“You’re studying fashion? You’ll never get a job!”
“You’re still renting? You really should get into the property market before it’s too late!”
“You’ve switched art disciplines? It will ruin your career!”

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At a time where quarter-life crises are as common as the accusatory questions that are fired at us – there is the temptation to obsessively compare ourselves to others and feel inadequate, depressed and isolated.

But being quick to label those around us is dangerous warns London College of Fashion, UAL’s, Dr Carolyn Mair, who says it’s better to embrace your true self, work hard at your craft and stop thinking it’s too late!

The Quarter Life Crisis

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We are prone to experiencing earlier life crises now as popular media puts us on the scrap heap before we reach 25. The drive for eternal youthfulness seems to be part of our culture. It’s worrying to know that girls as young as 11 years old are being taken by their mothers for reconstructive surgery and teenagers are having lip fillers and Botox injections.

We are sold the myth that ageing is a disease which we must fight at all costs rather than embracing the natural signs of ageing. The celebrity culture that promotes less than talented individuals and their relatives to celestial status suggests that anyone can enjoy the celebrity lifestyle without effort or talent.

The rise of ‘Obsessive Comparison Syndrome’

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While not a recognised mental health condition, ‘Obsessive Comparison Syndrome’ – “the compulsion to constantly compare themselves with others, producing unwanted thoughts and feelings that drive us to depression, consumption, anxiety, and all-around joyous discontent ” – is a media term that has gained popularity with the rise of social media.

Depending on the way it’s used, social media can either boost confidence and allow us to socialise with like-minded others (or those we’d like to be like) or lead us to make social comparisons with others, which can make us feel envious and potentially lead to negative psychological states.

Social media as a barometer of our worth

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Social comparison theory states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we compare to others. As a result, we are constantly making evaluations about attractiveness, wealth, ability and success. The theory explains how individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty and learn how to define themselves.

Consequently, people tend to use social media to meet a need to belong and to present themselves in a positive light with the aim of satisfying their need for self-worth. Comparing ourselves with others can be unproductive and not conducive to psychological wellbeing.

It may be that those with low self-esteem compare themselves with others more frequently than those with higher self-esteem. This is particular true if the standard we compare ourselves with is unattainable.

Take for instance, the air-brushed images promoted by the fashion and media industries are simply not achievable other than in print or on screen. In reality, the people depicted in these images are likely to bear little resemblance to the end product. This can result in an endless pursuit of this ‘beauty’ ideal across the lifespan evidenced by increased demands for cosmetic procedures (not only facial) at younger, and indeed, older ages and interestingly, across genders.

Body dissatisfaction is common and affects individuals across the lifespan with NSPCC reporting more than 300,000 calls made regarding bullying around body image in 2015 to ChildLine.
Because fashion promotes a very narrow stereotype of the body ideal, those who don’t match it can feel marginalised and undesirable. For some, this might result in eating disorders, self-harm and feelings of low self-worth.

The danger of labels

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We put people into categories to reduce complexity and help us make sense of and navigate the world. Labelling reduces cognitive load, but can result in stereotyping based on a single incident of a category. According to early research in linguistics, labelling has implications beyond the label itself. It can influence our perceptions and lead to the ‘Pygmalion effect’.

When we label a child, we are influencing their behaviour. Telling a child s/he is naughty, will encourage the child to be naughty. When a mother tells her child she needs to lose weight, she is labelling her as overweight and potentially setting a lifetime of disordered eating.

When teachers were told some children were bright, they assessed their work as of higher quality than those not labelled as bright even though the students were actually similar in terms of academic ability. When siblings are labelled differently as the clever one, the sweet one, the troublemaker and so one, there is the potential for the labels to become accurate descriptions.

Better to be a hard worker than a genius

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If we praise children for being clever we can do more harm than good. This comes from the work on mindset from psychologist, Carol Dweck, in which she suggests that individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from.

Some believe in an innate ability, and consequently have a fixed mindset; others believe their success is a result of their hard work and perseverance and have a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset  dread failure  so they avoid challenges, preferring tasks they have already succeeded in; whereas those with a growth mindset approach challenges with the aim of improving and learning as a result of failure. In doing so they become resilient. In the context of students, we should encourage students to see ‘failure’ (poor outcomes) as a route to improvement.

Breaking up with labels

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Breaking away from labels isn’t easy. There is a stigma associated with mental health which is hard to shake off and can make people feel alone and ashamed. The attempts to destigmatise mental health issues has in part resulted in medicalisation of what has been described as ‘the normal roughage of life’.

Some psychologists suggest that we can believe we have a ‘disease’ or a ‘genetic condition’ when we are just experiencing life. Some people are able to start over and build a new career/ relationship/ financial commitment after being labelled negatively; while others may feel burdened with the label and live their life accordingly (e.g., as a failure).

Interestingly, if we praise children by labelling them as a genius, they tend to avoid challenge and seek familiar tasks in which they know they can do well. Consequently they have a ‘fixed mind-set’ and don’t develop. When we praise children for the effort they’ve put in, they tend to approach challenges with the aim of learning and ‘growing’. This growth mind-set is advantageous throughout life in many contexts including education, work and relationships.

Never too late

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When we feel we’ve invested time or money into something, we sometimes believe it’ll be a waste of expenditure to give up. In reality, it has cost no more to stop at the point of realising it’s not going to lead to a successful outcome.

The resources have been spent and therefore, investing more resources in a project that has no future is more of a waste than letting go. This seems unintuitive and requires cognitive effort to analyse the situation. We’re lazy and don’t like doing this.

Consequently we keep adding to the sunk costs in the mistaken belief that it would be a waste money/time/resources to give up now! The more we throw at it the worse we can feel.

If you’re in this position, sit down and try to evaluate the costs and benefits of the situation. This takes effort and can be unpleasant especially if the outcome suggests giving up even when you that’s not what you really want to do. In this situation, ask a friend to help you with the evaluation and to support you in following the outcome that is best for you.