The far enemy of sympathetic joy is envy, and the near enemy is comparing.”
-From Devotion: A Memoir, by Dani Shapiro, page 199
How many of us go through our days comparing ourselves to others—who’s smarter, prettier, richer, taller, shorter, older, younger? I don’t know about you, but I often find I’m telling myself that I’m doing it better, or worse, than somebody else. Whatever “it” is.
That was part of Ella’s problem. Ella worried; she felt guilty and anxious—was she the best, or the worst? She always compared herself with others, and she often felt ashamed. Now, partly, that habit was developed by her parents’ questions. If she took a test, they asked who got the best mark, if she talked about her friends, they wanted to know who was the most popular. If Ella went to a party, they asked who was prettiest and best dressed, who had the cutest boyfriend, who danced the most dances. They never asked Ella if she had a good time.
The comparing bug started before that, it started when she was little. Who had the cutest child? The biggest baby? Whose child said the most words? Ella’s success meant her mother was the winner. Her mother’s happiness depended on Ella’s performance. This was both exciting and painful for Ella. She loved her mother and wanted to please her, but sometimes that meant ignoring her own wishes and doing, being, what her mother wanted. After a time it became harder to recognize what Ella wanted to do for herself and what she felt she needed to do for her mother. The lines were more and more blurred, until Ella didn’t know where she left off and her mother began, and Ella no longer knew what she liked or what she wanted.
When we’re growing up we compare ourselves to our parents to figure out who we are and who they are. It’s a lucky child whose parents are happy with differences. Ella had to fulfill her mother’s wishes and be the same as her mother, but not quite as good. Ella could only go so far before her mother got envious and mad and started looking for revenge. Ella always had to be the best, but not better than her mother, so she learned to lose to keep the peace, and that became a habit.
When Ella started treatment it quickly became clear that she had many gifts—intelligence, looks, and a good heart—and also many problems, such as depression, anxiety, buried anger, and deep loneliness. She repressed most of her feelings and desires because there hadn’t been enough room for them when she was growing up. She was never sure if her feelings were “allowed” or if they meant something terrible—that she was dumb or crazy or bad. Her mother’s feelings always came first.
Our work began as a slow sorting out of the “me” and the “not me.” Using gentle humor, moral support when it was needed, and breathwork and meditation as techniques to reduce anxiety, I helped Ella come to herself. She needed emotional holding and validation so she could learn to treasure herself for all that she is, and to value life and all the riches that our world offers. Slowly she started to feel more worthy, less envious, more able to enjoy herself and to relish other people’s successes as well as her own. Life started to lighten up, and Ella did too.
As Ella became grateful for her gifts and the richness of others, she became joyful and alive; a walking salutation to the world’s beauty, she learned that she indeed had and was enough. When you’re grateful, there’s no need to feel envious. Experiencing gratitude- is that an emotional or a spiritual achievement? Sometimes human development embraces the universe, and we’re a world of joyful best. No comparison.
© Copyright 2011 by By Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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