14 Mar Chapter 3
Ok, so before we move on to some of the other things I’ve experienced and learnt, we’ve got to address a pretty big elephant in the room. One that most of us probably can relate to, which we deal with daily, I’d say, if we’re really honest with ourselves. That elephant is comparison. Comparison to others – people we know and even people we don’t know. It’s a major thing in our lives.
From an early age we are put into scenarios that teach us to compete, to improve, to go up against each other for a position in the line. Schools reward top students, so we compete for grades. Sports require team selection, or you play non-team sport (which was me all the way through school). We compete to get jobs and then to get promoted. It’s part of all of our lives. There will always be selection. I think it is how we deal with that and respond to it that matters.
I was in standard three, age 11. It was breaktime and our group of friends were sitting near the tuckshop in an open area with benches against the wall and an oversized chess board in the middle of the quad. We were chatting about starting a bookclub. The in-thing was Sweet Valley High books, the ones with the two beautiful blonde twins who always had the on trend clothes and most popular boyfriends (even the books we read taught us to compare!). One girl piped up that we needed a criteria to get into the bookclub, not everyone would be allowed to join. It was a “club” afterall. There was a bit of a debate around the group – what should the criteria be? Then out came a suggestion that certainly disqualified me and I remember feeling absolutely mortified. If you had a fold under the cheek of your bum, you weren’t allowed to join. Only slim, perky bums allowed. I don’t think we actually went with this, in fact I don’t think there was any criteria set at all, but I remember this moment with a feeling of shame because I didn’t fit the mould. I didn’t fit the “standard”. I mean, how do eleven year olds even know about bum folds?!
Another memory that stands out is from around the same time, maybe a year later. We were in the change room after school, changing into casual clothes. For what, I can’t remember. Some of the girls had matching denim shorts with white embroidery along the bottom and the pockets. Those of us who didn’t have the matching set somehow started trying on the shorts, probably to ask our moms to get them from Woolies for us too. I pulled on a pair that belonged to a friend and couldn’t get them up over my hips. I mean, what was I thinking?? She was a petite ballerina figure and I was taller and plumper and there was no way that her shorts were ever going to fit me. I was quite overweight as a child. Again, I remember feeling so embarrassed, so full of shame for being fat. I cried out loud that night, and many nights after. We were in primary school and there was already the threat of comparison to our mental health as pre-teens.
These are probably some of the earliest moments of my struggle with weight and body image. From so young, I compared the way I looked to those around me. My self-worth was almost always connected in some way to how I looked. I always felt that I fell short, so I competed in other areas to prove I could be good at something. I started my own spiral of competition and comparison that got more intense throughout my teenage years and even into adulthood. It also created, probably subconsciously, a need for perfectionism. I bread my own need for perfection through my own insecurities. This is how it goes. We might feel less than in certain areas, so we feel we need to be perfect in others. In a way, it’s so we feel we can compensate for areas we don’t feel good enough. From this perfectionism then also comes the need for affirmation. It’s so systemic and toxic.
As a teen, I became so aware of how affirmation made me feel. How being a certain way or getting a certain grade or looking a certain way got you a label. And that label stuck. You were known as smart or pretty, sporty or musical, overweight or thin. Either one or the other. If you had more than one “positive” label, you were practically a unicorn. It was in high school that I became so chronically aware of my weight and how terrible it made me feel that I got on a mission to change my primary school label of the fat one (self given). I became obsessed with how little I could get away with eating, I became fixated on routine and structure to get thin and be thin. This, I thought, would make everything right. I ate the same thing for breakfast and lunch for days on end (usually muesli and yogurt and an apple somewhere in there too occasionally) and became obsessed with exercising to be thin. Not to feel good but to look different. This, I thought, was all that mattered. Look a certain way and get the affirmation. Do well in my school subjects and get the affirmation. The aim was perfect. Average was not an option.
As I now approach 40, more than 20 years past these memories I feel like I’m now older and wiser and know better what is important and what is not and I have a better awareness of why I think and feel a certain way about things, but do we ever truly get past this trap of comparison and competition, the inherent drive for perfection? I don’t know. I think on some level, we still compare ourselves as adults. We compare ourselves to other wives and moms and colleagues and friends. We see others as having it all together and we don’t. The other person always has more, and we have less. They have better and we have worse. They have perfect, we have flawed. While I love social media for all that it’s good for, I think it has also exaggerated the problems of comparison and competition. Not only do we only see one picture and think that is what their whole life is like, we also feel that we need more. They have the skirt I just saw on another page, so I need it too. That will give me a part of her life. We allow one moment, one interaction with another, to extrapolate our picture of that person’s life in our minds. And the story we tell ourselves is that her life is perfect and mine is not. But what we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge is that her job is to have toned arms and flat abs because she is a personal trainer. Her job is to look stylish and well put together because she is a personal stylist. We measure our own lives, our own stories using someone else’s ruler. We are apples, they are pears, but we still put them up against each other.
