How Shall I Compare Thee? Um, Let’s Not
I have a confession to make. My name is Becky Bowers-Greene, and I’m a compare-aholic. I suffer from a sometimes crippling condition called comparisonitis. I’m not proud. But alas, in just being ashamed I am subject to another relapse. I’m considering starting a support group for people like me, but I’m concerned it might be counterproductive — what with all the comparisons that would be made at the meetings.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, comparisonitis is a chronic problem whereby an individual cannot stop measuring his- or herself according to the doings and goings and beings of others.
I am a classic case. I’m a 30-something mother of three young children. I work part time as a freelance writer and occasionally try to do things like apply deodorant. I take part in a speaking ministry that keeps me and my husband busy on the weekends, and, oh did I mention, I try every now and again to have interactions with people who don’t wear Lightning McQueen underpants.
So my life is pretty crazy — big surprise. But as if it wasn’t pressure enough to get a 6-year-old to take his hands out of his pants or stop a 4-year-old from asking non-pregnant women if they have babies in their tummies or catch the 15-month-old before she stirs the toilet water with her toothbrush… for the fifth time today, I stress about how well or not well I’m doing these things in reference to others.
My final conclusion is usually, “Fail!”
Part of the problem may be that I once worked out 6-7 hours a day pursuing an Olympic dream. I measured myself based on the immediate response from a coach, who was usually correcting something I just did or scolding me for not having corrected a prior correction; or a judge, who was flashing a score that defined where I stood in reference to, what else, other gymnasts.
It’s a rough ailment to shake when you suddenly find yourself chewed up by a sport and spit out into a world where achieving perfection isn’t the only way to be successful. I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years trying to recover from an identity that went bye-bye after my last meet my senior year of college only to morph into another identity called wife and mother. And with these roles, failure would mean far more than missing out on a gold medal. So I continue to fret over my performance, often looking around at other examples as the standard by which I measure how I’m doing.
I have a friend whose face, hair, and house always seem to be immaculate, despite having four young kids. Now, I can sometimes pull off this facade if I have several days to plan… and I borrow someone else’s home. If I take a shower, find my makeup bag, and hunt down the hair gel (which has most likely been dropped in the cat dish by my toddler after she ransacked the bathroom while I attempted to do my business), I might be able to pull myself together enough to look presentable with enough warning.
But don’t expect to just drop by my home unannounced and find Suzie Homemaker wearing her pearls and pulling a pie out of the oven. There will likely be boogers somewhere on my shirt, or at least the wall, and there’s a good chance that if you’re not careful, you’ll step on something mushy. I know, because I’ve still got smashed strawberry stuck between my toes from this morning. Our house is like a field of land mines: Watch out, don’t slip — receipt from Walmart, 10 o’clock! Sharp Lego, 5 o’clock! Library book about the digestive system off to your left. Pair of underpants off in the corner – they could be clean; they could be dirty, we just don’t know – the toddler is constantly pulling clothes out of the hamper and the clean laundry basket, so it’s anybody’s guess. Just heed caution. Take cover, that’s possibly cat vomit!
My friend knows I covet her clean castle, and if she wasn’t so darn nice and fun, I’d probably have to hate her.
Then there are people who prepare elaborate dishes for their families and manage to clip coupons and dart around town finding the best deals at grocery stores. I hear things like, “I checked out with $467 worth of groceries and paid 73 cents after all my ad matches and double discounts.”
I’m lucky I remember to buy milk when I go up to the store to buy… milk.
And of course I could come up with countless other examples of people to whom I compare unfavorably. “Oh, you jetted off to Sydney, Australia for New Year’s Eve? That’s really cool. I drove out to East Mesa the day before Christmas to buy a present off Craigslist.”
Just so you know, East Mesa is really, really far, especially when the baby is screaming in the backseat.
I find myself thinking things like, “Wow, she’s training for a marathon. I should do that.” Or, “wow, he ran a half-marathon. I should try that.” Or, “wow, the glue on her running shoes isn’t separating at the sole.”
I keep meaning to invest in a new pair.
