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You’ve heard it at school, at work, or while hanging out with friends. The seemingly harmless phrase, “That’s goals,” in reference to someone’s body, romantic relationship, social media photos, or possessions can seem like a compliment in the moment. However, those two words have the potential to perpetuate a toxic comparison trap in which the speaker becomes the victim.
The phrase “That’s goals” or “You’re goals” has been popularized by social media to the extent of normalization, and young people are typically the audience that most closely experiences the negative effects. The phrase pervades memes, Youtube videos, Tik Toks, and Instagrams, as well as the comments section of any other social platform. When someone tells you that your outfit “is goals,” you are most likely not to think twice about it and instead, feel pleased. The person who complimented you might seem and probably is happy for you, but the phrase only helps to set up a juxtaposition between the two parties in which the person complimented has something that the person giving the compliment desires but generally does not have.
An example of this phenomenon is illustrated in my daily Instagram feed. Clicking on a random photo of a girl on the beach in a bikini, I scroll to the comments and read variations of the word “GOALS.” This type of comment usually has innocent intentions, but it can be harmful to the person receiving it, who is being presented with positive reinforcement that he or she should continue doing whatever it is that is seen as envious by others in order to be recognized, to garner comments, or to obtain status.
According to an article in Psychology Today, a Social Comparison Theory was developed in 1954 by Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist. It asserts that individuals are constantly seeking truthful self-evaluation and will tend to base their own self-worth on how they stack up against others. This is not necessarily a negative thing, as it can motivate one towards self-improvement and positive change, but it can be viewed as detrimental when self-evaluation is determined by money, beauty, intelligence, status, commodities, and more. Research reveals that a cycle of comparison can induce feelings of guilt, dissatisfaction, depression, jealousy, and self-hate, as well as destructive behaviors such as disordered eating, lying, and stealing.
Social comparison can be especially harmful in younger people, whose self-worth is still developing and who can be easily persuaded by peer pressure and social situations. College and school in general are environments in which comparison is inevitable and runs rampant: who has better clothing, who did better on the test, who is getting the top internships, etc. Nonetheless, there are tricks to start getting out of your head in order to improve your mental health and become the most confident version of yourself.
The first step to overcoming the comparison trap is developing awareness, and this can be as small as deciding to stop telling someone they are “goals.” This will reinforce the idea that self-worth is not based on superficiality, and it will also boost both parties’ self-esteem. This is not to say that compliments should be limited, but it is important to rephrase them in a way that does not make one person superior and one inferior. Yet arguably the most essential step is realizing you cannot control what others do or who they are — instead, focus on what you can control and move assertively towards your own personal goals.
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