We’re brought up to compare ourselves to other people.
We’re graded before we have any idea who we are.
We’re informed that we got a 500 on our math SAT when our dad got a perfect 800 and then we’re put in SAT prep courses with a man who wrote SAT books who taught us how to game the SAT and not actually learn anything and then we raised our score but not enough to please our dad.
Sorry, tangent. But my point is that the world sets us up to compare.
And, as it turns out, comparing yourself to someone else makes you feel terrible.
The Brain Only Looks for Negative Comparisons
“Negativity is cannibalistic. The more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it grows”
Because our brains are engineered to seek safety, they focus on what’s negative.
In other words, when comparing, our brains don’t find something that will make us feel better.
Instead they scan for ample evidence that we are not doing as well as everyone else—most especially that one person we’re always comparing ourselves to.
Luckily, the brain does leave some people out of this game.
In other words, my brain does not compare me to Oprah or Ariana Huffington because it understands that I will not achieve what they have. I can admire these successful women without feeling like their success is my failure.
But if my brain spots someone who seems to possess qualities like mine or be in a similar place to me, it can make up the most excellent story about how unfair it is.
Science backs me up: while studies indicate that once our basic needs are met, more money doesn’t make us happier, other studies show that having more than our friends does. Ugh.
A Woman’s Battle Is Never Won
“Girls compete; women empower”
-A t-shirt I saw the other day
It’s a fact: women don’t compete with one another in the same way that men do.
We compete like our very lives depend on it.
We are not supposed to admit this. As the less fairly treated gender, we should be supporting one another. And sometimes we do.
Sometimes we don’t.
Research suggests that most of this competetiveness is less than direct, and primarily practiced in the form of self-promotion and gossip.
That’s apparently because our predecessors needed to protect their wombs from physical harm and so we evolved into the sort of creatures that could indulge in a passive oneupwomanship that keeps us safe while also diminishing the status of our rivals.
Whatever the reason, it sucks. And boy, did I participate in it.
I Was My Biggest Problem—I Just Didn’t Know It
“The only disability in life is a bad attitude”
The most intense competition I’ve observed among women isn’t over men but over our careers.
I used to nearly drown in those feelings.
It all started when I worked at a magazine in my early twenties. I was hired as a freelance writer and immediately became friends with another woman who was hired at the same time.
She was far more mature than I was when it came to workplace politics. She was also a more experienced journalist and it quickly became clear that she was the boss’ favorite.
I was, to say the least, not.
I shouldn’t have been.
I was a bit of a nightmare.
I didn’t know how much of a nightmare I was until much later, when I had people who worked for me.
I would have hated an employee like me—someone masking insecurity with defensiveness and quick to talk back. Someone with attitude.
My friend was the opposite. Her attitude was great, as was her work.
Unfortunately, I Took Her Advice
“Most people want to see you do better but not doing better than them”
I didn’t get that she was great employee and I wasn’t. I just got that she had an office while I had a cubicle—and we had started at the same time.
I thought I deserved an office, too.
She agreed with me and one day she suggested I go in and ask the boss if I could have one.
I did. He did not respond well. He shouldn’t have. Like I said, I wasn’t a good employee.
From then on, he hated me.
Several months later, I was fired. I deserved to be. I was an asshole.
It’s now decades later and that former friend has his job.
In the ensuing years, I’ve repeatedly heard how cutthroat she is—how many people she had to surpass to get to that position and how slyly and cleverly she did it.
It had never occurred to me back then that she was cutthroat or that she’d suggested I ask for the office as some sort of a passive way of making sure everyone else was beneath her.
I didn’t know shit about passive one-upwomanship.
I Became the Aggressive Competitor
“I am my own worst enemy”
It was when I started writing books that my tendency to compare and despair nearly killed me.
Everywhere I looked, there was another woman getting a bigger book deal, getting reviewed in the Times, hitting a higher spot on the bestseller list.
I drove myself insane.
I became mortal enemies, in my head, with women I either didn’t know or had met only a few times.
And I had plenty of people with whom I could indulge in that passive competition—other female writers I could gossip with about how much the person in discussion didn’t deserve whatever she’d gotten.
Then a Funny Thing Happened
“Sometimes not getting what you want is a brilliant stroke of luck”
When my memoir came out, I ran out of book stores where I could do readings in LA.
I wanted to do more.
I surely obsessed over some other writer I tangentially knew who’d done multiple readings throughout the LA area.
Then one night I was invited to participate in a storytelling show.
I didn’t really know what that was but I got on stage and told a story. It turns out I wasn’t half bad.
The booker for the venue told me afterwards that if I ever wanted to arrange my own show there, I could.
A lightbulb went off: I could do a reading, call it a storytelling show and sell more books.
I asked him if it could be a half-storytelling show, half-reading. Sure, he said.
To make it a show, however, I had to ask other people to participate.
I did that and to my utter surprise, it became a hit. Suddenly I had a monthly show to produce.
Then Their Success Became Mine
“You can’t compete where you don’t compare”
In order to book a monthly show, I needed to widen my circle. I needed to reach out to other writers I barely or didn’t know.
In other words, I needed many of the women I’d spent years comparing myself to—and resenting.
The short version of what happened is that these women began to regularly perform in my show.
They were fantastic.
We became friends.
And I started to see that no matter where we were in our career, what publications had covered our books or what number we were on a bestseller list, we were all in the same position.
We were in an extremely competitive career and we wanted to succeed.
As I watched these women on stage, something bizarre happened: I started to see their success as my success.
At first, it was selfish; if they did well, after all, my show was better.
But then that feeling spread and I started to see their career success as my own.
We were all women in an extremely competitive career, after all, and when any of us achieved anything, it was a win.
Also: I Was Insane
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”
Once my “compare and despair” feelings diminished, I realized something: I had been so consumed by the achievements of other people, I’d failed to notice my own.
It occurred to me that if I’d heard about my successes, I would have been someone I hated.
It occurred to me that I was incredibly lucky to be making it as a writer at all—that I’d actually gotten far more and not less than I deserved.
In other words, I realized that I had been insane.
And I’m Not the Only One
“Man is his own worst enemy”
-Marcus Tullius Cicero
Oftentimes when I run into another female author, the conversation will start with her telling me about a book deal someone else we know got.
I feel her urging me to go down a critical path.
But I don’t—not because I’m some excellent person but because it makes me feel bad.
Really, it’s selfish. I don’t want to feel bad.
Seeing other people doing what I used to torture myself with made me realize that everyone’s playing this game.
The person I was comparing myself to was comparing herself to someone else and feeling bad.
So if there’s no there there—if getting that thing that we think we need to feel as good as we think the person we’re comparing ourselves to feels won’t make us happy—then why do we want it?
Why don’t we get happy about what we’ve got?
When I realized that, two things happened: I got grateful.
Then I started to understand that when I compared myself to someone else and felt bad, I was basically making up a story and then reacting to it—that essentially it was the same thing as going to a sad movie about a loved one dying of cancer and leaving the movie acting as though someone I loved had died of cancer.
So if “compare and despair” is making you miserable, I suggest making a gratitude list.
If that’s too Polyanna-ish for you, just remember that the person you’re comparing yourself to isn’t happy—unless that person has learned this, too.
And if you’re happier than that person, that pushes you further ahead, right?
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