Where double standards come from, and how to diminish their destructive effects.
A common way of thinking is to believe that all people see things the same way and therefore respond alike. In other words, we are skilled at believing others think like us. We are also adept at believing we relate the same way with everyone we know and react the same with them.
But we have double standards in our relationships—one set of expectations for some people and a whole different set for others. Double standards are common and destructive to relationships.
The Commonality of Double Standards
For decades, parents have told me, “I treat all my children the same.” But together we discovered during psychotherapy that they did not manage their children the same. Instead, they exhibited double standards, distinct and opposite methods of relating to each child in the family.
Double standards are not healthy or helpful but they are accustomed. They take place in many parts of life—with finances, family roles, childrearing, household chores, at work, and with friends and relatives. Homer B. Martin, M.D., and I share our findings on why double standards materialize in our book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.
The Origins of Double Standards
Why do double standards exist? Why are we generous with some people and stingy with others? Why are we lavish and indulgent with one child and cruelly withholding with another?
Dr. Martin and I found that prior life experiences lead to enacting double relationship standards. These experiences take place without awareness and occur automatically. We discovered the answer lies in our early emotional conditioning within our families. The way we are shaped by our parents’ emotional responses to us determines how we, in turn, emotionally condition our children. Emotional conditioning takes place unconsciously within the first three years of life. It causes us to automatically enact two standards of conduct in our relationships.
Emotional Conditioning Creates Two Roles/Personalities
Dr. Martin and I discovered that we become emotionally conditioned by parents or early caregivers around giving and receiving emotional support in relationships. As a result, some of us are emotionally programmed to be good emotional caregivers to others. We say such people have omnipotent personalities. They behave and think as if their ability to give care is super strong.
Other people receive early emotional conditioning that leads them to become masterful at getting emotional sustenance from others. We call these impotent personalities. They behave and think as if they are ultra-weak and incapable of giving care to others.
This conditioning skews the ways we evaluate ourselves and distorts the ways we see others. It leads automatically to behaviors and thinking that perpetuate double standards in our relationships—one for people like us and one for people unlike us.
The Omnipotent Personality
When we are emotionally conditioned to have an omnipotent personality and to give inordinate emotional support and care to needy others, we do not see ourselves as needing much care. We are easily abused and taken advantage of. We may have poor self-esteem in spite of stellar accomplishments.
We also do not see other people with omnipotent caregiving personalities as needing much care and support—so we unknowingly treat them the way we treat ourselves. We withhold care and support. We cannot support other people with omnipotent personalities beyond what we can do for ourselves.
The Impotent Personality
If we are emotionally shaped as children to have an impotent personality and to expect emotional support from others, we become skilled at being helpless and needy to receive that support. Impotent personalities are not good at giving emotional support, especially to omnipotent people. We easily dominate omnipotent personalities. We have inflated self-esteem in spite of few accomplishments.
When meeting a fellow impotent personality person, we expect no care. We evaluate impotent others as we evaluate ourselves, expecting no effort to be forthcoming in the way of dispensing care. Thus, the impotent also harbors a double standard, one for fellow impotents—expecting no support—and another for those with omnipotent personalities—expecting tremendous support.
Family Double Standards
We have all been part of receiving and dispensing double standards in the ways we relate to people in our families. Some young omnipotent personality children chafe at siblings getting consistently favored treatment. This is rationalized by parents because a sibling is the youngest, oldest, the boy, the girl, and so on. Impotent personality children may become angry if a sibling gets a rare show of care and attention, believing they alone should reap all the family support all of the time.
Fixing the Problem
Double standards on how we relate first exist in childhood families due to our emotional conditioning. The same standards also exist in the families we create through our own children. This takes place because of the toll emotional conditioning bequeaths to us.
If we become more aware of how emotional conditioning skews us, and in turn our children, then we can interrupt the imbalance to our personalities that emotional conditioning creates. This will lessen double standards as well as allowing us to both give and accept emotional support in our relationships. Balanced and unconditioned relationships thrive on evaluating what each person needs at a particular time and dispensing it. Rigid double standards get in the way. We can have improved relationships without frustration and confusion.