Written in August 2023
Drawing comparisons between yourself and someone else is something I've long seen as misguided, ever since I realised it as a young adult. It is also something we are all prone to do when we are developing our identities and personalities as young people, and then again if we are diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental, physical or mental health condition in later life.
Thankfully comparing myself with others is something I no longer do, but I'm not trying to say I have achieved any kind of “enlightenment”, nor should anyone reading this feel bad if they do compare themselves to other people. It doesn't “mean” anything about me, or about anyone else. It's just a fact.
Seeing things, or framing things as standalone facts is one of the things that helped me realise that comparing myself with others was unhelpful – in that all it could do was make me feel bad, and achieved nothing else.
If I have size 5 feet, and someone else has size 6, what does that mean about either of us? Nothing.
If I have a 30 inch waist and someone else has a 26 inch waist, what does that mean? Who is “better” here? No-one.
Physical size has no bearing on anything other than being a record of fact. Yes, society might hold slimmer waists in higher esteem, but it's just a construct, a trend. Society hasn't always had the same standards, nor do societies and cultures outside the white western paradigm, so it's pointless, perhaps even egotistical, to suggest that these value judgements have any real meaning.
Comparing yourself to others to make yourself feel better can be helpful in the moment, but it's a slippery slope towards devaluing other people for no good reason. Turn the dynamic round, and you'd not want them to be comparing themselves to you if they were going to feel bad about it, would you?
There are, however, times when comparisons can be useful and validating, and this is when you compare yourself with yourself.
If alexithymia is part of your neurodivergence, or recognising and regulating emotional states is a challenge for other reasons then using comparisons to assess your emotional state in a relative way can show you whether you're feeling better, the same, or worse than an hour ago, than yesterday, than this time last year, even.
Retrospection is a technique I've learned and started to use more over the past couple of years and it's been quite grounding and validating. It allows me to look at, assess, and make a judgement about my emotional, mental and physical states at different times and to be able to link up these isolated experiences and put them into a timeline. I can actually see a progression. Even if I'm not really sure how I am feeling at any given moment, I can tell where I am in relation to myself in the past.
Retrospection comes with a caveat though. Due to repeated burnouts and the development of physical health conditions (plus the general decrepitude that getting older brings) I can't compare myself with myself on a like-for-like basis on every metric. Maybe not even on any metric apart from contentment (being, as it is, relative to all the other factors in your life at any given time).
I used to be able to do an incredibly demanding job that required a lot of multi-tasking, task switching, high level customer interactions, account management, resource management, report writing, scoping and specifying projects and more. I could also go out all weekend, pretty much every weekend, manage an active social life and keep up with food shopping, laundry and bills.
At that point I'd only had one major burnout. I was in my twenties when you can have that sort of lifestyle and not get tired. I'm forty now (with baggage), and there is just no way I could maintain and job and lifestyle like that now, not without burning out. And guess what eventually happened when I tried to keep up that pace of life, that level of functioning? I burnt out. And I burnt out again, and it happened again, and a few more times after that. And even when I thought I'd cracked it, I burnt out badly.
So now when I am recovering from burnouts, and I am trying to avoid another, and attempting to keep all these plates spinning, I have to adjust my expectations of myself. I have to accept that if I am going to be comparatively alright, compared to how I was in my twenties when things were all good, then that comparison must be adjusted. Instead of drawing a like-for-like comparison I have to compare my satisfaction with elements like work, social life, executive functioning tasks and any other life area with my satisfaction with the same at previous times in my life.
I guess I'm just looking at happiness and achievement, a sense of satisfaction, and whether I am running at a sustainable capacity, and comparing those things with my authentic self, with my balanced expectations, and with no-one else.