Comparing yourself to others makes you vulnerable to shame

Thumbing through my sixth grade diary, a thoroughly miserable year, I found this quote I had typed and pasted on the page. “I used to cry because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

Obviously, this gave me some comfort. But comparing our suffering to that of others only offers temporary relief at best. Maybe it helped me on some days to think about footless people, but on other days I’d think about the girls in my class who had all their body parts plus boyfriends, and I’d feel worse.

That’s how it works when your mind gets wrapped around comparisons. You are terrified about your son’s future and ashamed that he’s back on parole, so you get some relief when you meet a mother whose kid is in deeper trouble than yours.  But tomorrow you will meet a mother who introduces you to her three beautiful daughters, beaming with good health–Sarah, the Guggenheim scholar, Anna, the neurosurgeon on the faculty of Harvard Medical school, and Julie, the astrophysicist who is fluent in Spanish, Bengali, and Russian and has just finished her second novel while on maternity leave from her prestigious job at NASA.

Of course, that family’s good luck can change on a dime. They could be killed together in a van on the way to their splendid summer home on Cape Cod. The unpredictability of life may also reassure you, as may the fact that many people who “look good” and have all the outer trappings of happiness, are far more miserable than people who have “nothing.”

We don’t have access to the emotional experience of those folks we are convinced have perfect lives. But ultimately the reassurances that come from any type of comparative ranking will offer you only the same temporary comfort as eating a hot fudge sundae or an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

Hanging on to comparisons as a way to lift yourself up will ultimately bring you down.  Comparisons bred shame, and feelings of inadequacy can overwhelm you measure yourself against others or by the media images that surround you. You’re not healthy, beautiful, thin, rich or productive enough. There’s something wrong with you for not being more emotionally or physically “fit.”  You are essentially flawed because you have too much bad stuff happening to you, and you’re not “getting over it” in the prescribed amount of time or the way other people seem to.

We have nobody’s life to live but our own. From any larger perspective, be it evolutionary,religious or spiritual, we are all here for a very short time, less than an eyeblink in the broad scheme of things, whether we die at age one or one hundred. We are  all beautiful and essentially flawed human beings. In the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put it, “I’m not okay, you’re not okay and that’s okay.”

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