How to stop social comparison with other nurses

Article outline:

Self-doubt can be crippling for nurses. In this article, I discuss how social media use can exacerbate this problem through unhelpful social comparison and suggest some practical ways for you to overcome the issue.

Getting list in the trap

When was the last time you found yourself running the gauntlet of social media, to be followed shortly by feelings of panic and anxiety?

You forget why you even went into the app on your phone and after benefiting from a dose of intrigue at something mildly interesting you quickly transition to feelings of anxiety and self-doubt.

You notice the recent achievements of one of your peers – whether it’s someone you know or not.

You identify a gap in your knowledge that someone else appears to have covered.

“Oh no, I thought I was on top of the research on that topic, now I realise I don’t know anything!”

“That person is so much better than me!”

Social media platforms are the ultimate arena for social comparison.

They are the petri dish in which self-doubt multiplies.

But we keep going back. Again, and again.

Social Comparison Theory: How and why we compare

In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger described Social Comparison Theory.

This theory proposes that as humans, we all have a tendency to evaluate our own opinions, beliefs, attributes and abilities to other people.

This inner drive, it was suggested, helps us to form more accurate self-impressions.

Later development of the theory elaborated that we make ‘upward’ and ‘downward’ social comparisons to other people. These comparisons lead to judgments about our own personal worth and relative standing within a group.

Social comparisons most often happen with our immediate peers as they are closest in proximity and are most similar to us.

An ‘upward’ comparison is where we compare ourselves to people who seem to be better at something than us or have “more” of something.

For example, as a nurse, you might compare yourself to a peer who has already managed to bag a job at a prestigious hospital and training program.

Upward comparisons can be motivating in some circumstances. You may find that occasionally, seeing someone’s achievements may spur you on to work harder.

Moreover, there is also some interesting emerging research to suggest that specifically targeted comparisons can be beneficial for medical practice.

In one study, emails were sent to physicians that compared their antibiotic prescribing rates with those of “top performers” (those with the lowest inappropriate prescribing rates). This resulted in a reduction from 19.9% to 3.3% of inappropriate prescribing.

Whilst there may be benefits in some circumstances, as you probably know from experience social comparisons can also be extremely devastating for us too.

When we frequently compare ourselves to other people who seem to have it all figured out, it can generate envy, shame, self-doubt, anxiety and batter our confidence.

On the other hand, ‘downward’ comparisons involve comparing ourselves favourably to people who are not as good or have less of something or are less desirable in some way.

For example, maybe a peer failed more exams than you and has to retake a whole chunk of their training. It can make you feel good to compare yourself to others who are less fortunate.

Unsurprisingly, frequent comparison in this way can be harmful, too.

Who wants to be the kind of person who constantly inflates their sense of self-worth by thinking they are better than others?

As a med student, Registrar or even seasoned Consultant, social media adds another context in which social comparisons become inevitable, and we have to be wary of how it affects our own mood and behaviour.

Your own social media use

Unfortunately, the social media giants have got a fail-safe system to engineer our behaviour.

They exploit our most basic inner workings.

Our ancient neural reward pathways are flirted with and seduced by the anticipation of a Like from a friend (or stranger), by the little bleeping icon alerting us of an “important notification” or by the possibility of a short burst of delectable distraction.

If you are reading this, I imagine you are struggling to some extent with how social media makes you feel as a nurse.

So let’s ask ourselves some fruitful questions to evaluate how social media is affecting self-doubt in your life.

Think about your social media use over the past 5 days and write down your answers to the following questions:

  • To what extent did I leave social media episodes feeling more fulfilled than when before I started?
  • When I used social media, how often did I experience emotions such as anxiety, panic, fear, shame, unworthiness, demotivation, inferiority?
  • When I experienced any of these unpleasant emotions, what was the trigger? Was social comparison to other nurses responsible for this at any stage?
  • How often did I use negative emotional states (anxiety, self-doubt, envy) derived from social media use to motivate me to take constructive action towards my personal goals?
  • What was the most fulfilling experience I had on social media and why? What were the circumstances? How long was I on social media, what did I look at, what did I not look at?

What do you make of your answers to those questions?

Overcoming self-doubt: Staying in your own lane

We are all on the journey of life and on that journey, we have a choice about which direction we head at any given time.

