By: Kusha Giahi
Imagine the following scenario:
A person who never works, cooks, or cleans. The people they live with tend to their every need. Not only does this person never express gratitude, but they’re also often rude. They often push back when they don’t get their way and are reluctant to clean up their messes without being asked. How do you imagine this person? What are your first impressions of them?
Now, what if I told you this person is a one-year-old. Pretty crucial information, isn’t it?
This isn’t a riddle; what I have done is provided you with a piece of context. When context is ignored, it can be easy to jump to conclusions and make assumptions. Our brains often take shortcuts to make up for missing pieces of information, but these shortcuts aren’t sure proof. If we’re not careful, these shortcuts can pave the way for some serious thinking errors. We may need to take steps to shift our thinking.
How Context Influences Thought
We know ourselves better than we know anyone else, and yet, we’re usually the most likely to ignore our own context. Think about a recent situation where you feel you disappointed yourself. Maybe sleeping in later than you wanted to, or procrastinating on a task. The self-critical part of us always wants to zone in on whatever went “wrong” and to do this, it can block out essential contextual information. If you focus solely on this and maintain a pattern of leaning into this self-criticism, it can lead to a consistent negative mindset towards yourself. Think back to the negative situation in your personal example and take note of all the context surrounding that event.
When Comparison May Help
Imagine hearing about a stranger doing whatever it is you were disappointed in yourself for, and that you were provided all the context. How would you judge them?
Often, we judge ourselves and put ourselves down in ways we never would towards other people. This can result in normalization of thinking poorly of ourselves, to the point where we feel we are “supposed” to be mean to ourselves. In contrast, it’s entirely possible for us to observe our context— such as how far we’ve come throughout our life, everything we’ve gone through to get where we are now, the fact that this past year was exhausting in many ways, and whatever else you may be handling without even realizing it— while still staying motivated to keep working towards our goals and a fulfilling life.
When Comparison May Hinder
The way we can overlook our own context can be applied to others as well, both in how we perceive others and how others perceive us. Think about different people you interact with and the context they know about you— a close friend or family member, a friendly acquaintance, and the barista at your favorite coffee shop or cashier at your local grocery store are all going to have wildly different amounts of information regarding your life. Often, our mind tries to fill in these gaps in information by making assumptions.
If you use social media, imagine someone looking through your profile with no knowledge of who you are. We like to present our best selves to the world, yet it’s hard not to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others— despite only knowing a certain amount of their context. An analogy I use to illustrate this is that we see others’ “highlight reels” while we know our entire “behind the scenes” footage. These can’t be objectively compared.
Next time you hear the self-critical part of you putting yourself down, I implore you to actively acknowledge your context. You’ll likely be surprised at how much you’re overlooking! When comparisons pop up, try to imagine how much context is missing and the ways your thought process might be filling in information for the sake of the comparison. Nobody is perfect, so if you’re comparing yourself to someone that seems to have it all together, there’s likely more information that you’re not privy to. This goes for assumptions as well! Try to acknowledge all the “behind the scenes” information you might be missing when judgments occur. The truth is, we’ll never know all the context about everyone, and it’s important to treat others with kindness regardless— including ourselves!