Don't Kill Thanksgiving With Comparison!
In this season we all want to joyfully connect to our loved ones and to be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. Still, it seems that our age-old nemesis, comparing, can get in the way of loving each other fully and of being truly aware of all that is great in our lives.
Comparing is one of the “Five Metastasizing Emotional Cancers,” according to Stephen Covey in The Eighth Habit. (The other four are criticizing, complaining, competing and contending – but that discussion is for another day!) From a very early age, we are fed on the comparison dynamic. I remember a jingle from my childhood: “My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ‘cause he gets Ken-L-Ration. My dog’s better than yours.” More recent versions of blatant comparison include the “Who Wore It Best?” comparisons in magazines. Lately, when a public figure is caught doing something immoral or illegal, she/he compares their actions to worse sins by some other public figure. It’s a poor defense as observers think the individual is not only immoral or guilty, but also immature and dishonest.
In everyday life we compare ourselves to others constantly. The problem is not the comparison itself, it is the judgment we make about those differences. For example, it is one thing to notice that I have grey hair and yours is brown. It is another to say, mine is grey and therefore I am somehow less worthy or, conversely, I must be wiser because of all the grey hairs I’ve earned. As for me, I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, so every person I meet is sized up as bigger or smaller than I am. It is an automatic reaction and there remains the small voice gauging my value based on an ideal that never applied to my big Latvian bones and healthy appetite. If we are honest, each one of us feels “less than” about some aspect of ourselves, even if the judge-y voice is quieter than it once was. Some of us got the idea somewhere along the way that we weren’t beautiful or smart or sexy or worthy or wealthy or that our family was too weird or that we were too weird and so on and so forth.
This comparison mode is crippling in relationships. Terrence Real describes the phenomenon in his book, The New Rules of Marriage. Whether you are married or not, the book offers great insights into all relationships. When it comes to comparing, Real talks about a continuum where one end is seeing one’s self as better than others (“Grandiosity”) and the other end is seeing one’s self as inferior to others (“Shame”). It is only in the middle of this continuum where we see each other as equals that we can experience healthy relationships. This midpoint is characterized by meeting each other eye-to-eye where I experience myself as neither better than you nor less than you. Clearly, we all have different skill levels and some of us are better at certain activities than others. The point is that we are not attaching a judgment or value to those differences. The question of who is “better” is off the table because it simply has no value if we are intent on having healthy relationships. In contrast, if we are busy proving our point, putting someone down, or confirming our secret judgments of others at the Thanksgiving gathering, those relationships will stay stuck in the muck.
Comparing is rampant in dating. If we are walking around in a state of “Shame” or “Grandiosity”, we can’t hope to have a great date. Some folks get so nervous before and during a date that the predominant feeling at the end of the date is R-E-L-I-E-F that it is over! Other folks are so sure that no one else can measure up to their high standards that they diminish the person sitting in front of them and never dig in to learn about them. They become completely right in their belief that no one else is good enough for them and, you guessed it, they often stay single and alone. They might also find someone to partner up with who feels "less-than" and have a relationship where neither partner grows or feels that they truly belong.
Another big love-kill is comparing a new person to the "Ex." Perhaps the prospective partner has the same hair color as the "Ex." Perhaps they drive the same car as the "Ex." Perhaps they have the same profession. The assumption is that if these external factors are similar, the person is similar. Folks sometimes even refuse a first date because of these false comparisons to an "Ex."
HELP!! What can we do about all this comparing? Some suggestions:
If you find yourself constantly one-upping or putting yourself down, get some help! These are patterns that are often unconscious and not easily broken. It may require the help of a professional. Don't expect your significant other to be your therapist.
Work on loving yourself! Develop a healthy appreciation of all that is great about you.
Be the best YOU. There is only one. No one can be a better you. Work on the parts that can improve and, if you must measure against a standard, let it be your own standard. My son started swimming with his high school team last year. He was beaten in a race by more than a few competitors. Still, he got out of the pool beaming because he swam much faster than ever before. Be that guy or gal! Loving life, doing your best and having that be good enough.
Around the holidays we are often in “trying interpersonal situations.” 😊 If you can't eliminate contact with those who put you down, set clear and appropriate boundaries with them. Surround yourself with others who think you are fabulous.
At this reflective time of the year, I think of the joy of having met all of you these past few years as we’ve watched Authentic Connections grow. I also think of the joy that my friends and family bring to me every day. I am so grateful for all of you!
Have a wonderful, connected, compassionate Thanksgiving!
-Dr. Kate Freiman-Fox