Confessions of a Constant Comparer

I never thought of myself as a competitive person, until I realized I was constantly comparing myself to the women around me -- and coming up short.

Aug 4, 2013 at 10:30am | Leave a comment

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Theodore Roosevelt said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." I'd have to agree.

Competitive sports and I have never gotten along. Come to think of it, anything competition-based has never been my thing (though in junior high I did make a half-hearted attempt on the girls’ JV basketball team, but only because my mean-girl faux best friend pressured me. (I was “scared of the ball,” as Coach Howard like to bark, so thankfully I wasn't forced to play often.)  I always assumed I hated All Things Athletic because I'm just not a competitive person.

I was wrong. See, within the past few months I've realized -- as a 36-year-old pseudo-adult with 21 years of therapy (and counting!) to my name -- that actually, I’m SUPER-competitive, but only when it comes to certain things. The things that matter most to me, like writing/career stuff (how much more established/successful/famous are you?), dating/relationships (are you married? divorced? dating a hot guy? then I’ve instantly decided you win, bitch), and overall happiness and self-confidence levels (how does your everyday ratio of peace and contentedness stack up with mine? how much better have you got it?).

It’s rare for me to go longer than a few minutes (sadly not exaggerating) without comparing myself to someone -- usually a woman -- around me. It could be a close friend, it could be a stranger on the stairwell. I've done it in the elevator at friends' apartment buildings. I've done it in the gym locker room (who hasn't?). I've done it at wedding receptions, and meetings at the office, and Internet dates, and solo dinners, and holiday parties, and while walking the dog, and while taking a bath, and while driving past strangers in my car ... In short, I've done the compare-and-despair game ABSOLUTELY EFFING EVERYWHERE.

And it absolutely effing sucks. It takes me out of the moment and dumps me smack in the middle of a tight, claustrophobic bubble of envy and rage and despair and "WHY NOT MEEEEEEs." It's like my entire world shrinks down to a tiny pin-point of hateful, jealous comparison. It instantly kills any rational knowledge or awareness of reality: that my life is GOOD and that I am LUCKY.

It's also in direct conflict with my feminist values -- everything I believe about the importance of supporting other women and pushing through all the weird girl-hate we're taught to swallow growing up. My comparison crap contradicts my best thinking, and it makes me feel terrible about myself (let’s try beating up on myself for beating up on myself, and see if that makes me feel any better! Shocker: It does not).

When I'm trapped in that place, looking at life through that tiny, cramped keyhole of comparison, I'm convinced -- deep down, gut-level convinced -- that I'm all wrong, just not good enough. That no matter what I do, or what I change -- my hair or my body or my job or my city or my attitude or my romantic status, whatever -- I will never BE good enough because I will always be competing with someone else: someone who looks better, has it better, does it better, IS better.

It's just getting easier to indulge in this gross cycle, too -- and indulge in it constantly -- given the social media thing. It's almost impossible to log on to Facebook or Instagram and not get smashed in the face with a sudden wave of jealousy, lack, or want; that feeling that everyone has it, that everyone's figured it out BUT YOU, is a powerful misery trigger.

I don't remember exactly when my competitive-comparing habit first took hold, but my best guess is fourth grade. From fourth grade through eighth grade -- when I was at my meekest and most insecure -- I was best friends with a mean-girl I’ll call Sarah. (If I'm honest, I never liked her -- she actually bullied me into becoming her friend!) She was gorgeous and worldly, and everyone worshiped her for those things, somehow managing to ignore the plentiful evidence that she was, well, a raging asshole. She taunted and teased people mercilessly -- laughed at them and resorted to physical meanness when necessary (she didn't beat anyone up, but she did a lot of pinching, slapping, things like that).

My friendship with Sarah was super-loaded for me. That was largely due to my intense jealousy about the attention she got for her looks, tempered with rage and disbelief because no one would acknowledge that her behavior wasn't OK. People gravitated toward her, and seemed to forgive any assault, just because she was beautiful. I felt like the ugly sidekick next to her, and it did me no favors. I constantly felt like I couldn't compare, that if THIS was what the world wanted from its ladies -- gorgeous at any expense, and being callous and cruel was OK -- then I was in trouble.

And I guess I carried those feelings with me into adulthood, where I kept getting hit by gusts of quiet desperation from the constant scramble for proof that I was good enough. Confirmation that, while I may not ever be Sarah, I was still smart, attractive, and funny -- worthy of attention, friendship, and love in my own right.

Logically I realize that I'm worthy of all that good stuff; I also know that no amount of external ANYTHING will fix this. But the compare-and-despair game is still an issue I struggle with daily. Certain things have helped -- meditating, when I bother to do it; listening to embarrassing spiritual podcasts; certain self-help and psychology books, here and there. Friends say praying helps -- even if you're not religious, and I'm not -- to lighten the grip of those negative feelings, but I don't do it often (as an 85% atheist / 15% agnostic, I sometimes feel like a fraud when I pray).

The only cure I can imagine? Real, radical self-acceptance. I'm not there yet, but I'm trying to find my way. Let me know if you have any tips on locating the map.