Among the many sickening, literally nauseating, stories in the news this week (i.e. #anotherboy), I found myself grieving over this from the New York Times:
Tears literally rolled down my cheeks as my heart ached/aches for kids (like Kathryn DeWitt whose story is documented), for parents, for teachers, for counselors and all of us who are seemingly prisoners, shackled to never-satisfied societal standards.
Though standards and expectations have always existed, there’s something about today’s landscape that tightens the vice grip. Finding no way to satisfy the elusive, unattainable mark to measure up, Kathryn finally “…researched whether the university returned tuition to parents of students who die by suicide, and began cutting herself to “prepare” for the pain.”
It’s tempting to read this story and Julie Scelfo’s (the writer) answers to follow up questions published in the NYT today and shake our heads at parents who put entirely too much pressure on kids. Sure we can point fingers and shame those who have made their kids’ success some sort of sick reflection of their own self-worth. But can we for a moment shine a light on the fact that the parents are suffocating under the same expectation pressures as the kids? Sure parents are the adults. But they, too, have been subject to extreme societal messaging about performance. Parenting has become some sort of activity that can be measured – less about relationship and more about product.
And, it’s not just parents adding logs to performance fires. Teachers & Administrators responsible for classrooms where “what did you make”s, rankings (both for the students and the schools, with funding at stake) and on-line grading systems (instant judgement all day, every day for many to see and know) add timber to the pile. Social media (“carefully curated depictions that don’t provide the full picture… (on mobile) devices (that) escalate the comparisons from occasional to nearly constant”) along with live-out-loud commentary acts as kindling. Pressures for perfection fires begin to roar, looking something like this:
Classmates seemed to have it all together. Every morning, the administration sent out an email blast highlighting faculty and student accomplishments. Some women attended class wearing full makeup. Ms. DeWitt had acne. They talked about their fantastic internships. She was still focused on the week’s homework. Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.
Comparison – the how do I measure up – acts like lighter fluid. Flames fueled by words like “less than,” “ought to be” feed off their “er” friends (better, smarter, prettier, faster,…) and lock arms with “would,” “should,” & “could” to suck all of the oxygen out of our air.
Leading one to conclude as Kathryn did:
“I had a picture of my future, and as that future deteriorated,” she said, “I stopped imagining another future.” The pain of being less than what she thought she ought to be was unbearable. The only way out, she reasoned with the twisted logic of depression, was death
It’s brutal. Thankfully, Kathryn found help.
As a new school year approaches, maybe we need to admit: We are living in an expectations epidemic – rooted in comparison – in dire need of inoculation.
We’ve got to get perspective and start infusing our kids (and each other) with reality and all the regular that comes with it. Not only is no one/nothing perfect, nobody is asking for it. Change the quest from aspiring to be THE best by adding an “i” and an “r” to make the quest what it can only be: doing “their” best. Then self worth isn’t defined by what someone else has or is doing. The letter-change might not be as smooth, but this works for our best, too.
In my research for I’m Happy for You, I came across this conversation involving Seth Godin about branding. So many of the performance pressures and expectations revolve around society’s message that we must brand ourselves and our kids. I mean how else will the get into a top college or land a job?! Here’s an excerpt:
In an interview with Bryan Elliot, Seth Godin—author, entrepreneur, and marketing guru— points out, “What human beings do is art, is new stuff, is connection, and this humanity is what has been boiled out of us.” He then references the culture-changing “The Brand Called You” article and comments. “My new thing is, I am not a brand. You are not a brand. You’re a person. And there’s a big difference between being Dell and being Michael Dell. And I think that we’re now entering this world where it’s okay to be a person again.”
Brands push an idea of THE best, as if it exists. And maybe in products it does. But when considering people, best doesn’t exist. Somewhere along the way, in our aspirations to be the best, we seem to have lost sight of the person—both ourselves and others. (Seth) Godin goes on to say. “It’s all about how you can connect with people, how you can build them up. I think there’s not enough of that in the world.”
Performance pressures bring with them inevitable narcissistic tendencies – a coupling that rarely ends in good. But being comfortable in our own skin – confident in unique giftings that have nothing to do with someone else’s unique gifting – allows us to see the people, probably standing right next to us, with whom we can connect.
A friend told me once that his mom encouraged him to avoid comparison: “Don’t look to the left or the right—and be careful turning around to look behind. You might bump into something while you’re checking out all that should or could have been, and you just might miss out on exciting things ahead.”
Thanks for walking the road with me.
… on another note, here’s a HUGE shout-out of thanks to Dr. Dobson for his supreme generosity – hosting me not only on his Family Talk Show this week about Finding Contentment in a Culture of Comparison, but also for re-airing our conversation about Youth Entitlement. THANK YOU!!
PLEASE Listen to in live this week or on the pod-cast. Dr Dobson’s wisdom is always worth the time – as Meg Meeker, M.D. and Ryan Dobson.