Students are evaluated on the basis of test performance, written assignments, oral presentations, and contributions to class discussion. Athletes compete for winning records, public accolades like Most Valuable Player, advertising contracts, and citations in news stories. Performing artists strive for fame. Employees receive regular performance reviews that can affect their salary and chances for promotion. Socially, many men feel compelled to impress others with their courage, strength, and physical prowess, and some women pressured to enhance their physical attractiveness and maintain qualities of sensuality and nurturance.
Our awareness and expectation of being judged continues to increase, as judgment pervades our lives. Implicit messages of comparison are experienced vicariously by viewers of talent shows in which competitors are judged for artistic, culinary, fitness, physical appearance, and social skills—American Idol, Cupcake Wars, The Bachelor, etc. We are inundated with explicit judgments as we monitor the number of “likes,” “favorites,” “retweets,” positive emoticons, and favorable and unfavorable comments on our online status updates.
Is an immersion in being evaluated, compared, and judged taking a toll on us? Are you exhausted by constant judgment, or the anticipation of it? There is research suggesting that the bombardment of judgment affects us, whether we are aware of it or not.
When evaluation is inherent in competitive performance, the pursuit of winning is accompanied by physiological and cognitive arousal. While such arousal can enhance performance and heighten positive affect, it can also induce both physical and cognitive stress and negative emotion. The desire for success is inherently associated with the fear of failure and anxiety over the potential shame of disappointing loved ones. When heightened arousal is followed by actual or perceived failure, the precipitous drop in mood can be dramatic. Less obvious is the psychological cost attached to success. In most cases, winning is but one step in a recurring loop of the need to attain the next goal. As one spirals up the ladder of success, the competition gap becomes ever narrower, with the need for improved performance more necessary. As the competition increases, the threat of losing looms.
When the competition is your own last achievement, you find yourself in the paradoxical position of having to outdo the best you have been capable of. If you have given all you’ve got to attain the status you have, there can be considerable fear that there is no more potential to actualize. Musical artists can fear the “sophomore jinx," and authors, the dreaded “writer's block.” Athletes and dancers can worry about injuries, aging, or wear and tear on their bodies. Celebrities, fashion designers, and manufacturers know the public can be fickle in its likes and dislikes. Fads come and go, and there is no guarantee that what was effective once will succeed again in the future. And you can be your own worst critic, becoming paralyzed by the thought that you can disappoint not only others you care about, but also yourself. Idealized perfection is an elusive goal, and chasing after it is like fighting windmills. Constantly trying to surpass one’s last performance can detract from understanding one’s most important worth in the lives of those we love and those whose lives are better because of us.
Television, film, and print media have long provided models for comparison. Advances in cosmetic procedures, photo-editing, and film techniques have created standards impossible to achieve. Possibly the greatest threat to our self-esteem comes from virtual indicators of our worth. Resumes and career profiles abound in cyberspace, and our progress or lack of advancement has become visible to friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. Public displays of our romantic successes and failures can be cause for celebration or embarrassment. Social media brings social comparison into our personal lives. While we have learned that little is real in reality television, we have greater difficulty discounting the implicit and explicit judgments offered by our friends, relatives, and virtual “friends.”
Research suggests that competition, comparison, and being judged are often associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and less favorable images of self worth. People who interpret their worth from external indicators, such as the approval and attention of others; grades; and rankings, are especially vulnerable to depression in this environment saturated with judgment. Depression can accompany feelings of low social rank, failure, or helplessness. The pressure exerted by the virtual world to evaluate ourselves relative to others can result in depression, loneliness, and less satisfying close relationships. The intrusion of social media into our personal lives threatens not only our psychological well-being, but also our perceptions of, and feelings toward, those we love.
Unwillingly, parents compare their children to those highlighted online or showcased on social media sites. Feeling pressured to share information about their own children, parents can inadvertently leverage their children in their efforts to compete. For example, proudly announcing that an eight-year-old can play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by heart on the piano, a parent can be robbed of some of their joy by posts bragging about a six-year-old who plays Mozart on the violin or a seven-year-old who has mastered his or her third foreign language. Just as social comparison can threaten our self-worth, extending such judgments to our children can threaten how we view them and their potential. Our children are challenged enough dealing with the barrage of judgment surrounding them. They should not have to suffer the repercussions of being part of their parents’ struggle to be judged worthy.
Judgment is inherent in a competitive society. We cannot escape performance reviews at work, or social feedback from family, friends, and others. But we can mitigate their impact on our psychological well-being through these techniques:
- Thoughtful reflection can help us keep judgment in perspective. We should not allow feedback on one aspect of our job performance, or on a particular personality trait or feature of our physical appearance, to affect how we feel about ourselves overall.
- We don’t expect a gifted surgeon to be an excellent ballet dancer. When we feel threatened by negative commentary, it is important to consider our strengths, our prior history of achievement, and our ability to improve. It is also important to consider the degree of accuracy of the judgment. Not all criticism is equally fair or deserved. Consider the source.
- Most of all, it can be helpful to redirect our attention away from what it says about who we are. Instead, shift the judgment to what we can do to improve our situation or appreciate who we truly are. While we can’t avoid being judged, we can avoid letting others define us.