Social comparison

What Snow White teaches us about toxic social comparison.

What lurks within the secret life of what drives you? How to recognise our own propensities for toxic social comparison, and support our kids to release themselves from this harsh task master…

In recent coaching sessions, the theme of self-judgment and social-comparison has become increasingly resonant and prominent.  Now that our societal ship is trying to steer back into ‘business as normal’ waters, it feels like for many, questions about measuring up, achievement, and success are crowding in.

As coach – and as a former English teacher – I love a good metaphor. And often in my sessions we will work to identify mindset tendencies – and once we’ve captured them, we will work towards making those mindset tendencies more vivid, recognizable. It’s a technique linked to a coaching practice called embodiment. And it can be very very effective for being able to spot, reframe, and banish mind chatter that is destructive or self-sabotaging, or summon self-talk that is championing, sustaining, inspiring, uplifting.

It involves identifying the sorts of phrases or scripts associated with negative or positive core beliefs, listening to them and giving them tone, pace, emphasis…what does that part of your self-talk voice sound like…and giving them body, visualising the inner ‘board-member’ – often the inner critic…how do they move, what would their gestures be like as they give you those messages…giving them a character or personality…Who or what in life / fiction / film etc could they be…It helps identify and see that mindset and the quality the wanted / unwanted self-talk from further away…and make it easier to manage…you can’t change what you can’t see.

And I love, love, love, hearing the connections and associations my clients bring to the table. And the one that I have been running away with in my mind is the powerful connection between the wicked witch in Snow White and the destructive elements of our tendency for social comparison, envy, and negative self-worth…

This theme is not only resonant for us as adults and professionals – but also for parenting our kids, whose self-esteem can often be so brittle as they seek to establish themselves in the world.

But how often do we ourselves succumb to trophy-hunting and extrinsic measures of self-judgment AND judgments…and dare I say it, even envy of others? And would getting real with our own views about success help save our kids from minimizing or devaluing their own achievements or following the often self-punishing drive to be a ‘winner’?

Teachers are very familiar with the toxicity of comparison among children and teens – and in our professional business, as educators, we often try to avoid fuelling unhealthy competitiveness with rank orders etc. Following the highly influential work of Carol Dweck (Stamford), we encourage our pupils to focus on the process rather than the outcome – and turn ourselves inside-out trying to find ways of assessing and providing feedback that will help keep their eyes on a more intrinsic motivation – a ‘growth’ rather than ‘fixed’ mindset.

Society can trap us into vulnerability and worthlessness – in some ways we have all evolved to feel not good enough. And this is on the rise in young people. The notion of winning is hard wired in us. How we are doing in relation to others – and has been reinforced since the earliest days of advertising, the conditionality of our completeness- if only we get X, Y, Z. This has been amplified by our addiction to screens – our own mini ‘mirror on the wall’ of Facebook and WhatsApp shares…

The trouble is we can move into linking completion with getting better, getting more with being lovable and truly loving ourselves. And in the educational world, the voice of the inner critic, the voice of social comparison is increasingly dominant and inhibiting in the minds of so many young people.

Back to Snow White…Bear with me…
The resonance of the Wicked Queen AKA the voice of toxic social comparison.
• A step-mother…How often does the imprint of parental drives, desires and ambitions for children as impressions, reflections of ourselves (or our ‘best’ selves)…play a part in the stories children internalize about what we value and what they should value too?
• The wicked queen is beautiful and desirable. She is a trophy wife, validated by the social approval, admiration, love of the most powerful man in the land – the king. She meets the external criteria for success.

How much harsh self-judgment and toxic social comparison is handed down from adult role models to children…an intergenerational feature?

• The wicked queen is an enchantress- she maintains her illusion by magic. And this is the thing…the benchmarks of her success are illusory, unattainable perfection sustained by trickery.
• The wicked queen is driven by perfection. She HAS to be in the superlative. The fairest in the land, nothing less will do. Unless demonstrably the best more desperate and ugly characteristics come to the fore – destructive envy. How often do you wonder about how your kid is doing compared to others? How often are YOU interested in who came top? How does YOUR kid cope when plan A does not map out?
• The wicked queen is beautiful but brittle and insecure despite her undoubted power. She is hypervigilant as to her position and checks in with her magic mirror to see that she still is the ‘fairest’ in the land.
• She wants the truth – but in the words of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men…she can’t handle the truth.
• She is cruel and relentless. And this is true of the constant benchmarking of ourselves against others – there will always be someone better, brighter, fitter, thinner etc etc…

