How to avoid unhealthy comparison - the thief of joy - Hindustan Times
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How to avoid unhealthy comparison - the thief of joy

ByZarafshan Shiraz, New Delhi
Apr 21, 2024 01:47 PM IST

Mental health experts share some pointers that can help address unhealthy comparison inflicted by self or others

Unhealthy comparisons can be the bane of our existence, therefore it is not unsurprising that Theodore Roosevelt called comparison the “thief of joy”! While the argument for it is that social comparison has the ability to motivate people to improve, unfortunately for young teenage minds, it mostly ends up promoting judgmental and biased attitudes and overly competitive behaviour.

How to avoid unhealthy comparison - the thief of joy (Image by Freepik)
How to avoid unhealthy comparison - the thief of joy (Image by Freepik)

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Nandini Ghatak, Principal of Modern High School International, shared, “It is inherently human to measure ourselves “up” with people who are apparently doing “better” or are seemingly “smarter”. However, this kind of comparison makes young teens feel a sense of self-deprecation and in the long term it is highly likely that they will end up as adults who lack self-worth. Constant comparisons to other “better performers” contribute significantly to making adolescents feel incapable, frustrated and thereby unhappy about who they are and what they have accomplished. This is because they are constantly being taught to look up towards standards that we as parents believe that they should be achieving.”

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She revealed, “Social media makes this even worse as they are constantly exposed to exaggerated content exacerbating the situation. Young adolescents wanting “glass skin”, “eight-pack” or “zero sizes” are often pushed into making uninformed and risky decisions detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing. Parents and teachers ideally should be encouraging young children to focus on self-improvement instead of engaging in unnecessary comparisons. We should help them to understand how to control their impulses so that they learn to take better decisions rather than being spurred on by envy, jealousy and resentment.”

According to Deanna Fugle, Licensed Counsellor working as "Senior counsellor" at JAIN International Residential School (JIRS), family is the first place where we receive messages from significant others and it provides us with the feeling of adequacy and inadequacy, acceptance and rejection. She said, “Even before children can speak, people make evaluations of them. The earliest months of life are full of messages that shape the self-concept. The amount of time parents allow their children to cry before attending to their needs communicates, nonverbally to the children over a period of time, just how important they are to their parents.”

Highlighting that the parents' method of handling infants speaks volumes, she elaborated -

  • Children learn what they live: If a child lives with criticism he learns to condemn, listening is the first step in tackling any situation and getting a solution to that.
  • Offering unrequested advice: Sometimes parents believe that when students bring problems they are seeking for advice which isn't true but they are actually wanting a listening ear. Advising is an appropriate response but not when it's unrequested.
  • Passing judgment: It's usually isn't encouraging to hear. “You know”. It's your own fault. You really shouldn't have done that. This type of response suggests that the listener is playing judge rather than walking in your shoes.
  • An important aspect of authority versus submission: Problems is when and how parents exercise discipline and administer punishment. Scolding appears to be the most frequent form of punishment, and comparing their children with others or with their peers is harassment and damage to the growth of children both physically as well as mentally.

To avoid unhealthy comparisons, Deanna Fugle advised:

  • Parents must distinguish carefully between what is firm but fair and what is harsh and perhaps unfair.
  • Some degree of strictness strengthens the growing child's personality. when strictness approaches rigidity, the boundaries and standards become so sharply defined as to confine rather than guide.
  • The child's resultant feelings of hostility, resentment, and fear may generalize toward all authority.
  • The adolescent’s attitude towards authority is based upon the reaction he had learned towards his parents in this childhood, whether passively accepting under stress, conditionally accepting, overtly rebellious, or resentful will have their overtones in subsequent stages throughout an individual's life.
  • Parents are also important as comrades to adolescent children. Another role is that of the mother or guide. When the parents do not fulfill their rolls, the adolescents may feel let down and fall prey to unhealthy influences outside home.
  • Each child purses his parent's roll according to his own needs. The parents who may be viewed by the dependent child as a loving protector, may be seen by the more independent one as a prohibitor.
  • Parents need to modify the roles according to the children's needs.
  • The overt expressions of conflicts serve as catharsis which, if repressed takes the form of anxiety.
  • Parents should treat teenagers not as children but as adults in the making but at the same time should guard them from traumatic experiences however at the same time avoiding too much of guidance.
  • Prescriptions for a specific parent-child relationship cannot be laid down. Parents who lack insight or are deeply involved in their difficulties may meet troubles.
  • Healthy acceptance of their children without comparisons is warm support to the child without being overly possessive. Children whose attachment to their parents is moderate are actually happier than those whose relations is a very intimate.
  • Adolescents do need complete confidence in the love of their parents. They should know that their parents will support them always, no matter what his/her situation is.

Talking about the impact of unhealthy comparison on student well-being, Smitha Rahul, Rehabilitation Psychologist, Student Counsellor Academic Co-ordinator and Psychology lecturer at St. Claret P.U. College in Bengaluru, said, “Unhealthy comparison can have a significant negative effect on a young person's development, particularly on their mental well-being, sense of self-worth, level of confidence, social skills, and general personality.”

