Comparing Ourselves to Others

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Jane Shure Leadership Coach, Psychotherapist, Author, Speaker

This morning in yoga class, I glanced over at Judy, and remembered that she went back to law school many years ago. Automatically I thought "Oh, I could never have done that; I'm not smart enough." Fortunately I've reached a point in my life where I realize that it's not about being smart enough, or about being smart in a particular way. The truth is that I wouldn't make a good attorney. I am not a detail person and I don't love reading and searching for discrepancies. While I am definitely opinionated, I don't particularly like arguing to prove myself right (although some might argue this point). I'm much more the kind of person who is interested in building relationships and promoting connections amongst people. I'm fascinated with the workings of the mind and how it directs action, positively and negatively. I can tolerate conflict (at times I can even incite it), but I don't thrive on it, preferring to help transform conflict into productive learning that can assist in a change effort.

So why would it matter to me if I couldn't get into in to law school, or if by some fluke I had, that I might have failed at it? Growing up we come to know who we are by instinctively comparing ourselves to others. We notice if we are the same gender or not, how tall or short we are in relation to our parents and peers, how adept at math or tennis we might be...the list is endless. Social comparison and copying behaviors are ways that we learn the unwritten social rules and nonverbal cues of social groupings. They are the ways we build our identity. Within the landscape of growing up, come many challenges to our self-esteem increasing the likelihood of generating feelings of insecurity.

Who cares if I'd stink as a lawyer, doctor, or Indian chief? My developing self cared about what I wasn't good at, sometimes far more than the things for which I showed competence. In highlighting my shortcomings, I increased my sense of inadequacy and spurred on fear that others would find me unacceptable, or worst of all, unlovable. It didn't really matter that my family loved me and deemed me talented, spirited, and ambitious. And along the way it wasn't enough that my friends respected me, listened when I spoke, sought me out for advice, or trusted my judgment. I remained subjected to the gnawing voice internally that kept wanting me to focus on what I wasn't, what I couldn't do, and value that more.

I don't recall when it was, but at some point in my adult life, long after I achieved a masters and PhD degree, years after becoming a wife and mother, a light bulb went off, flashing the message: why not simply value what you do well and stop giving so much importance to your shortcomings. What a concept! I liked the idea, thought it more sensible, for sure, since after all these years of knowing myself I was convinced that I was never going to become super adept with technology, or develop interest in the columns of a spreadsheet, or care about the details of a research project. After living enough years, I could see that my many accomplished friends didn't like me because of what I could or couldn't do, or because of what knowledge I had or didn't have. What attracted them to me was simply how we felt being with one another. In my earlier years, I held the misguided notion that if I wasn't smart in particular ways, then I wouldn't be liked by the people I wanted to be friends with. How relieving to know that it doesn't boil down to grades, earnings, or even achievements. It's actually a whole lot more basic than that.