We all compare, don’t we? We do it all the time, and I’m certain I’m not alone in seeing how I measure up to those around me. There is nothing inherently harmful about comparing, but I recently became aware of some comparisons I’m making that are taking a toll on the way I view myself.
Not long ago, I had some friends and family very close to me experience some of the most beautiful experiences life has to offer. There were several events of this nature that happened back to back over the course of a few weeks. I am overjoyed at the happiness these individuals have found! After all, I love them dearly. Unfortunately, I recognize that sometimes as I witness this happiness, I become aware of the contrast between their lived experience and my own, and usually find theirs to be more appealing. I feel the desire to find what they have found and achieve what they have achieved. It is not a feeling of malicious jealousy; I feel absolutely no ill will towards these people, I just long for the same happiness. As I feel this emptiness while viewing the situation, I start making useless comparisons.
Now, this process of comparing has been more intense because of recent events, but it’s usually something simple that begins it. For example, I remember last fall watching my brothers and sisters go back to school, realizing my friends and peers would begin their final semesters before graduating. I felt sadness knowing how behind I would be in my academic career. I felt pathetic about what I was doing compared to what they were accomplishing. Many of those I graduated high school with were getting married (or already were), having children, getting degrees, going to graduate school, starting their careers, etc., and what was I doing? I was hoping bowel care would go well that morning, I was going to occupational therapy to get the smallest joint of my smallest right hand finger to move a bit more so I could use my hand better, and I was going to physical therapy five days a week to improve my transfers.
Needless to say, when I compared point to point, it was a pretty pathetic looking comparison. Yes, I recognize that the things I was doing were and are important, but for me, success looked like a job, perfect grades, and a family. You know, the life with the white picket fence, or at least something that resembled it.
Well, this very thing happened to me in excess last week. I was comparing and in doing so, felt utterly pitiful. I was with my mom on one occasion when I voiced some of these feelings. She pointed out all the positive things she thought I was accomplishing, but I dismissed her points and tried to prove to her why my life has been a sad attempt at success and happiness. She didn’t budge. In fact, she said, “It doesn’t matter what you say, I know who you are”, or something very close to that. We have had these discussions before, but for some reason this one made me stop to question my habit of comparing.
During self-reflection I noticed that I have a preconceived idea of what success looks like. Like I said before, it was marriage, school, family, and financial security. It was an idea that was taught to me by my family, friends, religious culture, and society. I was essentially given a template of success and was told to follow the instructions until my life matched the template. For some people, this works out and they eventually have a life that resembles their idea of success (which is great!). But I notice that for many, it is not uncommon for their lives to take unexpected turns until their life fails to match up with what their vision of success is. For example, in all my plans growing up, I didn’t anticipate having a spinal cord injury. So, as my life progresses, I have serious barriers to achieving what my peers are on the same timeline, or in the same way. But I find that this is my problem: I make NO adjustments in my definition of success. I am still comparing apples to apples when it would be more accurate to compare not just apples to oranges, but apples to elephants. My life looks so unbelievably different that what the template says it should look like. This isn’t just the case with my SCI either, I have had detours in all my relationship goals and future family plans due to my sexual orientation. Basically, I am everything I didn't plan on being, and doing none what of what I intended to do.
A teeny tiny light bulb turned on that day with my mom. I have choices. I can choose to compare or not. I can also choose my definition of “success”. I really believe that we have the option of assigning the definition of “success” to new things as we go through life. As we determine what we want, and what is realistically available to us, we have the choice to redefine success for ourselves. This is a necessary skill to develop if we want to be happy despite being unable to attain our original dreams. I actually think this is a key to finding peace.
I am determined to find happiness, and I cannot be happy if I continue to compare apples to apples. I feel a little bit stupid even writing these words because I have only just started the process of avoiding comparisons, and I am realizing that it is going to be a long road to adjust the expectations I have in my life. I have to redefine success to put it within my reach. Okay, so maybe I won’t have a degree until a few years. Yeah, maybe I won’t be getting married in the next year, but I have some great opportunities that I am neglecting to notice. I want to choose to see them.
I understand that this will be a hard process for me. Changing ones dreams and hopes is not an easy thing, and doesn’t happen overnight… but this is the process of loss and acceptance. Someone once described grief as the process of replacing lost hopes and dreams with new ones. I think we all have to do this to one degree or another throughout our lives, because so rarely does life ever happen just the way we want it to.
My comparisons only create greater distance between those I compare myself against. It fosters jealousy and emptiness. I hope that I can create a template for success just for Carson, one that is attainable, one that allows me to focus my energy on what I can do, and not on what I can’t. I hope to be more productive, more understanding, and a happier, healthier me.