The directions we purposefully choose to head in represent our values.

Values can be expressed as qualities we aspire to demonstrate, such as being reliable, skilful, courageous and compassionate.

As such, values are not an endpoint – you can never complete “skilful” or “reliable”. You can continue to work towards these valued directions on an ongoing basis, perhaps getting better and better over time.

The direction you want to take your life can also be expressed with a more structured personal mission statement (see below).

As we drive through life, though, there are a number of problems that arise.

First, if we’re not even clear about the direction we want to head in we can find ourselves feeling like we’re driving aimlessly, or worse still, you halt completely.

Second, even if we have some idea of where we’re headed, as we drive on the highway of life all of the other drivers seem to be calling for our attention.

When we’re looking at other people’s journeys, we haven’t got our eyes on the road ahead and may even take our hands off the steering wheel altogether.

Don’t be fooled by thinking you should be heading on someone else’s journey.


Going on social media can be the equivalent of detouring from your own quiet personal scenic coastal drive onto a multi-lane freeway in which there are numerous other cars.

As you drive, it’s impossible not to be tempted to look to your left and right constantly at all the other drivers.

As they seem to speed past in their fancier cars going to nicer places, you can’t help but think you’re not as good as them or you’re doing something wrong.

Now, of course, checking out someone else’s journey could give you some ideas about where you want to head. That’s great if you’re able to dip in and out like that.

If you find yourself veering off, losing sight of where you’re going and feeling totally awful about yourself, clearly that’s not helpful.

To begin addressing this problem one of the first things you can do is think about your values (the direction) and also your own personal goals (the places you might want to stop off on your journey towards your values).

Same values, different direction.

As a nurse, you may have values such as continuous improvement, unwavering compassion, dignity, the pursuit of excellence, being a team player, going the extra mile. The possibilities are infinite.

The great thing about values is that another nurse might be on their journey driving in what seems like a similar direction to you, but your unique circumstances mean yours will always be somewhat different.

Don’t be fooled by thinking you should be heading on someone else’s journey.

Before you can stay in your own lane, you first must know where you are headed.

Identifying your values

Identifying your personal values is a great first step.

The best way to do this is through journaling or speaking to a coach who can work through some exercises with you to tease these out.

It’s an extremely fun and rewarding process in and of itself and I love doing this with clients. There is often an “Aha!” moment when people are able to put into words what’s most important to them.

Here are a few questions I recommend you journal on to get an idea of what your values are as a nurse:

  • If, by way of magic, you could place yourself in a vacuum where other people’s opinions of you didn’t matter, what is most important to you about being a nurse? (this question tries to reduce the influence society, your family, peers etc have on who we want to be).
  • Imagine you are 70 years old looking back at your medical career. What do you want to have stood for? How do you want to have made an impact on patients, your colleagues, on health systems, society?
  • Think about times over the past week when you’ve felt truly engaged with your work. What qualities were you expressing? How were you behaving with those around you?

Clarifying your values in other life areas is just as valuable as doing it for your role as a nurse. Check out this free worksheet which I often recommend to people.

What’s your mission?

Now you’ve got an idea of some of your core values, it can be helpful to thread these into a bit more of a narrative about your overall mission as a nurse.

A mission statement is a short statement about your ongoing desired intentions that neatly weaves into it your own values.

You can also write a summary of how you intend to work towards this mission on an ongoing basis, essentially through the creation of ongoing goals.

To provide you with an example, here is my own mission statement. As you will see, there are a number of values that are prominent:

My Mission Statement.

As a coach and trainer, I wish to demonstrate leadership in the area of preventative mental health for healthcare staff as well as provide cutting edge coaching interventions to assist nurses to flourish in their work.

As a clinical psychologist, my mission is to break free from traditional notions of what a psychologist “should” be and incorporate evidence-based interventions from a variety of areas, including those drawn from lifestyle medicine.

More generally, my mission is to continue developing as a calm, kind, and compassionate person who demonstrates courage and strives for excellence in all areas of life.

To fulfil this mission:

I keep my axe sharp: I maintain a positive daily routine involving a good diet, exercise and meditation. I give myself time to rest and relax and connect with friends and family.

I commit to learnI strive to continually update my knowledge directly relevant to my psychological and coaching practice but also the wider psychological literature at large.

