Growing up, your parents might have compared you to other kids your age—my dad did sometimes, when he was mad at me. “You know, Daniel’s already on his seventh badge for Boy Scouts,” He would say. Why aren’t you? Said the silence after his words. Or you might have been put down by other kids your age—“You have no friends Zach,” “You’re a loser,” and even the creative “Don’t sit here, I don’t like you (Why?) Because you have no soul” all affecting me deeply at some point in my young life.
But that’s just growing up! We’re all put down in some way or another. Some of us by school, through poor grades; some of us by our skin color, through subconscious discrimination; boys by locker room conversations, girls by pictures in magazines. All telling us, you’re not good enough.
So we become insecure, and insecurity is wobbly and amorphous. It needs a stick to attach itself to, and that stick becomes other people. We start to view ourselves in terms of others—their accomplishments and habits, wealth and health, happiness and popularity. In short, we compare.
Facebook only made it worse. Social media gave everyone the opportunity to create and manipulate their public image. So of course, the most insecure people pounced on it, because they were able to project the image that they always wanted others to have of them. Of being happy, successful, famous, rich, cool…for other insecure people to compare themselves to.
It became a vicious cycle, with insecure people reacting by posting pseudo-accomplishments of their own, everyone engaged in this mad fuckfest to prove to themselves others that they are succeeding in life, that they have the happiest family, that they are happy! And cool! And not alone!
I bought into it all. I became the unhealthy kind of competitive—the kind where I only wanted to be better than others, instead of the best I could be. I constantly compared myself to my girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends. I wanted to be more successful, more fun, better than them.
Those kind of thoughts would collect in my head like a gathering hurricane, raining and raining and raining. When my girlfriend would ask me what was wrong, I wouldn’t even be able to articulate myself, because as soon as I started to, I would realize how crazy I sounded. But I held on to them, because I didn’t know how to think any other way, other than desperately trying to prove to her that I was successful, I was fun…basically sinking down to the level of my personal demons.
And it wasn’t just my girlfriend’s ex. It was friends, it was classmates, it was everyone. What got to me the most were fake people or assholes who seemed to be more happy or successful. That didn’t seem fair. Was being fake helping them? Were they truly happy? And how come they had more than me?
Sometimes my insecurities got so bad that I didn’t want to be in situations where I felt like there were people “better” than me. “Better” as in having more of the stuff that I wanted—accomplishments, recognition, money—either by birth (their parents) or hard work. It’s so hard to deal with, being that insecure. It’s a dark violet fluttering in your stomach that doesn’t go away, a kicking satanic baby.
I rolled like this for a long time. Finally I wanted a way out. I had to, at the very least for my own well-being. If you base your self-worth on comparison to other people—trying to be “the best” of your age group, etc—you will never be happy, because there will always be someone better than you.
I walked down to the shore of Lake Erie and, like Isaiah Thomas did when he came up with “The Jordan Rules” that enabled the Detroit Pistons to contain Michael Jordan in the 1989 playoffs, I stared at the lake for hours. Finally, I realized the solution for myself, and maybe others.
I realized: I wasn’t them. I didn’t have their mind or experiences or life, so why did it matter how they felt or what they did? Their happiness and accomplishments didn’t concern me—they might as well not exist, or be objects or robots, because I wasn’t them. The spectrum of my perception, experience and existence begins and ends with me. It doesn’t matter at all what anyone else does or has.
Every time I look at someone and feel the slightest hint of jealousy, I remember: I’m not them. Whenever I feel the comparative urge start to surface, when someone tells me something good about themselves or others, I remember: I’m not them.
Others might have more advantages or opportunities than you, but that’s their life, and it doesn’t apply to yours. Sure, your life could be better, but anyone’s life could be better. And even more than that, things could be worse. You could have been born a chicken in a factory farm, doomed to a life of torture, captivity and consumption. You could have been born a peasant in feudal Europe, with no chance of upward social mobility.
But we’re citizens of the 21st century—we have internet, we have long life, and therefore there is hope for the future. If you have time and a computer, you can learn anything you want, make almost anything you want, and do many things that you want. It’s easier for certain people (born with more intelligence or money) but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
As long as I am working towards being the person I want to be every day, I don’t need to worry about others. I can go to sleep easy, knowing that that day, I maximized my situation, and what I have been given in life. And if I wasn’t strong enough to do it that day, there’s always tomorrow.
Finally, on the question of the people you are jealous of—do they suffer? Are they happy? Everyone suffers. No one is perfect. Everyone loses both parents. Everyone sees something they worked towards fail. Living is going through pain. How could you be jealous of anyone…everyone’s life is simply normal to them, and full of both happy moments and sad ones.
Don’t let your insecurities get the best of you. Smile when people tell you accomplishments—because don’t think about them in the context of yourself. Don’t ask questions about somebody who’s struggling even if you just want to feel better about yourself—because you’re still comparing, and that means you don’t have enough belief in yourself that you’re okay the way you are.
The other day, my friend Ziggy and I had a sleepover. We played a game of one-on-one basketball, watched the NBA playoffs, and played NBA 2k14. We ended up in the basement, where we cuddled with blankets and sat very close to each other on the couch, sharing a laptop between our legs. Together, we watched Michael Jordan’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech.
Michael Jordan, one of the most competitive modern humans, had a horrible speech. On a night for graciousness, he instead brought up perceived slights throughout his career, represented by people in the crowd (the person chosen over him for the varsity squad in high school, etc) and humiliated them. He needlessly resurrected old, imagined demons, just so he could shoot them in the face with his microphone. It was mean, it was ugly, and he didn’t seem to be at peace with himself.
It was clear, Michael Jordan compared himself to other people. And though it made him the greatest of all time, it didn’t seem to have made him happy.
Detaching yourself from the comparison culture encouraged by the American “meritocracy” and Facebook doesn’t mean you’re giving up. LeBron James may one day equal or surpass Jordan, but he talks about he doesn’t compare himself to Jordan—he simply wants to be the best LeBron he could be. It’s actually liberating—when you want to be better than someone else, you’re only looking at how far up they are. But when you want to be the best you, the limit is as far as you imagine it. I hope that doesn’t sound corny, and helps—it’s just how I feel.
I’ve turned my competitiveness inwards. I still want to be the best, the best me, one step at a time. I know what I need to work on, and as long as I’m maximizing my god-given potential and being a good, assertive person, I can make it. Maybe growing older will prove me wrong. Maybe something horrible will happen to me and all my optimism will be crushed. But for now, I’m done comparing myself to others, and for now, I feel much, much better.