The Power of Y.O.U. and the Social Comparison Trap

Social Comparison: Soul-Nourishing or Soul-Sucking? 

This is the third and final article in a three-part series about the Power of Y.O.U. 

Power Quote of the Month

Don’t Compare Your Insides to Someone Else’s Outsides.” Anonymous

Throughout my 25 years of leadership and career coaching, I’ve made it a point to challenge my clients to focus on measuring their definition of values, success and worth against their own internal measuring stick. Why? There are three compelling reasons. 

  • The first is because using a system of unhealthy social comparison becomes a slippery slope of distorted thinking leading to feelings of inadequacy. 
  • The second is because comparing yourself against your own self-directed goals that reflect what truly matters to you is the optimal way to stay centered and grounded in who you are. Not in who you think you should be or who you believe others want you to be. 
  • The third is that the only way to OWN your Power is from “inside out”, NOT “the outside in.”

Establishing this foundation is critical. By putting in the effort and commitment to pursue goals you align with, you’ll achieve greater contentment and satisfaction in your life and career. 

Let’s examine the social comparison approach to avoid its soul-sucking nature and becoming blind to its trap!

In 1954, Leon Festinger was the first psychologist to put forth the “social comparison theory.” This theory states that most individuals determine their social and personal worth based on how well they stack up against others in intelligence, social status, accomplishments, attractiveness and popularity. As a result, they will engage in upward or downward comparisons to make this evaluation. Of course, both perspectives have pros and cons. Individuals with a greater sense of self-worth and genuine desire to create change tend to feel inspired and motivated by others’ accomplishments when engaging in upward comparison. They seek to view others as positive role models for what’s possible and are happy for them. When engaging in downward comparison, they may feel more fortunate than others.

In contrast, those individuals with lower self-esteem tend to view themselves as superior or inferior to others which is typically a counterproductive mindset. To make matters worse, access to and use of social media has accelerated the volume and speed of continuous comparison unless one exercises self–control in curtailing its use. In fact, recent research reports that 5 to 10 % of the U.S. population is developing social media addiction. It’s excessive use activates the brain’s pleasure center by releasing the chemical dopamine which induces the same “high” to substance abuse. The strength of this addicition is as powerful in a world where followers and likes can seem like rock-solid proof of a person’s worth and success. But you don’t have to take the bait.

Moving forward, when you catch yourself comparing to others, STOP. Remind yourself to focus on WHO you are, WHAT you stand for, and WHY you do what you do. By coaching my clients to evaluate their worth from the “inside–out” rather than the “outside-in,” my approach creates sustainable results. 

Here are a few case study examples of how social comparison has created feelings of failure, sadness, or anxiety for clients of all ages and stages in their careers and lives and what they did to turn it around.

Here’s a few of my client examples to illustrate this point. 

Executive Development Coaching Case Studies

One of my GenX clients was elated when he achieved a well-earned and long-awaited promotion and compensation boost after our one-year Executive Coaching engagement. At the start of our coaching process, he felt bitter and resigned as the only black male in senior management who was not visibly recognized for the substantial profits he produced for his media group. The negative impact of feeling invisible and unworthy came from limited inclusion to senior management meetings compared to those he saw as intellectual equals. Yet, white men of privilege created a false sense of doubt and trust in his abilities until he was promoted. Another boomer client, a female executive leader, was passed over for a promotion resulting in feelings of inadequacy, as she watched her male colleague become the choice promotion. We focused on successfully retaining her executive composure and confidence while noting all her concrete accomplishments measured against her own standards for success. After six months of his inability to perform up to management’s expectations, he was let go. Based on her positive internal view of herself and good timing, management quickly promoted her into his role in a seamless fashion. In both cases, each of my clients initially compared and harshly judged their perceived inferior level of social status and prestige with their peers. Focusing solely on external markers of success, this process of upward comparison wreaked havoc with their feelings of exclusion from the inner circle and embarrassment at the inability to decipher corporate politics to get ahead. 

