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Constantly comparing yourself to others – what drives this destructive habit?

How counterfactual thinking – imagining alternative lives – can either make us feel blue or inspire positive change.


Why do I compare myself to others?

Social media and advertising encourage comparing, and when we compare, we engage in what psychologists call “upward counterfactual thinking.”

 

Have you ever wondered what your life might be life if you had a different career, a different home, a different spouse, if you were ten pounds lighter, if you lived in a different city, or if you were rich and famous?


“If only” thoughts about unactualized states and things that might have been are called “counterfactuals”. All of us have an innate tendency to fantasize about possible alternatives to the life that we have, and it’s something most people do automatically very early in life, usually by the age of two.


The phenomenon of counterfactual thinking was explored by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1982 in their book “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases", and is now a hot topic in psychological research with implications for learning, creativity, problem solving as well as the maintenance of mood states such as anxiety and depression.


Counterfactual thinking — thinking counter to the facts — can be helpful because it enables us to learn from mistakes, set goals and change behaviors to improve our lives. But in the digital age, when it’s almost impossible to escape the influence of Instagram, Facebook and advertising, the negative effects of counterfactual thinking can easily outweigh the positive.


Social media and advertising encourage comparing, and when we compare, we engage in what psychologists call “upward counterfactual thinking.” Upward counterfactuals are thoughts generated when we imagine better rather than worse alternative situations and circumstances for ourselves – for example when we look enviously at a billboard advert of man driving a red Ferrari and imagine that's us, or when we see a photo of a high school friend with a handsome husband and cute baby and wish we had what she has.


Upward counterfactuals can contribute to low self-esteem, self-pity, depression, worry and despair when we feel that our own life pales in comparison to our imaginary life, and when we feel powerless over our circumstances. However, upward counterfactuals can also lead to goal-oriented thinking and behavior that will either move us towards actualizing our ideal life or help us find ways to make our present life fuller and more satisfying.

 

Cognitive Behavioral Hypnotherapy (CBT) is one way to mitigate the negative effect of counterfactual thinking and use your ability to fantasize to your advantage to get out of the rut of comparing and achieve what’s important and meaningful to you. Another useful tip is to stay off social media for a while!


By Michele Koh Morollo, NUMEN NoSC Therapies

 

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