I give generously and inspireI teach and help others through a variety of means, including in person, written and videos. I do this in an authentic way, true to my personality.

Linking values and mission to goals

Based on my mission statement, it is very easy for me to set more specific goals that help me work towards these directions.

Because I know what my mission is, I can evaluate how well I am doing along this highly personal journey.

The benefit of this is that if you notice yourself getting distracted by other people’s knowledge, abilities and achievements, you can say to yourself “stay in my lane – what is important to me and what am I working on right now?”

It works for all areas of life, not just your career.

A great example of this happened recently when some of my friends were getting hyped about making thousands on investing in Cryptocurrency.

I was on Whatsapp reading the messages and started noticing that sinking feeling as I began comparing myself.

I snapped myself out of this and reminded myself that right now, my time is devoted to other things that are personally important to me (e.g. a new baby, my business, my health).

This immediately helped to eliminate the doubt that entered my own mind about how I should be investing my own money.

Thus, if we’re clear on our direction, we can snap out of the ‘trance of unworthiness’, as American Clinical Psychologist, Tara Brach, calls it.

Once we adopt this approach, success largely becomes a matter of evaluating how many flags you are planting along your own personal route, and not caring so much about other people or society.

Stopping social comparison starts with your own mission statement

If you want to have a go at creating a mission statement, check out this website: https://msb.franklincovey.com/

Once you know what your values are, think about your own personal goals you want to achieve.

Set goals regularly and remind yourself of your own personal progress, measured against yourself.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use other people for inspiration. It just helps to avoid unhelpful social comparisons with others.

Putting this into practice: Acknowledge-Remind-Commit.

I’ve come up with a handy little mnemonic for you to remember what you can do if you find yourself engulfed in a social media panic:

Acknowledge-Remind-Commit (ARC).

Acknowledge – acknowledge your mind is making a social comparison. It’s doing its job.

All minds do this, it’s how we evolved.

Once you’ve named it as such, ask yourself, “is this comparison helping me in any way right now?”

Remind – remind yourself of your own current and long-term focus.

Remind yourself of your values, mission and specific goals in life.

Print your values and goals out, use reminders on your phone, get them tattooed to your arm, whatever it takes to prompt you! (ok maybe don’t do this last one).

You can then say something like the following to yourself: “okay, my mind is trying to compare me to others. This isn’t helpful. My values are X and the thing that’s most important to me right now is Y”.

Commit – instead of stewing in a pit of anxiety and panic, commit to coming off social media and doing something constructive that helps you move towards your own specific goals.

For example, choose to read something on your own reading list.

Email your study buddy to arrange a study session.

Sit down and schedule a range of values-based activities for the following week including things for personal growth, physical/mental health, family and friends.

Basically, do anything that is in service of your goals and values. Be driven by those, not by random people’s stuff on social media.

How can I reduce my social media use more generally, and in effect, social comparison?

If you’ve got a more general desire to limit your social media use, then I would recommend the following:

  • Read my old blog post about how I used mindfulness to help with reducing the checking of my phone.
  • Go back and answer the questions above if you didn’t already do them – the ones that ask you to evaluate the pros and cons of your social media use.
  • There is a range of fantastic apps that help you either track your social media/phone use more accurately or even provide innovative and fun (maybe annoying?!) interventions for slowing you down or making you think twice about scrolling. Check out a great summary of these here.
  • Be bold and do a complete digital detox for two weeks. Get rid of the apps on your phone or switch to an older more basic phone. One of my clients recently switched to an old Nokia and he said it was a game-changer – no more social comparison and much more time spent doing things that mattered in the real world.

You’ve got to do the work

To overcome self-doubt you really do need to put in the work. Our minds are wired to compare ourselves to others and there is no magic fix to completely stop that.

You need to commit to being clear about what’s important to you and finding ways of focusing on that, instead of getting distracted by the other ‘drivers’.

If you do more of what you’re doing, you’re going to get more of the same thing.

Moving forward, I invite you to notice when your mind is wanting to swerve lanes to check out someone else’s journey.

Come back to the centre, keep your hands on the wheel, and drive into the sunset, for the road is all yours if you choose it.

Article written by Nathan Illman. 

Nathan is a Clinical Psychologist. His mission is to give nurses access to high-quality psychological education and training to help them prepare for and heal from emotionally challenging work.

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