I can still hear the words of Mrs. Peitz, my third-grade teacher: “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” Back then our answers were supposed to be the same. It was a temptation to compare my answers with my neighbors’ because I wanted them to be right. What I didn’t understand was that my neighbors’ answers weren’t always correct, and so comparing didn’t always guarantee a good score. Since third grade, we’ve grown individually into different people, with answers (or lives) that should be different as well. Yet we continue to check our choices against what our neighbors might be choosing – we continue to compare.
For years I’ve worked with the girl’s youth group at church. While the one thing they all have in common is their desire to fit in, each exhibits her insecurities in different ways. What they don’t realize is that they will never fit in when they are trying to be something they are not. Like a moving target that we continually miss with each aim, fitting in requires us to change with each new gimmick, trend, or fad. And just when we think we’ve got it, the target moves and we are hustling to try to fit in all over again.
Belonging is different from fitting in and is really what we yearn for. “Fitting in is about assessing the situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
Figuring out who we are is not easy in a world that is trying its best to convince us to be anyone but yourself. With manufactured images that are Photoshopped, edited, and overproduced our eyes can deceive our ordinary self in a very dangerous way. None of us is immune from falling into what one blogger called “lifestyle porn.” The addiction of following a stimulating portrayal of a life lived to perfection can be a stumbling block leading to feelings of disappointment, inadequacy and unrealistic expectations. Author and award-winning columnist Anna Quindlen said, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
It wasn’t until I was about 35 and the mother of four when I finally felt comfortable with the real me. I remember standing in front of my bathroom mirror and telling my husband that I felt like I had finally accepted who I was and who I was not. This realization didn’t make the stomach-churning anxiety go away when I saw friends on social media being their pinterest-y selves. What it did do was help me become aware of those feelings. Dr. Brené Brown calls it critical awareness.
“Practicing critical awareness is about reality-checking the messages and expectations that drive the ‘never good enough’ gremlins. From the time we wake up to the time our head hits the pillow at night, we are bombarded with messages and expectations about every aspect of our lives…Trying to avoid media messages is like holding your breath to avoid air pollution – it’s not going to happen.”
While we may not be able to avoid the inundating media messages, we can become empowered by identifying and recognize those churning “I’m not enough gremlins.”
That new-found power can be freeing! True, it is a little scary to put our real self out there for the world to see, but when we stop worrying about how we compare to others a whole new perspective can open up to us. Understanding and embracing who we really are teaches us to be authentic and intentional in the way we live our life. It simplifies our decisions and opens new doors of creativity.
Theodore Roosevelt had it right when he said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When we spend our time comparing we miss out on the joy of being “me”. And in the end isn’t life really about learning to find joy? So keep your eyes on your own paper and dare not to compare.
Brown, Brené, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing; Minnesota (2010), p.25.
“Anna Quindlen.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2017. 1 February 2017.
Brown, Brené, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing; Minnesota (2010), p.67.
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Will you allow life to teach you or defeat you?