What can make a regular Midwestern January school day even more unappealing to an average grade school student? The knowledge that all around the area, many school districts have closed due to wind chills hovering precariously close to 30 below zero, while ours remained open. Parents were asked to decide whether or not it was safe to send their kids to school, and since we have secure and reliable transportation available, off to school we went. The knowledge that so many others would get to stay home did not technically change anyone’s day. It did, however, push my kids into the comparison trap. They seemed to be dragging more weight than their already overloaded backpacks as they grumpily left the house that morning.
Sometimes, we make life harder for ourselves by continuing to focus on how we stack up to others around us, and the resulting disappointments can cloud over some of the joy in our own lives.
Comparing ourselves to others can cause us to gloss over other people’s problems and fail to appreciate what we have. I find that too often I compare myself to others around me who have family living close to them. From estimating the money other parents save on babysitters to picturing the flawless Sunday weekly dinner at Grandma Mary’s, I convince myself that life would be immeasurably better if our families only lived closer.
The thing is, though, sometimes dinner at Grandma Mary’s includes bickering and burned pot roast, and my vision of a perfect, peaceful meal is nowhere near reality. Often people struggle to put limits on nearby family expectations, feeling resentful, and breakdowns in communication result. A more realistic view does not mean that I stop missing my faraway family, but it does mean that I stop assuming someone else’s life is perfect just because everyone lives near each other. It also means that I work hard to be thankful for the amazing family I have, even if I have to drive a distance to see them.
Freeing ourselves from the comparison trap is the only way to be genuinely happy for someone else. For various reasons, my schedule includes part-time instead of full-time work outside the home. My friends at full-time jobs have achieved professional goals that I will not be able to attain. I know that sometimes I compare myself with them, thinking even as I listen to their accomplishments about what it would be like to travel, collaborate more with colleagues or impact the company in a larger way. My tendency to compare can threaten to diminish what they have achieved. There is plenty of success to go around, and someone else’s enjoyment does not take away from my ability to enjoy all the positives in my world. When we really think about it, most of us would quickly agree that one of the greatest things in life is to have friends who want us to be happy and celebrate our achievements right along with us.
We are often significantly more skilled at comparing ourselves to others who have what we think we are lacking, rather than to those who have less than we do. I have seen this when kids come home and report on who now owns the latest and greatest devices or who spent a small fortune on the coolest tennis shoes. There is often much less commenting about the classmate who may be wearing the same clothes to school every day. Adults get good at this too – focusing on the neighbor’s remodeled kitchen or the multiple vacations someone else seems to go on every year. To be fair, comparison works both ways, and for most of us, there are plenty of people who have significantly less than ourselves. I can only truly appreciate what I have, and know the importance of giving back to others, when I stop worrying that someone else has more than me and remember how to help others who are struggling.
Springing free of the comparison trap is crucial to self-awareness and unleashing our potential to reach our goals. Comparing ourselves to someone else diverts our attention away from our own lives and causes us to spend less time determining what is actually most important to us. We can free ourselves from the burden of trying to keep up with someone else and develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of our purpose in life. When it seems as though someone else in your life “gets the day off school”, think about the things you can accomplish when given the gift of an ordinary day.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.