Jane's Mental Health Source Page

One of the Web's Oldest Personal Mental Health Sites [Est. 1998]

How To Stop the Comparison Game

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When I was growing up, I was constantly compared with other children; other children displayed more skills, achieved better grades, gained wider recognition for their overall performance within the community.

Comparing own children with others’ children was supposed to be part and parcel of “Tiger Parenting” — You “build your children up by tearing them down.” You force your kids to be better by telling them how much they suck.

At the rate and prevalence this occur, you’d think this was considered a best practice.

First, the WHY.
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A little perspective, now that I’ve had enough time to have perspective from when I was a teenager.

I order this list from the most benign of intentions to the manipulative:
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  • Your parents compare, because “comparisons and contrasts” is a human skill, and one that has evolutionary advantage. We all, to some degree, compare and contrast the “I” and “not I”.
  • Your parents may do this because this has been done to them, and they are parenting the way they know how (from their own parent role models, the way they were parented.) This may also be a cultural as well as anthropological norm, where competition is used to elicit higher levels of performance from people (however, competition should have rules, equal playing field, and objective judges/referees or else it wouldn’t work, right?)
  • Your parents are terrified that you are gaining independence and growing into an adult, they are desperately praying that you grow into a self reliant conscientious citizen, but they also fear they have lost much of the influence (or control) over you as they once had. Fear causes people to do irrational things, parents have high stakes in their children and fear causes parents to do counterproductive things.
  • Your parents understand the dynamics of peer pressure, and in their fear that you may not grow up into a fine adult, believes that they can use peer pressure via comparisons to steer you “right.”
    Your parents equate your achievements with their own worth and family repute, and your worth as their child. You need to be better than other children to make your parents more worthy than other parents and make your family more reputable (boast-worthy) than other families.

As a child growing up among tribes of Tiger Mothers, then later as a teenager looking to “stop the hurt”, I’ve tried different things — from doing my “best” to live up to parental expectations (the “best” that was never good enough), to emotionally withdrawing from parents, to angry outbursts and shouting and screaming. None of these worked.

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Know this: There is a level of excellence you should expect from yourself. Identify this level of excellence based on what you yourself agree as your personal best (effort.) As you carry yourself forward, you should exact this personal best effort in all that you do.
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Without this, you have not earned the right to be seen as a budding adult, and whatever you say or shout or plead or scream — will have no weight. Not just with your own parents, but with the adults in society. I don’t expect you to support yourself or pay rent — I expect you to show via actions that you have the means to motivate and steer yourself toward productive social contribution.
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Now, the HOW.
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In a nutshell: Stop convincing them. Immediately stop.

You are in a strange “game” — a dance with your parents. The more they compare, the more you convince, the more they compare… the dance has a rhythm all its own, and you have all grown used to this dance.

The music isn’t going to stop. But you can stop the dance and wait. Parents may carry along on their own without their dance partner, but after a while, most people will grow uncomfortable and stop dancing alone when the rhythm requires a partner.

Action 1 – Interrupt the Game. You begin to agree, with great enthusiasm, that other children are {variables of better}.

“Wow! They got top grades in school? THEY ARE AMAZING AND SMART! They are so awesome! They got into the best universities, early admission? I knew they would! They earned it!” — if this doesn’t sound like you, practice it until you sound like you mean it.

After all, a useful life skill to have, and one that the happiest people carry out consistently, is the ability to be happy for others’ success and good fortune.

Action 2 – Change the Game. You give credit where credit is due, with a bit of creative license, in these success stories.

“I’m not surprised, look at their parents, I mean the level of love and support they got, they must have been inspired to new heights! I remember one of them telling me how their moms got up at 3am to prepare their favorite meals and write letters of encouragement about their best qualities… {create the greatest parent-child love story, have fun}.”

Action 3 – Leave the Game. You allow parents to have their opinions but get more specific about the comparisons.

“Yes, you may be right, I may not be score as high on exams as well as them, and you don’t like this about my test-taking skills, that’s a pity. I know, I know, my grades aren’t near where their grades are and you don’t like this about my grades, that’s a pity.”

I underline the specifics. This is for your own benefit, so you can gauge whether your best effort has lived up to your own expectations. Having specifics allow you to improve in concrete ways, rather than feel bad about yourself.

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In my personal case, it sounded a bit like this: “Yea mom, I might as well have come out from a rock, I’m sorry you brought us to the United States, that I’m not as good to you as your friends’ kids, I’m sorry you made all that sacrifice for nothing, yea you’re right {to say that I have no heart.}. That is very sad for you.”

— I started doing this one day when I got tired of trying all different ways for parent to change, feeling frustrated that I wasn’t succeeding, then decided to just go along and not try to change parent’s opinions anymore. This single strategy shifted a lot of the dynamics between us.
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Now’s the time to learn how to build yourself up by doing things within your control.

When you get out there in the world, you’ll see how many people are eager to come tear you down. Learn the skills to build yourself up, right now. Parents have given you a head start on this.

Written by Jane Chin

November 27th, 2012 at 10:23 am

Posted in Family and Parents