At a literary event one year, a student in my program was singled out by one of our professors and, with high praise, invited up to the podium to read her work. The professor in question happens to be a very prominent and much-lauded writer himself and was, in fact, the person everyone had come to hear. My fellow student — let’s call her Rose — is also an accomplished writer who received a prestigious honor for her work, one of only eight students in the country to be so recognized. It was the gesture of a professor who chose to put the spotlight on a student of whom he was very proud and who is obviously very talented.
Still, sitting in the audience, I was caught by surprise. As far as I knew, it was unprecedented: this literary event had always been strictly about the roster of major authors brought in for the event.
My better angel was really happy for Rose. It was a great opportunity for her, her stuff was terrific, and maybe this signaled something new for students’ chances to read their work in the future.
My lesser angel was not so generous. From the moment Rose started reading, the comparisons began.
Was she really that much a better writer than everyone else in the program? (Translation: than I was? Cue mentally comparing my work to hers.) Didn’t I write about a lot of those same themes just as often? (Well, no, if I were really honest, but I thought about them all the time and I was definitely going to begin actually putting them down on paper now.) And on and on. I didn’t want to think like that because I don’t want to be that person.
I know all too well that comparisons lead to places I don’t want to be in, and they lead there fast. Comparing ourselves to someone else never comes from a good place, and if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we know that comparisons are often the twins of jealousy and resentment. That doesn’t mean that in the moment it wasn’t a struggle to shut my lesser angel up.
It’s impossible to practice radical self-love and be comparing ourselves to others at the same time. When we talk about radical self-love, we’re not talking about narcissism or selfishness, or the synthetic and superficial self-love our society endlessly promises will be found through this or that new product or exercise program or whatever. We’re talking about loving ourselves in a way that is radical because it doesn’t rely on external things; it grows from within, and it is a process.
Radical self-love doesn’t just happen overnight. The process of that growth includes the ongoing struggle to scrape out all that gunk we’ve accumulated inside ourselves all these years that has told us we’re not lovable because there’s something “wrong” with our bodies, our sexuality, our thinking, our loving, or our whatever that someone else has decided makes us “different” and — unlovable. In other words, all the negative aspects of our culture and the society that we’ve internalized all these years.
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How did we come to the conclusion that we were either too much or not enough of whatever we or others thought we should or shouldn’t be?
We were taught from an early age to compare ourselves to everyone else (and especially whatever it was that we weren’t) on TV, in ads, and in the movies. We measured ourselves against some socially-determined standard that almost always had no relationship to the real world.
Comparisons are so insidious because they are so pliable; they can always be used in whatever way best serves the moment to undermine the work of building radical self-love. Here are three ways comparison is detrimental to cultivating our radical self-love.
1. Comparisons narrow our view of the world and block out possibilities.
Comparing myself is a cold, isolated cage with no key
It keeps me locked up inside myself
I become blind to my other qualities
They don’t matter
— Sierra Thorpe, college student
When we’re comparing ourselves to others, all we see is that “other”. This obscures our ability to see the world beyond the object we’re comparing ourselves to. It also blinds us to seeing our own selves, to recognize what we do have because we’re too busy thinking about what we don’t have in comparison to the other.
What we fail to see in the process is that the comparison is ultimately irrelevant. What’s important is what we have and what we do with it. We want to open up horizons and the space for our radical self-love to grow, not create limits by blocking out whole arenas of possibility.
2. Comparisons are a weapon to beat ourselves up with.
I spent most of my life believing that the reason I could never find a relationship with another person was because I was fat and therefore unattractive. This was the message I’d grown up with: that fat women were not attractive as sexual partners.
I would always compare myself to women who did have partners and who were just as fat as me or fatter. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? There must obviously be something really wrong with me.
That many of us also compare ourselves to thin women, especially models and actors, is also true. Marketers of thousands of products depend on this.
Without radical self-love, comparisons will always be a weapon we use to beat ourselves up with and validate our own shortcomings. They’ll always be the reasons we spend money on some new thing that promises to make us more attractive, thinner, richer, or whatever else.
The alternative is a comparison where we’re able to feel superior to someone else. We make ourselves happy at someone else’s expense. Is that really who we want to be? Is that the route to radical self-love?
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3. Comparisons perpetuate a culture of differences that divide and oppress us.
The most important thing we have to remember is that usually what we think is wrong with us is the result of a message from a culture that has something to gain from our constantly feeling less than. Remember: people who feel less than don’t fight back. And they have a much harder time finding their own radical self-love.
It’s far too easy to forget the joy of seeing our differences as complements to each other’s strengths. Too often we instead get caught up in the loneliness that comes from letting our differences divide us because we’re so busy comparing ourselves to others. It’s up to us to rewrite the old scripts and redo the old tapes.
Radical self-love is about redefining differences and transforming what we were taught were negatives into just parts of who we are, worthy of love and respect as part of our whole selves. It’s about truly believing the old saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — not on the airbrushed cover of some magazine.
We live in a world where it often seems like daily living itself is a competition: for jobs, a place to live, to keep ahead of all the demands. The ability to avoid comparing oneself to others sometimes feels like an impossible dream. There’s always someone who’s making more money, has a nicer car, is thinner or prettier than we think we are, has better hair than we think we do, is healthier, has a better job, and the list goes on.
I don’t often quote old white men, but I do love the words of the poet John Keats, who said, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’” That’s all you’ll ever need to know. The challenge of radical self-love is finding our own truth, and cherishing it because we know it’s there that our own beauty lies.
[Feature Image: Black and white image of an individual with long black hair standing outdoors and looking to the side pensively. Source: Pexels]