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The Imperative to Stand Out and Its Hidden Injuries

Youth peer comparisons are fanning the flames of anxiety and depression.

By most standards, Liz is doing very well. A sophomore at a highly selective and well-respected university, Liz has good grades, works as an editor for a literary magazine on campus, and frequently volunteers as an ESL tutor. She gets along well with her parents and brother, and the family, of Asian background, is comfortably well-to-do. Yet Liz is miserable and angry. She describes herself to me in our interview as “pathetic” and says her life “sucks.”

According to Liz, a graduate of an elite magnet high school, her less than exceptional performance at college, both academically and in extracurricular activities, makes her feel “ashamed” and “bitter.” It is not enough for her to do well. She has to stand out from her peers. She has to show, she believes, that she is “better than everyone else.” But rather than “special” and visible, she is feeling “ordinary,” undistinguished, and fears a demotion of her very being to a lower status—to that of a “loser,” to “the exact type of person,” she says, “that I thought I was not.”

For Liz, her failure to stand out, to demonstrate superior talents and characteristics, is not a mere disappointment or social setback or blow to future plans. Nor is it, she insists, a matter of unreasonable expectations. The problem is with herself. She needs to stand out “in order to prove something about myself.” What is at stake for Liz is her worth as a person, and failure is calling it into question. Her distress at this prospect is hard to overstate.

Liz’s experience is all too common. Over the past two decades, researchers have been comparing young people in different educational contexts. Relative to youth in general, they have found disturbingly high rates of “internalizing symptoms” (anxiety, depression, somatic complaints), substance use (e.g. alcohol and marijuana) and other covert rule-breaking behaviors (e.g. cheating and stealing) among youth at high-achieving schools. These are schools, such as Liz has attended, that have high standardized test scores, rich extracurricular and AP offerings, and a stream of graduates who go on to elite universities. Paradoxically, such students, coming typically but not exclusively from affluent, college-educated, two-parent families, are now considered an “at-risk group,” alongside those exposed to poverty, trauma, and discrimination.

Along with her colleagues, the psychologist Suniya Luthar, Co-Founder of Authentic Connections and professor emerita from the Columbia University Teacher’s College, has been instrumental in drawing attention to the hidden injuries of youth in upper-middle-class contexts. Her team has demonstrated the connection between chronic stress and the all-encompassing demands to excel and achieve placed on these youth and their perceived failures to meet the sort of expectations that Liz expresses—to be “better than everyone else.”

In their most recent paper, published this summer in Adversity and Resilience Science, Luthar and colleagues explore the “perils of pressures to be ‘standouts.’” What dimensions of academic and extracurricular achievement pressure, they ask, might exacerbate internalizing symptoms and rule-breaking for high-achieving school students and what factors might help mitigate the risk of such harm?

The exacerbating dimensions they consider include feelings of envy, comparisons on social media (e.g. “Your life is not as exciting as others”), negative feedback from others on social media (e.g. “How often do people say mean things to you or about you on social media”), and time pressure. The possible mitigating factors are support from close friends and attachment to parents. For the analysis, they draw on surveys of more than 1,600 students at three private, high-achieving schools in three different regions of the country.

Their findings suggest that peer comparisons over social media can really fan the flames of competition and pervasive feelings of falling short. Across all the school samples, there were consistent and pronounced links between peer comparisons and anxious-depressed and withdrawn-depressed symptoms.

The peril was in the comparisons, not, as has been frequently suggested, simply in the amount of time spent on social media. Comparison was also more significant than envy, a concept, as used in these studies, that includes both a sense of inferiority and of ill will toward those who are achieving more. Perhaps, as Liz suggests, personal worth is realized in being one of the special people. If there is ill will, it is directed at herself and toward the type of person she thought she was not.

The link between comparison and internalizing symptoms was strong for both boys and girls, a finding that runs contrary to research that has stressed a differential effect of social media on girls. In the case of negative feedback on social media, the primary association was with somatic symptoms, a sign that the criticism and put-downs may be perceived as threatening to self-esteem or social standing.

Finally, while close attachment to either parent was, predictably, associated with less distress, closeness to or support from friends showed little protective function.

In their directions for interventions, Luthar and colleagues underscore the need for proactive steps by schools, parents, and other adults to reduce the occasions for student social comparisons. But, more deeply, they stress the issue of self-worth and its dependence on continuous and tangible accomplishments. This dependence is the heart of the problem.

As Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb showed in their classic study, The Hidden Injuries of Class, the “calculations of ability” in a meritocratic society “create an image of a few individuals standing out from the mass” and schemes of respect in which there is “no room for failure.” While this generates feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy among those lowly placed, they also note that the same logic of merit can be no less harsh in the upper classes. As Liz’s experience testifies, failure to stand out can be experienced as a repudiation of one’s worth. And unless that insidious equation can be addressed, other interventions are likely to be futile.