The old crone
• The incarnation of the wicked queen’s inner self. Withered, shrivelled, repulsive, insistent, not taking no for an answer.
• Her weapon of choice is a beautiful rosy, juicy apple…remember the Garden of Eden and eating from the tree of knowledge being the gateway to shame in humanity? She offers the extrinsically desirable thing to the young Snow White, if only she will eat it…What masquerades as something nutritious is actually deadly. WE often think that we have to be critcal to spur ourselves and others on to success and that imposing a sense of competition and rivalry will be helpful. The research is not with us on this. Look at the work of Prof Kristen Neff.

When and where does the wicked queen and crone come into your mind-chatter…? And that of your child / teen? If you can see her and hear her, and imagine the reality of what her way of being REALLY has to offer you…do you think that might help drop the apple, drop the mirror / screen / lens through which you pursue if not perfection or excellence, then the acquisition of something that might make you feel and look better in the short term…but be high cost and high maintenance in the long-term?

What might contentment look like – how can we step aside from this… and in doing so enable our children to do so too? We need to place our focus on connection, not making an impression. And maybe we can use the Wicked Queen to help us see the whole game and how unwinnable it is.

The imprint of our lives in comparison with others shapes our core beliefs. And it’s always worth taking a little look under the hood to see what serves you well and what doesn’t.

Child development by comparison…

Comparison is part of the human condition.

Learning by symbols is crucial to cooperation. By 12 months old we can recognise names for objects. We are always symbolically relating things – from the earliest stages we know something of sameness and difference.

From the age of 3 onwards we are capable of working with comparatives. Which is bigger, better, brighter, prettier…At around 5 we are capable of identifying comparative value – eg that a 20p coin is worth more than a 10p coin – despite being smaller. And from that it’s a short hop, skip and jump into who is the 20p sister and the 10p brother…The £5 footballer and the £2 all-singing, all-dancing allrounder Head boy / Head girl…

Right the way on into your school / uni reunion and who has the biggest house, fastest car, who has done well? Who produced the (best) grandchildren (at the right time)? Who gets to be ‘Doctor-President’ (If you know Jessica from the peerless family comedy Fresh Off the Boat)? In work, it’s not only who gets promoted – but who climbs up quickly…It’s not enough to be something good, we’ve got to have it all AND tweet it from the rooftops…

And we can’t help but indulge in just a little schadenfreude when someone’s position on the pedestal takes a knock.
And facebook / social media makes it all worse. There are far more distant people to compare oneself to…The cool /clever kid from school is STILL in your life – even if you’re 35/40 /50…

Approval seeking online is prolific and has so many negative effects – where you post for a reaction and monitor the uptake / likes etc. The passive use of social media – following, scrolling, provokes social envy and social comparison and has really negative consequences for our subjective wellbeing.

I notice how the tone and content has changed during the pandemic when people have been less able to grandstand about where they are and what they are doing…

In all of us, there exists some mind chatter about who we are, what we’re worth, and projections of worth and value onto other people. If I had a pound for every time I have heard someone describe themselves as ‘just a teacher’ in my 27 years, I would be rich. The big question is what we do with the chatter within. How can we reframe achievement in a kinder way and reduce the impact of the harsh task-master of social comparison and harsh inner critic that takes down our self-worth.

Last summer, I remember vividly, unusually for me as a lone wolf, being spiked by a collapse of self-esteem and social envy. A friend and former-colleague (super witty, super clever, kind, down-to-earth, and genuinely amazing – and YOUNG) had recently been appointed Head, and had posted about getting an offer by publishers to write a book about wellbeing for young people…Oh my GOD that was a pang!

My life choices all came flooding back to me…My mother always spoke of her mother’s vision that she should become a Head – like the one my grandmother admired with exotic beaded bracelets that jingled when she spoke. My parents struggled to ‘get’ the idea that I was not a Deputy Head any more, what was I? Never mind that I have considerable proper pride in creating a job that I love…where’s  the status, where’s the title…where’s the book…I want…I want…Mirror, Mirror on my screen…Who is the fairest of them all?

