Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. Salvation Army bell-ringers are starting their rounds, and the commercialization of Christmas through sales seems to have started even earlier, compared to 2013. So obviously, media outlets, the blogosphere and social media have all been inundated with content on gratitude. I almost jumped on this bandwagon myself, to write the usual post on things I am grateful for (not to worry! That’s in development)! But then, I decided to write this post for one simple reason.
Not many people talk about the elements of our life that make it difficult for us to be grateful. Maybe its because we don’t want to acknowledge the baser side of our attitudes, or maybe its because we don’t even realize that it is indeed difficult to feel real, honest gratitude. Whatever our reasons might be, there are several factors which have a negative impact on our ability to experience and express our thanks. The most pervasive and subtle of these factors are comparison standards.
Comparison standards are exactly what they sound like. They are the benchmarks that we use to evaluate our “self” and “the others”. We do this so that we can compare our lives against others’ lives, and make value judgments. These comparison standards and judgments are automatic.
Our brains are cognitive misers. What this means is that our brains create as many shortcuts as possible to process information with the least amount of effort. One of the most impactful shortcut mechanisms that we create is the ability and tendency to categorize and label information. This mechanism is an evolutionary necessity for our species.
As we grow older, this process gets faster and faster as we encounter more and more information to sift through. With time and experience, this categorization process becomes so rapid and automatic, that it is complete in the time it takes to read a short sentence! This is the mechanism behind the development of stereotypes which lead to an “us versus them” mentality, and ultimately, comparison standards.
Comparison standards — in the context of their influence on our thoughts and actions — are often brought up in Gender Studies, Psychology, Sociology and Sexuality Studies. Within these fields, the focus is usually on how watching pornography creates comparison standards that are detrimental to the self and to relationships. The story doesn’t stop there however. The detrimental effects of comparison standards apply to almost all other aspects of our lives too. We end up trying to match our reality against the “fantasy” that we have created about someone else’s “better life”. While this might improve our ambition, motivation and drive in the short-run, comparison standards have several important detrimental consequences on our psyches and our lives:
1. Comparison standards create unrealistic expectations of the “self” and others.
Social Learning theories and Social Comparison theories teach us that when we evaluate our lives, we compare ourselves to others in order to figure out our “rank”. We also tend to compare ourselves to those who seem better-off than us in some way. When this happens, we add an incredible amount of effort into unfeasible plans, impossible strategies and unrealistic expectations to “one-up” the others. This further frustrates us, making our plans and strategies even more difficult to complete.
2. Comparison standards color our perceptions and judgments about other people.
Our brains automatically stereotype. So, we tend to evaluate ourselves against our betters, AND, we unconsciously stereotype. When we are comparing ourselves to there in this context, we looks for signs of exactly how we are different from them in positive and negative traits. This can have four possible outcomes: similarity in positive traits, dissimilarity in positive traits, similarity in negative traits, and, dissimilarity in negative traits.
Regardless of the outcome, comparison standards make us overestimate or underestimate positive and negative traits in others. They determine how we think about another person, and whether we like them or not, often, unrightfully so.
3. Comparison standards decrease our sense of self-worth.
Comparison standards make us feel inadequate or unsuccessful when we compare ourselves against others. They create self-doubt, making us re-live all the potentially “bad decisions” we made in our lives. They recreate all of our “what if” moments in painful detail.
In the midst of all that self-doubt, our comparison standards marginalize the positive aspects of our lives, which then make us feel ungrateful, and worse. Ultimately, comparison standards decrease our sense of self-worth in a never-ending feedback loop of doubt, envy and guilt.
4. Comparison standards increase negativity across our relationship.
A relationship in the loosest sense of its use, is an interaction or bond between two or more objects, concepts or entities. Comparison standards make us less effective communicators in all our relationships, by increasing negative attitudes towards those relationships.
This is because when we compare ourselves to others, and find differences, we attribute these differences to their personality. Think about it: You are at a party with a group of friends, and acquaintances, where one of your group is an obnoxiously loud drunk. Or when you are at work, and you meet up with a team member who seems lost or ignorant. Do you consider their behaviors to be “just one of those days”, or, do you chalk up their behaviors to “personality flaws”?
Turns out, it depends on your comparison standards. When we evaluate ourselves and others, and pass judgment on them, it affects our attitudes and behaviors toward these people. Even if we don’t verbalize our feelings, or don’t overtly act in a negative manner toward them, our body language – facial expressions, body posture, rigidity etc. – expresses and conveys our negativity to others, affecting our relationships in a negative way.
5. Comparison standards take the focus away from our achievements.
They force our focus onto our failures and mistakes, taking away from the time that we need to relish in our accomplishments and learn from our achievements. When we compare ourselves to there, especially those who have seemingly better lives than us, it often creates this idea in our minds that we somehow haven’t done enough to be successful. We force ourselves to work better, faster, and longer, all the time! This builds a psyche, a culture and an economy based on unhealthy, impractical competition.
Look around. We are currently living in exactly such a culture, where comparison standards have become the very fabrics that our modern society has been built into. We are never satisfied with what we own, what we have achieved, or what we are accomplishing. We learn that contentment is the root of stagnation! We believe that the rat race doesn’t have an end!
If we don’t allow ourselves to be satisfied with our accomplishments, how can we possibly appreciate them, and express gratitude?
6. Comparison standards damage self-esteem, and other aspects of mental health.
These days, social media platforms across the world are flooded with stories, images and videos of “ideals” across all topics and walks of life. Our senses are overwhelmed with content on “ideal bodies”, “ideal career”, “ideal partner”, “ideal boss”, “ideal employee”, “ideal company”, or the antitheses of all of these. In such an over-exposed, over-critical, over-competitive day and age, it becomes almost impossible for the average Joe or Jane to feel even marginally adequate!
Comparison standards eat away at our self-esteem, making us feel even more inferior and vulnerable than we really are. These experiences compound our sense of failure, and create feelings of jealousy and resentment. We worry, we brood, our appetites and sleep patterns are disrupted, we feel panicky, and fatigued, and we end up leading ourselves straight into a psychological mood disorder!
These six points are not the only negative effects of comparison standards; in fact, comparison standards can have some positive impact too, when they are used well! I could write about all of that, but that would make this post even longer! These six items are only meant to describe some internal drives and processes that make it difficult for us to express gratitude and other positive emotions. Why is that so important? Because it only by giving and receiving gratitude and other positive experiences do we express our value of others. But, thats a whole another topic for a different day!
What did you think of this article? When do you notice yourself using comparison standards? How do you cope with your standards and their consequences? I would love to know in the comments section below!
– Dr. AJ