Saturday, August 29, 2009

Life Lessons...Quit Comparing Yourself

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"I will reward each one according to their faithfulness. You're on a even playing field with everyone!"
~ Don Franklin

Quit Comparing Yourself
by Daphne Merkin

I have often wondered whether I am tone deaf when it comes to learning from experience, whether I lack the basic self-preserving mechanism that would lead me to draw the requisite conclusions and not open the wrong door again, ushering in the same old demons in new outfits. It would be a nice compensatory gleam of light on the bleak horizon of growing older [as well as saggier and more forgetful] if the idea that people accumulate wisdom with age were a self-evident truth rather than an example of wishful thinking. But if Freud got anything right, it was that we humans suffer from repetition compulsion. I think of all my doomed romantic choices, despite umpteen years of costly therapy and rabid introspection and my refrain might well be: Do it to me one more time, once is never enough, with a man like you.

And yet even I have to admit to a small but signal change that has come with the passage of years. By the time I turned 40, I had stopped [well, almost] comparing myself to others. I had ceased, that is, running a kind of permanent college reunion in my head, a life contest in which I always fell last in the lineup of imaginary rivals. It's a psychological tic -a corrosive habit of mind- that is almost impossible to break. Virginia Woolf was beset by this compulsion, aided no doubt by the fact that she was one of many siblings and was intensely competitive with her older sister, Vanessa. Her need to scope out her place in the literary landscape among other women writers, such as Katherine Mansfield, is writ large in her letters and journals and frequently got in the way of her friendships.

I myself grew up as one of six closely spaced siblings and my mother compared and contrasted us with one another at every opportunity, usually to my detriment. My two sisters and I were examined and characterized in mutually exclusive terms; they were what I was not, they had what I was missing. So I formed the notion that the only way to know what I was feeling about my life was to assess it according to the self-incriminating standards set by others. Being a person of hyperventilating, even brutal imagination, I took this to ludicrous extremes. I remember lying on a beach chair in Maui on my honeymoon, wondering why I wasn't on someone else's honeymoon. [Yes, my marriage eventually ended in divorce.]

I knew I had to change. I had before me as a cautionary example a much older friend, a woman writer who had been married to a more famous literary figure. Both of them had been part of the incestuous circle known as the New York intellectuals, and my friend had never come to terms with her place in the world, continuing to be racked into her old age by feelings of being insufficiently admired, compared with Mary McCarthy, say , or Hannah Arendt. Watching this woman ravage herself scared me. Somewhere along the line I stared experimentng with inhabiting my own life, without recourse to envisioning the life of imaginary or real Others. Having a child helped ease me into the constriction - and occasional vivid pleasures- of being me and no one else on this carpet ride. I'm not yet up to celebrating myself a la Walt Whitman, but one of these days I just might get there.

repost from American Elle Magazine: "The Most Important Thing I've Learned"
...Image: "The Rokeby Venus" by Diego Velazquez


Anonymous said...

Aaahhh, ;you are makeiing us think again! But, it's good. It's a good thing. :-)

Winklepots said...

Very cool post. Thought provoking and right on.

OliveStreetStudio said...

thanks for the post - very good read.

Bella said...

Such an incredible post! xxx

Petra said...

I have to admit, I still compare myself to others. I know it's wrong to do and unhealthy, but I can't seem to help myself. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I'm trying to stop, but it just happens and then I'll sometimes catch myself.
Great post!

zupu said...

Wise thoughts darling! I think I compare myself nowadays so much less than when I was younger.. all the competition between friends (specially with dancing ones, I used to be a ballerina) but these days I feel much better without all that nonsense :)