Disclaimer: the subject I am about to broach is as far from unique as they come.
For as long as I can remember, I have compared myself to others. I have felt what it’s like to be the slowest swimmer in a race and also the top student in a class and I know which feeling I like better. It’s natural to want to succeed. In fact, in small doses, comparison can be a healthy motivator. But when it keeps you from trying something new or when you fear and loathe failure, it can become a very big problem.
The concept that “comparison is the thief of joy” is nothing we haven’t heard before. But simply telling yourself that you shouldn’t let something affect you is like trying to convince your nut allergy to go away – your efforts are usually unsuccessful. That’s why, when I found this quote the other day, I decided to work to retrain my own brain:
I love this quote because it implies that, like many things in life, overcoming an obstacle requires ACTION. And this type of action is one I can get behind.
It’s true, if you think about it. Think back to a time in your life where you were so busy or passionate about a project or job or relationship that you didn’t even have the time or energy to waste wondering what everyone else thought or was doing. When we are moving toward a goal or dream or when we are grateful for what we have, we are less likely to want what someone else has or put such heated mental emphasis on our own flaws.
For me, a perfect example of that was when I was 23 years old. I had gone from living at home with my parents working a job I hated to living in Boston, in an apartment with friends, working for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and literally helping to make dreams come true for kids. I was spending time with friends, I pushed myself to train and complete a half-marathon, I met the man of my dreams. I was SO happy at that point, that I even pushed myself toward the bigger goal of applying to nursing school – it felt like the sky was the limit and that little voice in the back of my head that usually told me I couldn’t do something had shut up completely.
Fast forward from that beautiful spot. I left Boston and moved to Indiana and again to Arizona. I struggled being far from family and friends. I worked and went to school, which was a lot. I entered into a field that took more work and didn’t come as naturally to me academically. I watched my friends back home seamlessly transitioning into their new careers and lives, watched them get engaged, have babies. Wondered where my ring was, why I wasn’t more accomplished, why my social life felt null and void. Completed nursing school and couldn’t immediately get a job in pediatrics, accepted a position in the neuro ICU and felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life. Lost sleep, gained weight.
I remained patient, but not by choice. And eventually, the wedding came, the baby came, we moved back to Boston, and I secured a job in pediatrics. I figured everything would be smooth sailing again and that comparison wouldn’t rear her ugly head anymore.
Her ugly head still rears from time to time. Not so much career-wise, but in other ways. Sometimes it’s in a yoga class when I feel hot tears prick my eyes because I am not doing as well as the rest of the class or am “bad” at something. Sometimes it’s when I try to eat healthy but catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror while wearing a bathing suit and cringe. Sometimes it’s when I see people moving on to grow their families bigger and I still feel like I can’t grow mine because we don’t have a house or the space or schedules that work. Sometimes (and I hate to admit this), it’s when I hear other kids my son’s age talking up a storm and I am afraid he isn’t where he needs to be because of what I have read or what the pediatrician says – then, of course, I assume it’s because I’m not doing something I should be or I am not a good enough, involved enough mom (how dare I work 3 days a week!).
The beautiful thing is, I am better now at 33 than I was at 23 when it comes to talking myself down and counting my blessings – call it age, call it maturity, call it survival. I have learned that I am never going to be perfect and neither is my life, but I can still be grateful and proud of each and every piece of it. It’s not an either/or situation. You don’t have to be in first place or the best or the furthest ahead to look around and be OK with where you are and what you have to offer. And you don’t have to be afraid to try something because you are afraid to be the worst. Sometimes you will BE the worst – and maybe that’s when you inject a good sense of humor and think about the other things you do really well or that make you YOU. When I think about how shitty I am at sports or about how “unathletic” I am, I remind myself that I am creative, and love the arts and writing. Some people wish they had more to offer in those areas. When I worry about my kid being behind in some way, I remind myself that he is completely perfect exactly the way God made him. His heart is huge, he’s hilarious, he’s fun, he’s a problem solver. He makes every day better than the one before. So who cares if he isn’t saying as many words yet? He’ll get there, it’s not a race.
My hope is that as I continue to quell my own perfectionism and embrace my life where it is, I will become a better example for my son. Because God help me, I don’t want him throwing himself on his bed in tears because he got a B. Or being afraid to audition for the school play or try out for soccer. Or hold himself back from love or friendship or anything else that is beautiful in this world. So maybe, just maybe, if we all continue to focus on living lives of purpose instead of perfection, our lives will become the colorful tapestries they were always meant to be.