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Constant comparisons, life lessons, and uncovering ME

Do you find yourself comparing your thoughts, feelings, reactions, actions, successes, failures, families, and relationships to those of other people?

I know I do--or, I used to, anyway.

Growing up, my little sister seemed to be better at everything than I was--she was good at school, she seemed to be one of the popular girls, she excelled at sports, and it appeared (to me) that my parents and family members loved her more than they loved me. They always seemed excited and impressed by what she could do. I was too busy comparing my achievements with hers to notice whether or not they were excited and impressed by what I could do.

Because she was, in my eyes, the perfect daughter who could do no wrong, I constantly felt like I fell short. I was an average student, I was good enough at soccer and dance to compete but not excellent enough to play varsity, and I was frequently moody and difficult to handle.

I compared every single aspect of my life to my sister’s, calculating approximately how much my parents probably loved me based on how close to my sister’s excellence I was.

Do you know what this comparison brought me? Nothing good. Shame. Depression. Anger. Resentment. And it robbed me of many years of strong relationships with my family members.

As I learn how to be confident, happy, and in love with who I am and what I do, my constant need to be better than other people is disintegrating and my relationships are becoming stronger and more purposeful.

I now focus on being different--or, not necessarily different, but individual. 100% true to who I am, regardless of where I am or who I’m around, living a life of authenticity and integrity.

My constant comparing made me feel the need to defend who I was and the choices I made, because I feared that people were judging me for those decisions and were comparing me to them.

Maybe they were, but their judgments are irrelevant to my life. I no longer feel the need to defend myself in the face of judgement (most of the time; I’m not perfect).

For example, I never had much interest in going to see stand-up comedians perform, because they have the keen ability to sniff out your insecurities and joke about them. For people who fear judgment and compare themselves to others, this comes across as teasing. It can be scary and hurtful, because when you don’t think you’re good enough, it’s tough to understand that nothing the comedians are saying is personal.

Anyway, I became friends with a comedian and, as a good friend, I made every effort to attend at least one of his shows.

One day I attended one of his shows with four other friends. There weren’t many seating options available for our merry band of five, so up to the front corner we went.

The front is the firing zone. Nobody in the front is safe. It’s the scariest (or most fun) place to sit at a comedy show.

Lo and behold, the comedian who was hosting the show locked in on me during his opening act. He asked me what I do for work. I paused. He made a joke about unemployment. I laughed.

I told him I was an outdoor educator. He said, “so you’re one of those people who takes kids into nature and tells them, ‘look kids, this is a rock!’” I laughed and nodded, because, well, yes, we DO do that. He asked me to tell him a little bit more. I mentioned our ropes course. He made another joke (it was hilarious and accurate). I nodded and laughed. He moved on.

This was an aha moment for me--I realized that I never once felt the need to defend who I am or what I do. I didn’t need him to be 100% accurate, down to the exact detail. I could appreciate the humor in the work I do. I felt good and confident in who I am and what I do.

This “win” is something I’ll carry around with me--a turning point in my life. I wasn’t worried about what the audience might think about me. I didn’t care who might be in the audience, whereas in the past, I might’ve looked around, guessing what people might do for work and comparing my job to theirs (the potential gap in our wages, the importance of our professions in society, etc.).

The other day, I was talking with an acquaintance about something I experienced in the past (we’ll call him Dude1). He expressed that he experienced something similar. I said, “oh man, my experience was nowhere near as bad as yours. It still left an impression, though.”

This comment shows how comparisons are drilled deeply into my psyche and that I still have more work to do in order to be aware of what I’m saying and how I’m reacting to situations.

A third person was there when I made that statement. He turned to me and encouraged me to not compare my with Dude1’s experience because my experience is unique to me and his is to him. He emphasized that the affect my experience has on me was legitimate and doesn’t change based on Dude1’s similar-but-different experience.

Y’ALL. WOW. I know that I had shock on my face.

This guy, who I met a couple hours before this happened, said exactly the right thing. Not only that, I’ve found myself saying the SAME EXACT THING to other people on multiple occasions. I wasn’t shocked that he said it, I was shocked that I didn’t realize what I was doing--that it was so natural for me to diminish my experience because it didn’t sound as awful as Dude1’s experience.

Naturally, I thanked him for pointing out what happened. I told him about the above-mentioned realization and thanked him again.

Mind blown.

Why do we compare ourselves to others? I’ve come up with a few hypotheses from my life. One, we don’t think we’re “good enough” (an arbitrary measurement that is completely subjective and is based on our perceptions of “worth” in society) and are trying to prove our worth. Two, we’re hyper-competitive, and being on the “losing” side of the comparison is a direct attack on our character (looking at you, fixed mindset). Three, because it’s ingrained in our subconscious through societal influences--the superlatives (i.e. best hair, best smile, most likely to succeed) and/or comparative quizzes and other media content (i.e. Who wore it better? Would you rather have x or y? And anything either/or).

I’ve decided to do some research on the psychology of comparisons because now I’m curious. I wonder about the hypotheses and theories of others, specifically those who have dedicated lots of time to researching the topic. I have no confirmed answers about “why.”

Now, the questions that are probably most important here and now are: How have I grown out of my need to compare? What did I do to reach the point I’m at now? I wish these questions were easy for me to answer for you.

It’s been a gradual process. First, I removed myself from the environment(s) I was in, because I didn’t know how else to escape my mindset. I asked a lot of hypothetical and philosophical questions, trying to dig deep into who I am and what defines me. I spent a lot of time traveling, getting to know other people, places, cultures, and ideas. I moved to a country where I was surrounded by women of all shapes and sizes who appeared to be living their best lives, being who they are to the fullest, and not giving two sh*ts about what others thought of them. It had a huge impact on me.

I kept doing and doing and doing.

Most importantly, I kept listening. I heard the person who told me that the things that annoy us about others are often what annoy us about ourselves. I started fixing the things that annoyed me about myself (because I was conscious of them and could).

I heard people when they would tell me I was doing something cool or brave. I heard them when they’d tell me I was strong. And I allowed myself to believe them.

Slowly, my confidence rose. I was able to recognize the good things about me, which helped balance out the things I thought were “bad” or made me “unworthy of love.”

There are still things about me that I don’t always like, such as how quickly and easily my mood can be altered by a tiny phrase or action by someone else, but I’ve reached the point where the things I’m working on don’t overshadow or overpower my positive character traits.

The journey is completely individual; I can’t force you to figure out who you are. You can’t force yourself, either. But asking questions, being observant, asking others for feedback, and believing people when they tell you you’re good at something will all help you love who you are. Also, know that when you see the good in others, you’re seeing the good in yourself, too. The lesson I learned above works both ways: what annoys you in others is often what annoys you about yourself, AND the good you see in others is often the good within you.

I am grateful to be where I am today, and I am grateful to not be perfect. Having room to grow keeps life interesting.

Not long after writing this piece, I noticed another aspect of my life where comparisons run wild. ART. I love creating; I crave creative time. But I rarely ever like the art I create because I don’t think it’s “good.”

What do I base my judgment off of? The work of other people.

A friend of mine recently commented that I have great handwriting and suggested that I get into calligraphy (which is something I loved as a kid). I resisted him—I could never do what some of those amazing calligraphers do. After writing this post, I realized that I was resistant because I was comparing my perceived ability to those of other people—people who have probably spent hours on end developing their ability to write beautifully. I’m realizing that if I, too, put in the time to develop my art, then I’ll be credible in my own eyes and will create things of value that I will be proud of. So now I’m going to start doodling and drawing and writing and creating so that I can develop my visual voice and create pieces I love!

I can’t wait to learn more.