Career Direction Case Studies on Millenials

I’ve coached many millennial clients experiencing a “quarter-century crisis”. One primary culprit stems from comparing oneself to peers who’ve secured the most prestigious jobs upon graduation, with social media self-promotion only exacerbating this crisis. For example, a client of mine who was an ivy league graduate with a very high G.P.A. and a variety of strengths came to me at a low point post-graduation. He felt lost, insecure, and frustrated with no clear career path or job offer in sight. After junior year, most of his peers accepted competitive job offers to start immediately upon graduation with popular traditional careers in investment banks or the top 5 consulting firms. These days, speed of career selection seems to trump achieving the right fit. By practicing upwards social comparison, he created the limiting belief that they succeeded where he had failed. Working together, we busted this myth. By identifying elements of his leadership experiences in college and varied internships, he used his core values, unique creative strengths and purpose to leverage his personal profile into a new career path. He secured a job with a technology consulting firm focused on transformation and innovative solutions. Today his career path has progressed to working for a technology studio that partners with companies to use Artificial Intelligence to improve business processes and drive profitability. The truth is most individuals do not nail their ideal career path in a perfect linear fashion. Some trial and error is involved. A good percentage of students that got hired up to six months after graduation liked their career choices just as much. And in some cases, more than five years after graduation had advanced in their work at the same—or faster pace. Also, some of the students that seemed to have it all figured out earlier than others have come to me feeling confused a few years after graduation. They start feeling dissatisfied and unsure if the career path they chose early on or felt pressured to choose was the right path. 

Career Re-Invention and Transition Case Studies for Semi and Pre – Retirees

A major consulting firm hired me to coach two highly valued senior partners retiring from the firm. After a 40 plus year career with one employer, transitioning to the next stage of their lives and/or careers created a different type of challenge. The vivid contrast of how each of them embraced this new stage of life and career as defined on their own terms demonstrates how they resisted the trap of social comparison even at this later stage. One client was honest as he pounded his fist on the table declaring “I don’t feel the need to panic and rush to get a board appointment with a public company like many other retired partners do. I don’t need to fill the void or prove my relevance. I have my own identity and I am not my career. In fact, I’m taking a pause and am thrilled to relax and enjoy myself and my family.” I was pleased when he asserted he was comfortable pausing and just being. He said I’ve been serving others above and beyond for 40 years; it’s time for me now. I let him know I couldn’t agree more. 

In contrast, another retired Partner had to work. For her, it was vital to her well-being. She loved leading, creating and sustaining long-term relationships and learning and growing new businesses. In comparing herself to other retired Partners, she wanted to feel still an expanded sense of self-worth and importance but on her own terms. Through one of her close contacts, she secured a new type of dream job as C.E.O. of a prestigious family office. For her, this was a big win. 

If you want to build a new habit based on this month’s article, you will benefit from applying all or some of these tools below daily for the next 30 days.

With these, you will learn the secrets of how some of the world’s top thought leaders make a difference owning their uniqueness while encouraging you to do the same. 

Your 30 Day Power Challenge 

  1. Ask yourself, “How is comparing myself to others soul-nourishing or soul-sucking? 
  2. What is my personal definition of self-worth from the inside – out? 
  3. What will be my benchmarks for measuring success on my own terms for the next 12 months? 

Power Resources and Tools

Read the 1st article in this series: The Power of Y.O.U. and the Imposter Syndrome
Read the 2nd article in this series: The Power of Y.O.U. and Your Special Kind of Intelligence Redefined

I want to hear from you. Send me an email and please let me know how you did with this month’s challenge and the power resources and tools. You can also connect with me via my email: to learn how my services can benefit you and set up a complimentary discovery call with me.

Are you ready to take action and be accountable for your desired results?

Do you want challenge yourself to grow professionally and personally? If your answer is YES to both for creating sustainable change, then contact Nancy to learn more about the steps for getting there.

Nancy Friedberg

Nancy Friedberg, M.A.

Master Coach and President, Career Leverage, Inc.
Marshall Goldsmith Certified Stakeholder Centered Coach
Certified Now What? Facilitator

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