And, facing the facts, none of us are immune to this sort of ‘stinking thinking’…not even coaches…

Snow white was only truly happy and free when in exile in the fantasy land company of dumb animals and dwarves…

So what is YOUR relationship with success? And how far does it go back?

Try the ‘wheel of life’ coaching tool to score your sense of satisfaction 1-10 (where 10 is awesome) under the following common themes:

There may be some you are missing – you may want to separate out work relationships and personal relationships, you might want to add in family.

It’s not the number you ascribe that matters so much as the thought processes and values that come into play…

Notice where there are areas of gratification, and notice where there is less satisfaction. Are there any surprises? Are there any patterns that emerge? What was harder to score? What are the values and beliefs that underpin your self assessments?
However you are feeling about this next stage of pandemic working and being…whilst we are all climbing back on to the merry-go-round…

Let’s notice how we are with ourselves and the directions we are driven in…Let’s work to modify our sideways glances and strive harder for our own authentic path with more kindness, integrity, and self-compassion.

We can strive for completion and excellence with greater satisfaction when we look inward at who we actually are, strive for progress in relation to where we started, and aim for a next step that is right for who WE are intrinsically. And let’s use that as a guide to reframing concepts of success at home with the notion of fulfilment.

Questions and statements that can both overtly – or inadvertently – reinforce the pitfalls of social comparison and create unhappy little trophy hunters…who can find it very hard to ever be or feel good enough.
• Well done! And how did X do? (Where X is the class genius).
• An A* / 9 Clever you!
• Who is in your group? What group is X in? (Where you are fishing to find out whether your child is in a ranked group).
• How much does Y practice?
• How many goals did you score? Was that the most?
• Who got the biggest part?
• What happened to the other 15%? (When they got 85% in a test)…
• What school / university is X applying for / going to…
• Why can’t you be more like your brother / sister / X?
• When I was your age I didn’t spend hours on Minecraft / Fortnite!
• Well SHE can get away with wearing a skirt that length.
There are so many more – and of course we are all going to say these sorts of things from time to time – but it’s the repetition of the focus. And the layering of the way our kids see us judge our own contemporaries and handle sibling rivalries as adults…
Pressure on our kids comes from so many sources of comparison. We are going to be a part of that – of course we are. But we need to aim to be the person who provides checks and balances to the zeitgeist and who they see as being on their side – seeing THEM, a source of support and soothing for THEM.
Be the parents who back off – stop asking about grades at school. Don’t be the scary parent who is unforgiving and judgmental about other people’s kids. The impact is profound…it makes kids terrified to think for themselves, it erodes their confidence and makes them afraid of being edited and judged.
Several writers and thinkers converge around this point. From Lythcott Haims – the Stamford Dean who wrote How to Raise an Adult, and William Stixrud and Ned Johnston who wrote The Self-Driven Child.

However you are feeling about this next stage of pandemic working and being…whilst we are all climbing back on to the merry-go-round…

Let’s notice how we are with ourselves and the directions we are driven in…Let’s work to modify our sideways glances and strive harder for our own authentic path with more kindness, integrity, and self-compassion. We can strive for completion and excellence with greater satisfaction when we look inward at who we actually are, strive for progress in relation to where we started, and aim for a next step that is right for who WE are intrinsically. 
Plenary powerful questions:

  1. What’s the voice like in YOUR mind chatter that compares yourself, notices the deficits, and finds you wanting?
  2. How well is that voice, that part of your inner dialogue serving you?
  3. What would be the resonant sound of that voice, it’s tone, pace, embodiment, can you give it a character?
  4. What aspects of this article resonate with you personally?
  5. What aspects resonate with you parentally when supporting a child whose sense of self suffers collapse in comparison to others…when they DON’T get the top grade, when they DON’t get the trophy part, into the trophy team, for whom the cumulative effect of disappointment sensitises them to further harsh self criticism?

It’s so easy to get off the track of our true values and purpose – but those are the constellations that will steer us towards truer success and greater satisfaction. Not the gaudy, shiny reflection of social comparison…Some of this may bring stuff up for you…I wonder what that is – self reflection? Reflection on your own upbringing? Always remember that this is not about blaming parents – but great parents are observant of themselves and their children and make course corrections that re-tune in to their child and their purpose. It’s what next that matters. Consider getting in touch if you feel booking a powerful conversation might help.With love and gratitude,Emma.

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