Let's examine a few consequences of these harmful comparisons -

  1. Mental Health: Feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and sadness can result from continuously comparing oneself to others. This never-ending loop of comparison can erode general mental health and lead to unfavourable thought patterns.
  2. Confidence and Self-esteem: Unhealthy comparison frequently leaves one feeling less confident and worthless. People who constantly compare themselves to the unattainable standards that other people set for them may internalise emotions of inadequacy and failure, which can lower their self-esteem.
  3. Behaviour: Harmful comparisons may lead to display of behaviours like perfectionism, avoiding difficult situations, or looking to other people for approval. These behaviours may impede a child's ability to grow and develop personally and may be maladaptive.
  4. Social Skills: By encouraging rivalry, resentment, and jealousy, comparison can have a detrimental effect on interpersonal relationships. Students who are always comparing themselves to others or who are jealous of the accomplishments of their peers may find it difficult to connect with people on a real level.
  5. Personality: Unhealthy comparing habits have the potential to negatively alter a child's personality over time. It could result in a persistent need for approval, a fear of failing, or a propensity to gauge one's value more by extraneous characteristics than by fundamental ones. This may impede the growth of a robust and genuine personality.

How to combat the effects of unhealthy comparison?

Smitha Rahul said, “In general, unhealthy comparison can have a substantial negative impact on conduct, social skills, personality, behaviour, self-esteem, and confidence. It is critical to proactively address these problems by developing self-awareness, self-compassion, and a positive mindset that celebrates each person's unique abilities and accomplishments.” Here are some pointers that can help address unhealthy comparison inflicted by self or others -

  • Self-Awareness: Encourage students to recognize when they are comparing themselves to others excessively. Awareness is the first step towards change.
  • Focus on Strengths: Help students identify and appreciate their own unique strengths and talents. Remind them that everyone has different abilities and it's okay not to excel in every area.
  • Set Personal Goals: Encourage students to set goals based on their own aspirations and values, rather than trying to measure up to others' standards. This promotes a sense of autonomy and self-direction.
  • Encourage Collaboration: Foster an environment where students support and celebrate each other's successes rather than viewing them as threats. Emphasise the value of teamwork and cooperation.
  • Challenge Negative Thoughts: Teach students to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves. Help them reframe comparisons in a more positive and realistic light.
  • Limit exposure to Social Media: Social media can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy by showcasing curated and often unrealistic portrayals of others' lives. Educate them about these facts related to social media and it can help them view it more objectively. Encourage students to limit their time on such platforms and focus on real-life connections.
  • Promote Gratitude: Encourage students to practise gratitude for their own accomplishments and blessings. This helps shift the focus away from what they lack compared to others.
  • Open communication: Create a safe space for students to express their feelings of inadequacy or insecurity without fear of judgement. Offer guidance and support to help them navigate these emotions constructively.

Addressing the Role of Parents, Teachers, and peers:

  • Model healthy behaviour: Adults should lead by example by avoiding comparisons and promoting a culture of acceptance and appreciation for individual differences.
  • Provide constructive feedback: Offer feedback that focuses on improvement rather than comparison to others. Encourage students to strive for personal growth rather than outperforming their peers.
  • Promote inclusivity: Create inclusive environments where all students feel valued and respected regardless of their abilities or achievements. Encourage collaborative, cooperative endeavours rather than competition.
  • Educate about the dangers of comparison: Teach students about the negative effects of comparison on mental health and self-esteem. Empower them to resist societal pressures and embrace their own uniqueness.
  • Cultivate Empathy and Compassion: Teach students to empathise with their peers and recognize that everyone faces their own challenges and insecurities. Encourage acts of kindness and compassion within peer groups.

By implementing these strategies, we can help students develop a healthier mindset and foster a supportive and nurturing educational environment.

Sakshi Maheshwari, Clinical Psychologist at Niyama Digital Healthcare, said, “As humans, we have this inherent habit of comparing ourselves with others. Comparison is a double-edged sword; the way it will impact you depends on your perception of it. Sadly, most of us fail to use comparison to boost ourselves or grow our strengths. We rather end up demeaning ourselves, feeling miserable, and lowering our self-esteem, confidence, and whatnot. And this comparison starts from the day one is born. Parents start looking at other children and comparing how pretty their kid is, or how quickly other’s kids are achieving their milestones. As children grow a little older, they also start having these desires to own identical toys or backpacks as their buddies. As children become older and reach school almost every time their grades and performances are compared by the teachers and we never get to see when that comparison starts choking them every day.”

With the advent of social media, easy access to surmount information and ever-changing trends, this generation of teenagers especially has become more susceptible to being hit by comparison to the point that some of them fall into a trap of anxiety, depression and even have thoughts of suicide. Sakshi Maheshwari concluded, “I have come across so my teenagers during my therapy who come with issues of low self-esteem, deteriorating self-confidence, and no one to confide in. They feel so pressured by their caregivers’ expectations of doing good that they forget to explore, feel happy, and excited. It's understandable that as long as we are humans’ comparisons will persist, but to turn it into a healthy norm is in our hands, especially the caregivers. Parents want the best for their children, so sit down and ask them what they want for themselves too. This will help them gain autonomy and also give them a relief that there is someone they can lean back on, and let them explore and navigate this world. You and I did it, they can do it too.”

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