Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In a recent study undertaken by Tel Aviv University, researchers discovered that people on social media sites tended to embellish their achievements, enhancing their arguably mediocre, day-to-day activities. An example would be someone posting she had used a gourmet peanut butter brand, when actually it was a cheaper, generic version. She wanted to impress her contacts and so tweaked the facts.

The scientists referred to this behavior as social comparison, and noticed that frequent social media users actually reported a lower level of happiness on average than non-users, who were exposed to fewer situations of social comparison – and were emotionally better off because of that.

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It’s not that social comparison didn’t exist before the internet; now it seems that the numbers of people imaginatively crowing about their activities are limitless. In cyberspace, the virtual sky’s the limit in the game of one-upmanship. Like that classic Broadway song goes, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”

No one can actually assess if the achievements are exaggerated or not – but just reading about them naturally will lead to unhappiness. After all, no one wants to feel inadequate.

Social comparison usually starts as soon as a baby is born, with proud mothers pointing out how advanced their darling is, e.g. walking at 10 months, talking at 14 months, and reading at age two. I imagine millionaires at their gatherings compare what age they made their first millions, or bochrim, just days out of the freezer, gloating that their shidduch list already has 40 girls on it.

Bragging is part of human nature, and is relatively harmless as long as the listener has a healthy self-esteem and a positive sense of self.

However, many adults struggle with deep feelings of inadequacy and their lives have been negatively impacted by social comparison – usually initiated decades earlier by their own clueless parents and extended family members.

This reality is reflected in a letter published in Dr. Respler’s October 10 column. A man with much to be proud of was beset by a jealousy he couldn’t control feeling – despite his having what many would consider a successful life. He was married to a woman whom he described as a great mother and wife; children who gave him much nachas, and he enjoyed a successful parnassah. He acknowledged that many of the friends he envied had issues in various areas of their life, and that he should appreciate the brachos that Hashem gave him, yet he couldn’t help feeling somehow they were better than him. He writes that he believes it has something to do with the way he was raised. His parents always compared him to others and often put him down. “They would say things like, ‘Who would believe he would amount to anything?’”

The assumption is that all parents, by definition, are their child’s cheerleaders, advocates, and supporters. Many mothers and fathers, in fact, go overboard in praise of their children’s abilities, looks and talents.

I remember once dropping off a gift to a couple who had just had their first child together. It was a second marriage. The husband, who was in his 40s, had become a father for the first time, and with great excitement and joy, proudly displayed his infant’s full diaper, ecstatic over his son’s glorious achievement. His wife was clearly mortified.  Yet I understood, even admired, his unrestrained enthusiasm for his child, and thought that if he continued to believe his son was yotze min haklal – outstanding, and above the rest, the boy would be motivated to realize his full potential, wanting to show his parents they had accessed him correctly.

Tragically, parents who believe in their children and see them as being valuable is not a universal trait, many view their children as inferior and unlovable. It is mind boggling and inexplicable that parents would make their child feel he or she is not good enough or not worthy of  support and validation. For those children, it’s like running on a treadmill. Not matter how hard they try to please and impress their parents, they get nowhere – their parents will view whatever they achieve as inadequate or flawed. There will always be someone who lost more weight, received a higher grade, has a more successful/prettier spouse or a bigger home.

An occasional comparison is okay. It can be motivating, and the child might on his own try harder. Many great athletes, musicians, and scientists pushed themselves to be the best because of healthy competition. Yet, in too many situations, hapless children are repeatedly belittled, criticized, minimized and told how inept, incompetent, useless they are, rarely hearing any words of approval, reinforcement or compliment.

These children often grow up unsure of their abilities; have a hard time accepting compliments because they rarely received positive reinforcement and words of praise, and feel that they somehow have fooled the compliment-giver into thinking that they are more than they are. Many young adults break off promising relationships or decline great job offers in fear that their potential mate or employer will discover what big zeros they actually are. After all, they have absorbed their parents’ negative voices; that malignant voice is embedded in their psyche.

As I write this column it is the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Jim Jones, an American religious cult leader, was able to convince hundreds of his followers to move to an isolated commune in Guyana.

He convinced them to give up their independence and rely on him to make decisions for them. On November 18, 1978, he told his followers to drink a beverage poisoned with cyanide, and to give it to their babies and children first. Over 900 men, women and children died in that mass suicide. I believe that horrific tragedy launched the term, “They drank the Kool-Aid.” Drinking the Kool-Aid has come to mean blindly buying into and doing things that are destructive and doomed to failure.

The question that begs to be asked is why would a physically and intellectually healthy adult allow someone else to take over his or her life?

I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s because they did not feel competent enough to make important choices and were relieved that someone else would take that responsibility from them. In this way it’s never your fault if something doesn’t go right. There is no reason to feel like a failure if it wasn’t you who made the decision. The problem is that people who want to run someone else’s life for them are usually narcissists and psychopaths who have an agenda that puts their own needs and wants first, often to the extreme detriment and physical and emotional impairment of those who have given them control.

I truly believe that individuals with a positive self-image, who believe they are capable human beings, and have the confidence to do their own thinking and to take major risks and challenges would never willingly cede their self-determination into someone else’s hands. They outgrew that in their late teens.

Those however, who internalized a malignant message that they are useless, and can’t do anything right, become vulnerable prey who can gullibly fall into the smothering clutches of the human predators who will strip them of any shred of dignity still left.

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