I sigh over how little I seem to accomplish in a given day. I wonder what brilliant lessons all the other homeschooling moms completed while I cleaned up the Quaker Oats my daughter dumped all over the floor while trying to keep my son seated long enough to read a phonics book. I wonder what the mother of seven perfectly behaved kids would think of me if she could see my two boys standing in the bathroom trying to “toot” on one another while I scream for them to come back to the table. I wonder if parents who don’t home-school their kids look at me and my kids and say, “And that’s why we don’t home-school.”
I worry that I’m too strict and then I’m worried I’m not strict enough. I worry that our days are too packed and then I worry that I don’t have my kids involved in enough activities. I stress about whether I’m ignoring them during too much of the day because I’m busy moving piles of paperwork from one spot on the counter to another; then I stress that I’m doing them a disservice by raising them in a home where pine needles from our Christmas tree are still blanketing our floor (I swear I will get to those this weekend).
I learn about discipline styles of one family whose kids don’t do headstands in church, and I think perhaps we’re too easy; then I learn about what another family does, and I fear we’re too harsh. And all the while, my kids are constantly showing up in public with something on their faces. Is that peanut butter from yesterday? There’s a pile of laundry I keep hoping will fold itself. Do other husbands go to work with wrinkled shirts like mine does? And that box I keep meaning to take to Goodwill is still in the back of the car. Maybe we’ll use that George Foreman indoor grill again someday.
Thankfully, nobody is flashing a score (that I can see). And in the end, all I can do is my best. Some days I fall short; most days I get by. But the bottom line is there’s always someone who’s doing better at something, and there’s always somebody who could be perceived as doing worse.
Perceived is the key word here.
I’ve envied the exciting travels or large home of what I thought was the picture-perfect family only to find out the couple has marriage problems. I’ve been jealous of single friends who appeared to be living the life of luxury only to find out they were suffering from loneliness. I’ve looked at women who seem to have it all together only to learn they nod in agreement when I share details about my own life. That’s funny, I never would have thought that you know what it’s like to whack your head on an open cabinet door while darting across the room to swipe the cat food out of the toddler’s mouth just as another child is screaming for you to come wipe his bottom.
I was reminded by a priest friend that while I’m busy comparing myself to others, there’s somebody secretly doing the same to me. When my husband and I speak to couples who may be enduring their own personal struggles, we probably come off looking like we have our act together. They don’t know that we struggle financially, that I lose my temper with my kids, that my husband can’t for the life of him remember to go change that darn litter box, that my kids hit each other or get sassy when they’re punished or forget to flush the toilet… constantly.
It’s all perspective and perception. Parts are on display, and other parts are veiled? And that’s why we all deserve the benefit of the doubt. We all need to feel like we’re not alone — that there is solidarity in our humanity. One man’s successes aren’t a reason for us to feel like failures, just as one man’s failures aren’t a reason for us to boast success.
I realize that it’s impossible to ever draw accurate comparisons because the picture-perfect images I’m comparing myself to don’t even exist — much like the airbrushed models on magazine covers. Nobody lives the picture-perfect life. I know this because my same friend whose house I envy often asks me just days after I’ve had a baby if I have my washboard abs back already. What? She’s obviously joking, right? I don’t currently have a six-pack stomach, nor did I even have one in my athletic days — more like a two-liter at best.
But her exaggerated compliment reminds me that our interpretation of someone else’s existence is often skewed. And that means perhaps her house isn’t always as spic-and-span as I think; that she sometimes gets a zit too. That she has struggles like I do. Our understanding of the Joneses is a myth — a contorted reflection of the real thing. Objects in rearview mirror are not as they appear.
These mirages are a distraction from the truth of our own purpose and effort. They draw us away from the real focus of our journey: the truth that in doing anything — whether it’s curing cancer or letting the dishes pile up while you nurse your baby to sleep — is universally, eternally important if done in thanksgiving and for the glory of our Creator. If we spend our lives studying the Joneses, we miss out on the reality of our own lives — the gift we are intended to be for others, the purpose we are intended to fulfill.
And so I strive amidst my daily existence to overcome the comparisonitis that plagues me — to be inspired by others who may be doing something “better” and to empathize with those who may not; to appreciate the path I am walking — moment to moment — and be grateful, not for what it appears to be to others but what it truly is to God: a unique, unrepeatable piece of a beautiful tapestry that is meaningful, humorous, poignant… and incomparable to anything else in the universe.
Copyright 2013 Becky Bowers-Greene