From this point of comparison and perfectionism, that becomes inherently ingrained in us to a point that most of the time we aren’t even aware of it, we also then start a pattern of judgment. We judge not only ourselves but also our families, the one’s we love most. Why can’t my husband be more like ___, why can’t he do ____ like _______ does? Fill in the blanks. Why can’t my child crawl at 5 months like _____, why can’t he do _______ like her son, why can’t she just _____ like _______. The comparison makes us feel that even our children and husbands and partners don’t quite live up to the standard we believe others have so right.
My son and I did Clamber Club for a while when he was a tiny tot. We’d sit on the mat and become engrossed in the activities according to the theme. But part of me was noticing what the other kids were doing, how advanced they were compared to my son, or how small they were or how big they were for their age. Eventually when he was the only one in the class that wasn’t crawling, I started getting really concerned. I even took him to a physio. She said what everyone else had said – give him time, he’s not behind, he’ll move soon. Then came the bum shuffle. He certainly was on the move, but not like all the others. Our middle daughter then did the same. Then our tiny one crawled on all fours like most of the other kids we come across. All three now walk and run and play. All three can do monkey bars and climb under tables. All three can laugh and snuggle. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of them, but that tiny seed of comparison got me so wound up that I felt there was something wrong with my kids! This is how the spiral works – it starts small and then builds and builds until it infiltrates all areas of your life.
We’ve all heard the line – it’s you against you. This is true, but just like other people’s circumstances are not always known to us or change over time, so do ours. I can’t compare myself now to the newly married workaholic and expect the same. I’ve grown and learnt and moved past some of the things that hurt or upset or overwhelmed me then. We all do. Yes, there is space for change and improvement, but we shouldn’t want to change or grow or improve from a place of negative comparison. We should change and grow and improve from a place where our desire for something different is more than our desire to stay in this comfort zone. It shouldn’t be from a place of competition or comparison because then it won’t be sustainable.
So what has helped me? Well, firstly I think it is really important to put out there that I still struggle with comparison, competition and perfectionism almost daily. One thing that has changed though, is that I am more aware of my mindset and thoughts and can easily catch when I’m starting a comparison spiral. So something you could do is when you find yourself thinking she has it and you don’t, stop and ask – why do I think this? Is it true? What supports this? Always put facts on the table – her facts and yours. It slowly diminishes the comparison when we back our perspectives with evidence.
“The story I’m telling myself” is a tool I learnt from the wonderful Brene Brown. Each of us create stories in our minds that form our perspectives of situations in our lives. Say for example you’re on family holiday at the beach. There’re loads of other families there with young kids playing about and enjoying the sunshine. You start noticing how the other moms look and how their kids are behaving. One approaches the water with her three kids, looking like she stepped off the cover of a magazine. This is how the story goes – “The story I’m telling myself is that I need to up my game with exercise and food discipline because that mother of three has the body of a 25-year old and I’m over here with wobbles and bobbles in all the wrong places.” We create a story of comparison that feeds off and exaggerates our own insecurities. But this is our story, what is hers? Maybe she really is a swimwear model and it is her job to look like that. Maybe she’s suffered years of eating disorders. Being more aware of the story we’re telling ourselves helps us to consider things from different perspectives and see things more clearly. It also allows us to break the comparison trap.
The best thing I’ve learnt to break this cycle is to practice gratitude. Being more grateful for what we have and who we are surrounded by and what we learn is such powerful way to curb the comparison. The thing about gratitude though is that we have to intentionally practice it so that it becomes our default. We can’t have a fleeting grateful thought every now and again and expect it to become habit that makes a difference in our daily lives. What I’ve found about building new habits or practices into my life is to do something new attached to something I’m already doing. So while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I stop to think of a few things I’m grateful for. When I’m winding down at night, reflecting on the day, I stop to think of a few things I’m grateful for. It slowly adds up. It slowly become the norm. And then over time, when we live from a place of gratitude, it’s less about comparison and competition and more about what we have and what we’re thankful for.
So that’s it, something that is so real for me still (and I don’t think I’m alone, even if you don’t want to admit it yourself). Something that needs to be said before we move onto some of the other things I’ve learnt along my journey.