“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” (Oscar Wilde)
I have a friend who hates her hair. It’s lank and lifeless (her words), and the color is “boring brown” (again, her description). I consider her hair to be perfectly fine and never think about it until she starts bemoaning its inadequacy. When she meets someone, the very first thing she notices about them is their hair—and it’s always so much nicer than hers.
Another friend hates her teeth. When she laughs or smiles, she compresses her lips or covers her mouth, so people won’t notice her crooked teeth. I never notice her teeth, unless she draws my attention to them, and then I think they’re just fine. Imperfect teeth add a bit of character to a face (look at some of the finest British actors).
For me, it’s thigh-gap. For as long as I can remember, among the first things I notice about another person is whether there is space between their inner thighs when they’re standing or walking. I covet the notion of skinny thighs in skinny jeans. That’s because I’ve never had them and never, ever will. Even during those rare periods of my life when I was almost thinnish, my thighs were solid tree trunks, rubbing together like balloons in a Mylar birthday bouquet.
We notice and want what we don’t have. I have no particular complaints about my teeth or my hair, so I simply don’t notice what my friends always see first.
Brené Brown says that women tend to compare themselves on looks and mothering, while men are more likely to judge themselves against another man’s physical strength or prowess, and job status or salary. And I’ll add from my own observations, when they reach a certain age, they compare hair, or lack thereof.
Where does the impulse to compare ourselves to others come from? Maybe it’s just human nature, but I suspect it’s also something we learn at our parents’ knees.
“Tony is so much more athletic than you.”
“Why can’t you do something with your hair—like your friend, Janet?”
“Your brother got much better grades in math than you do. What’s with that?”
And we do it to ourselves. We see some unrealistic, airbrushed image of womanhood in a magazine—perfect teeth, hair of spun-gold, concave thighs—and we feel our own inadequacy.
It works the other way, too. Sometimes we make comparisons not to remind ourselves of our own real or imagined shortcomings, but to give ourselves a hit of superiority.
“My lasagna is ten times better than this.”
“Look at his golf swing. It looks like he’s chopping wood.”
“My child is so much more agile on the monkey bars.”
In her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown describes how she occasionally succumbs to comparison while swimming laps in her local pool. She recognizes that when she starts comparing her strokes or speed with the swimmer next to her, it diminishes the great pleasure she gets from swimming. She has learned to thwart destructive comparison by acknowledging the impulse to compare and then—in her head—wishing the other person well, with a silent comment such as, “Have a great swim.” This allows her to let go and reconnect with her own enjoyment in swimming.
It’s probably easier to say “don’t compare yourself to others” than to actually forego comparisons. Dr. Brown’s strategy is one we can try. Pausing and sending good wishes to the object of our comparison gently releases us from the grip that such appraisal places us in. Like anything we want to do well, this takes practice. When I start wishing for skinny thighs, I try to remind myself of all the places my sturdy legs have taken me, and thank them for a lifetime of service.
It also helps to remember that we’re often comparing our everyday self to someone else’s super-self. The pictures they post on social media of their impeccable outfit, perfect dinner table, or immaculate children are just a moment in time, captured between tantrums, cat vomit, and frozen dinners. That’s one of the hazards of social media—it encourages us to compare our worst with somebody else’s best.
Letting go of comparisons might be one of those lessons that takes years to learn, but enriches our lives immeasurably when we finally do.
Is there a comparison that you often make, that maybe it’s time to let go of?
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.” (Lao Tzu)