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I liken comparing myself to others to a landscape of skin. In some areas that skin is as thick as a crocodile’s. Very little penetrates it. Take social media. I came to it old enough to have a solid sense of myself. My self-esteem and body image didn’t grow up in the glare of Instagram. FOMO generated by someone else’s curated holiday/body/green smoothie/adorable family snaps is foreign to me.
Other tracts of skin are a little thinner but still not easily breached, a bit like a callused heel. My career path and choices have held few twinges of comparison. Maybe in the early years of my veterinary career I did some comparing. But that was part of the trek of working out what sort of vet I wanted to be.
Writing and advocacy work have only evolved in the last few years, and I view other people’s work in these areas as something to either aspire to or steer away from. Yes, it’s comparison, but a cool, dispassionate kind.
Then there are the areas of soft skin, vulnerable, but hidden away too deeply to be strip searched by comparisons. My relationship with my husband fits here, I couldn’t compare us to anyone else, because what we have is as unique as a fingerprint.
Then there’s skin ripped open at unnatural angles.
My Bipolar Disorder was a breeding ground for unhelpful comparisons from the beginning. It started within a month of my first episode. I was in hospital when I saw other patients return to the mother baby unit in wheelchairs, heavily sedated, after having Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) treatment. I remember thinking:
‘At least I’m not that sick.’
Six weeks later I was sicker than most of them, and it was me having ECT.
It is easy to be drawn into comparisons of mental illness, but they are such a disorienting waste of time and energy. Newcomers to mental illness can fall into the trap of comparing medications. I have several friends with whom I not only share a diagnosis, but a psychiatrist. We are all on completely different medications. What has worked well for one person is a disaster for someone else.
I have been guilty, and am remorseful, of at times feeling resentful of others whose symptoms sounded less debilitating than mine felt. Wrong on so many levels.
Years of scrambling for comparisons have shown me the futility in this. I don’t do it anymore. But past efforts have left scars that throb sometimes.
And then there’s parenting. This skin is hard wearing, but constantly injured, a little boy’s knee, grazed, healing, healed, repeat.
In this area of life comparison is almost fetishized. We all worship at the altar of our child or children being the smartest, prettiest, fastest, kindest, most emotionally intelligent, arty, academic, quirky, sporty, best cuddle giver, best at trying hard,… it’s an endless list. Some of us do our worshipping silently. Others not so much.
And that’s before we even get to our parenting choices. From how the baby gets out of us to whether we go with private or public schooling, if we’re looking for it, there is always someone to compare ourselves to. These comparisons are like a whirlpool. Easy to be sucked into, hard work to extricate yourself from, and if you’re not careful you can drown in them.
Parenting comparisons are often the first world privilege of those of us with the time and energy to obsess over things that don’t ultimately matter.
For me, early first-time parenthood was so filled with the battle to survive a life-threatening illness while caring for my baby, it made short work of comparisons. I simply did not have the energy to care about what anyone else was doing.
My first baby was born by caesarean, formula fed from day seven, control settled, and had a dummy. All things, I learnt much later, some mothers beat themselves to a guilty pulp over. For me they were just what I needed to do to keep myself and my baby alive. What everyone else was doing simply didn’t factor into it.
By the time I had my second baby (also by caesarean, formula fed from day seven, using a dummy, but not control settled because it didn’t work for him) I had a powerful antidote to comparisons on board. My psychologist, whose impartial, honest opinion I still value above anyone’s. She tells me what I need to hear, not always what I want to hear.
And when I am at risk of being hypnotised into jumping into that whirlpool, she reminds me that much like my relationship with my husband, that with my children is sacred, unique, and not up for comparisons.
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