Feel like you don't measure up? Are you guilty of constantly gauging your achievements against your peers? Daisy Buchanan argues it’s time we learnt to run our own race.
I am secretly convinced that one day, without warning, I will be airlifted from my flat, dropped into my old school uniform by a machine not unlike the one Wallace uses in The Wrong Trousers, and forced to attend Sixth Form Plus. At Sixth Form Plus, I will be weighed, measured and found wanting.
Everything I have achieved since school will be calculated and compared with my peers. “Well, Daisy, you’ve failed to buy a house, make any meaningful dent in your student loan repayments or give birth to any children. You’ve also put on quite a lot of weight, so we’re going to have to put you in the bottom stream. Most disappointing,” my headmistress will sigh, while awarding house points to my old classmates who have set up businesses, learned second languages and travelled the world while I’ve been sat on my sofa. And I don’t even own my sofa. Although I can’t imagine my landlord will want it back when he sees how much Nutella I’ve got on the cushions.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I loved the security of school. I excelled at some subjects and was spectacularly bad at others – but constantly getting assessed was reassuring. It made me aware of where I was and what I had to do to get better. For me, the most frightening part of being an adult is that I have to create my own benchmarking system.
This means I endlessly compare myself with other women in order to work out where I ‘rank’. And, just as at school, the benchmarking isn’t limited to intellect. We grow up giving ourselves secret grades for everything from extra-curricular activities, fashion know-how and cultural kudos to relationship skills – and we graduate with a giant list of areas for improvement, but with no real knowledge of how these grades work in the real world or what to do next. Largely because, according to psychologist Dr Marissa Wolfe, this benchmarking we learn at school has little use in adult life.
“School tells us grades are important but we come away with little information about how we achieved those grades or their context. We spend adult life trying to invent our own universal system which is doomed to fail. We all had different experiences of grading growing up, so we’ll never reach a consensus on what ‘doing well’ means.”
For instance, I’m panicking because I haven’t bought a house when my friend Robin just exchanged contracts on one – and he’s a year younger than me. A pal in her early 30s just signed a lucrative book deal, but she’s three years older than me, which gives me time to do the same. I’m really excited about getting married this autumn, but I feel I should already be thinking about having a family as my little sister and her husband are trying for a baby.
Regardless of our successes, even when we tick an achievement off our list, another ‘must-do’ rears its head. Take teacher Shontelle, 29, who found herself unable to enjoy a promotion because she instantly measured her achievement against other women around her. “Last month, I was promoted to deputy head of year and managed to feel proud of myself for about four minutes until I saw on Facebook that my little sister had just bought a new car, when I can’t even drive. It feels like I’m plate-spinning, knowing I can never tick everything off the list. I know my anxiety means I’m missing out on my own life, as I just can’t live in the moment.”
I can sympathise. When I finally caught up and sold a book of my own last year and thought it was time to invest in some nice furniture my joy was extinguished as soon as I started looking at interiors blogs. I feel as though it doesn’t matter how many books I write, I won’t be a proper adult until I have a collection of vintage hand-blown glasses and none of my cushions are from Ikea.
My friend Marina, 27, a copywriter – who, from where I’m standing, has a successful career, brilliant life and impossibly glossy hair – admits she’s familiar with the pressure of endless comparison. “Right now I am the only one in my group of friends who isn’t writing a book or having their play performed somewhere. I am proud of them but it’s hard to ignore the inner voice that whispers, ‘Why aren’t you doing it too? Is it because you’re crap?’”
Unfortunately, this self-flagellation appears to be more of a female issue. “As women, we’re conditioned to measure ourselves against our peers because it’s a way to give ourselves validation and approval,” explains Dr Wolfe. “Men are socialised to be more accepting of themselves. The men I work with benchmark in measurable areas like salary and performance but don’t tend to compare themselves in the highly subjective areas my female clients use.”
We know that comparing ourselves to other people is one of the fastest and most effective ways to make us unhappy, but we can’t stop doing it. Psychologist Dr Judith Orloff, the author of Emotional Freedom, explains: “Comparing is a natural tendency. It can be neutral, such as when you evaluate similarities and differences – essential for astute reasoning. It’s also productive if you’re inspired to emulate another’s impressive traits. Interestingly, it’s more common to feel inferior to those with ‘more’ than to feel grateful compared to those with ‘less’.”
This makes sense. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a safe part of the world, to be relatively healthy and wealthy, with a roof over my head – but when I think about people who are worse off than me, I’m consumed with guilt about my good fortune and immediately start negatively comparing myself with the doctors, nurses and relief workers who are doing something to help. This, again, is fruitless. “Comparing ourselves to others can come from low self-esteem and lack of belief in the integrity of our own unique life path,” adds Dr Orloff. “But comparing your path to another’s is like comparing apples and oranges.”
I recently had a conversation about this with my friend Rhiannon, who co-founded the hugely successful blog The Vagenda. Before I knew her, I knew of her, and spent a long time fretting that her achievements outstripped mine, and that she was a few years younger than me to boot. If we weren’t all online, I might not have been aware of her accomplishments. However, the upside of the internet is that you can get in touch with the people you admire to ask them how they did it. Instead of channelling my energy into envy, I asked if I could write for Rhiannon. A few years later, we share a fabulous pool of mutual friends and a literary agent.
Older and wiser
According to Dr Wolfe, the best way to deal with our tendency to compare ourselves with others is to be totally open about it. “I see it becoming stronger in clients approaching 30 who panic about starting a new decade and not being where they feel they ‘should’ be. It ebbs as people age and begin to inhabit themselves in a more comfortable way. My happiest clients are the ones who notice that pang of comparison and mindfully unpack it, asking, ‘Would this work for me? Does it make me feel good?’”
One recurring problem everyone agrees on is that as soon as you think you’ve ‘measured up’ in one area, you’re not necessarily filled with a sense of pride or achievement. Instead, you immediately start looking for another category where you feel you’re falling behind.
According to Dr Wolfe, we can make envy work for us if we analyse exactly how it’s making us feel. “One client said it clicked when she compared her Facebook jealously with her Instagram jealousy. The baby pictures on Facebook made her feel like she wasn’t doing what everyone else wanted, but the Bali beach pictures on Instagram were the gut punch that made her want to travel the world. Facebook reinforces the idea that you have to achieve in accordance with a timeline and it’s limitingly linear. There is no universal ‘right’ time for anyone to do anything, only a ‘right’ time for you.”
When someone else’s achievements make you feel conflicting emotions, it helps to focus on the positive parts. It can be a great way to identify your own unrealised ambitions. “If someone makes you feel like you’re being left behind, tell them you’re hugely impressed and you’d love to know how they do it,” suggests Dr Wolfe. “Chances are, they’re not superhuman, and there’s a combination of luck and hard work involved that is not beyond your reach.”
Ultimately, if you get too distracted by what everyone else is doing, you’re going to miss out on your own greatest hits. Dr Orloff explains: “Every method I advocate for dealing with comparison is about taking your eyes off other people and focusing on yourself.” Her advice takes me straight back to school – when my teachers would tell me to stop worrying about everyone else’s work and get on with my own. It’s great to admire the achievements of others – and even better to be inspired by them. Losing our breath as we chase what’s not for us is destructive and a waste of time. However, getting passionate about personal goals will get us further ahead than we ever imagined. Still inclined to compare yourself against others? No, me neither.
Images: Rex Features