You’re scrolling on social media, and you see that a peer in the grade below you has an internship at the company you’ve dreamed of working for and have applied to numerous times.
Or, you’ve graduated college, and you’re only receiving dreaded rejection letters while your friends and fellow alumni are moving to locations all over the globe for their dream jobs at well-known companies.
According to a 2020 study, the authors suggest that “social comparison has a significant association with depression and anxiety.”
It can be highly challenging––and with the help of the internet, nearly impossible––to not compare yourself and your accomplishments or failures to the achievements and failures of your peers, especially when they’re on the path you want and hope to be on for yourself.
I spoke to some undergraduates and graduates to get their perspectives and gather some tips on how to cope with comparison anxiety. Read on to hear their stories and advice.
Focus your energy only on the things that you can control
For some, comparison anxiety starts with receiving a rejection letter from a school where other peers were accepted. For others, comparison anxiety comes in the form of grade comparison.
“Reflecting on it now, I exhausted too much energy comparing myself to my classmates. I spent too much time worrying about what others were doing, their grades, and how often they were studying. I kept reminding myself that I could not control what others were doing. I can only control my own actions. While I still struggle with comparison anxiety, it is not nearly as bad as it was in my first year of college.”Sarah Welch, UMaine ‘22, NYU ‘24, Speech Pathology
At the end of the day, all you can do is what is within your power.
Trust that things happen for a reason
“I didn’t get into UNE in Maine for medical school, and there were a lot of people that I know of that did. And so, for me at that time, it was a tremendous amount of comparison anxiety. Now that I’m at the school that I’m at, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. So I really think that you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be. So my advice would just be to go with the flow, as hard as that is.”Devon Varney, UMaine ‘22, is currently a first-year osteopathic medical student.
Understanding that you are on your own path is the most stress-free option, as long as you have faith in your abilities.
Stop overanalyzing the little things
“The worst part of comparison anxiety is overanalyzing. I have always been the person that wants the highest grade. I put a lot of effort into my work. When others get higher scores than me, I want to look through theirs and see why.”Jarica Wiles, Husson ‘23, majoring in Pre-Law (legal studies)
As a college student or as a graduate student, it can be nearly impossible to avoid overanalyzing the details of your efforts in comparison to others. However, overthinking can be your greatest downfall if you let it be. If you spend too much energy overthinking, you miss more opportunities to improve yourself.
Remember that we all have different strengths and weaknesses
“I would say that I try to keep my head down in terms of what I’m doing versus other students, grades, experiences, and what things come easier to what people because the truth is, there’s going to be something that comes easy to you that doesn’t come easy to the person that you’re comparing yourself to. Some people might have dealt with mental health issues, and their best doesn’t look exactly like the person next to them. Or physical health issues. Or a variety of different things.”Devon Varney, UMaine ‘22, is currently a first-year osteopathic medical student.
Your best will never look the same as the person sitting next to you because you are fundamentally different. So why bother comparing in the first place?
Focus on setting and maintaining your own goals first
“I would recommend first-year undergrad students to take a moment and write down their academic and personal goals for their undergraduate career. Every student has a different purpose for pursuing higher education. Comparing oneself to a peer attempting to get into a competitive graduate program when you are only planning on getting your bachelor’s degree is not fair to yourself. Understand what you want to accomplish, and do not worry about how your peers are performing. This is easier said than done, as interests and goals will likely change during the duration of your undergraduate career. But baseline goals will help guide your priorities and hopefully help you find motivation within yourself rather than within the competition with your peers.”Sarah Welch, UMaine ‘22, NYU ‘24, majoring in Speech Pathology.
Instead of focusing externally, pause and turn your focus toward yourself and your own goals. What are you trying to achieve? What do you want out of your education? Does it matter if you aren’t the best student in the class, if you got a lower score on a test, or if you don’t get into your dream school?
Consider taking a break from social media
“For me, Instagram and other forms of social media spark this anxiety. When I had Instagram, I was constantly comparing my life to others’ highlight reels. I felt my experiences in life weren’t those of my friends and led to an immense amount of mental stress. To cope with my comparison anxiety, I removed my Instagram account permanently.”Ethan Curtis, Boston University ‘24, majoring in Biomedical Engineering and Pre-Med.
Taking extended social media breaks to refresh your mindset could be more beneficial than you imagined.
Remind yourself of your accomplishments and hard work
“The worst part of comparison anxiety is unconsciously forgetting about all that you’ve accomplished in favor of focusing on everything that you haven’t. I find the best way to cope with my comparison anxiety is to focus on my own work. Sometimes the only way to find opportunities is to make your own.”Marc Morales, Emerson College ‘22, Visual & Media Arts major
If you find yourself having negative thoughts, take a moment to reflect on all of the successes you’ve experienced in the years leading up to where you are now.
“Have confidence in yourself. If you think you are less than others, you will act like it. Others’ success does not take away from your own.”Jarica Wiles, Husson ‘23, majoring in Pre-Law (legal studies)
You are intelligent, powerful, and strong-minded. You just need to remind yourself of it from time to time.
About the author: Emily Curtis is a writer based in Boston. She graduated from Emerson in 2022 with a degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, and is currently getting her masters in Publishing. You can find her on Instagram or read more on her website.
Photo courtesy of Elina Fairytale via Pexels