It’s true that looking up gets you down – at least when it comes to comparing our self-worth.
We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up. Universal though it is, the negative comparison habit may be amplified by America’s striving spirit: Here, everyone can, and therefore should, make it to the top–or so we think. Those of us who’ve had more opportunities may wind up feeling that much worse.
The verb “should” is a scary word. It projects the judgement and expectations of others on our own state. The “should” pressure leads us to believing we aren’t good enough (i.e., shame) and compels us to achieve for reasons which are not self-fulfilling.
Take Cheryl Aviva Amitay, a graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland law school. Amitay has a happy marriage, a great daughter, two older “bonus” stepsons, and a career as a lawyer near her home in Bowie, MD. Still, she’s plagued with feeling subpar compared to some of her peers.
“I read through Brown Alumni Magazine and feel a bit ill as I see how rich, famous, and influential my classmates have become,” says Amitay. “It seems like everyone and their mothers are doing interesting, meaningful, exciting things. I am just back at work, in a non-permanent, junior contract legal position, after having been laid off from a job I didn’t like but that at least had a great title. I feel like the world’s greatest underachiever who peaked senior year in high school, when I got into Brown early admission, was the school president and class clown, played drums in a band, did school plays, and was considered ‘cool’ and ‘different.’”
Based on Amitay’s picture of what was happening when her life “peaked,” we can guess that she was receiving a lot of reassuring feedback from her peers, advisors, educators, and family during this time. Success, in her eyes, was directly related to how other’s viewed her choices, work, and accomplishments. She isn’t the only one who measures success through the lense of others, though – we all do! Maybe not all the time, but at least part of the time if we want to be honest with ourselves.
Your experiences – both triumphs and challenges – are experienced by others in a very different way than they are experienced by you personally. Look at your accomplishments (or lack thereof) from last year and see them for what they truly were and are. Someone else will likely see them differently than you, but they should be worrying about their own growth. Uh, oh! There’s that “should” word again!
Amitay acknowledges that her life probably looks good to others, but she’s bothered by thinking she should have been able to leverage her “wits, brass, and assertiveness” into something bigger or more extraordinary.
We are all bothered by the same worry as Amitay at some point in our lives. We are told to aim for the stars and then be happy when we land on the moon, but if someone else actually hits a star, our moon is no longer sufficient. Some goals are there to drive and motivate us. Some goals are there to be attained. The key in dealing with other people’s “should” is to keep striving for whatever the goal is that we want. Wanting something means that it may be flexible. As we change, our goals may change with us and that want may look a bit different from year to year.
Embrace your goals because they fulfill you! What goals are you still actively pursuing? What goals may need to be revamped to fit your current wants? And what goals should you drop altogether because they aren’t really your goals at all?