become detrimental, especially to people who may have fragile self-esteem. 

Well before social media, the Social Comparison Theory evolved in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. Festinger based the theory on the belief that people continuously evaluate themselves based on wealth, status and popularity. Festinger claimed that people compare themselves to others to set standards for themselves, allowing an accurate self-evaluation. 

The Social Comparison Theory consists of two kinds of social comparison: upward social comparison and downward social comparison. Upward social comparison occurs when one compares themselves to someone they believe holds superiority over them, often resulting from the desire to be better or to refine certain skills. It also encourages individuals to seek ways to achieve similar results. Downward social comparison takes place when one compares themselves to someone they believe is worse than them. Downward comparisons stem from a motive to make oneself feel better about their own abilities. Upward social comparisons may initially feel discouraging, but they may become a motivator for one to create a better version of themselves; upward comparisons can produce a feeling of motivation or jealousy. Downward comparisons create a sentiment of gratitude or scorn. These emotions from typical social comparisons manifest themselves in everyday life, especially with social media usage. 

When combining problematic social media use with scorn or jealousy from social comparisons, one may feel deeply dissatisfied with themselves, possibly leading to destructive behaviors. Opposingly, positive emotions from social comparisons, like gratitude and motivation, can have a beneficial influence. Managing social comparisons is pivotal in cultivating self-esteem. Still, the process looks different for each individual. 

Here are some methods to help one improve their self-confidence in this era of comparison:

Abstain from Social Media

Managing your time on social media or deleting it can help tremendously. When one constantly views other people’s lives and becomes consumed by what they see, they may form unhealthy habits of comparing their life to others. Consuming harmful content on social media may also negatively affect mental health, especially if the content endorses problematic ideals or mental health problems. By taking breaks or abstaining from social media, one can discover more about themselves and possibly avoid content that may risk their mental well-being. 

Be Aware of What Triggers You

When solving any problem, finding the root of the issue is an important step. One should find what triggers them to negatively compare themselves to others or have a harmful thought process. Once one has figured out the circumstances or situations that upset them, they should ensure that they avoid, or work around these circumstances. The root often includes excessive social media use, but someone or something in one’s life could also contribute.

Celebrate Yourself 

Set a goal; whether one says one positive thing about oneself a day, or avoids negative thoughts. Learn to cultivate self-love and take care of oneself. Become more appreciative of oneself and focus on one’s strengths–– remember one’s accomplishments and celebrate them.