Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Comparing Apples to Jackrabbits

I spend a lot of my life observing.  I have long been a fan of people-watching, and I daresay it led me somewhat to the profession I am in today.  People fascinate me. I love their intricacies and the little details that make them who they are.  In all of this observation, however, I frequently find myself looking at others and comparing myself to them.

Many skills I do not have. I like to tell people that I have "all the coordination of a three-legged elephant with a short leg." Sports will never be my thing. When I was in kindergarten, I was pulled out of regular academic studies for remedial P.E. Things did not improve much from there in terms of my athleticism.  Similarly, while I love music, I am not a musician. I played the flute for eight years, but I was never able to produce the sweet, rounded tones that some of my compatriots could. Could I have practiced more and become a better athlete or musician? Yes, I suppose. Has it been worth it to me? I guess not.  I've learned to accept that I will never be a gymnast or a concert flutist, but I can enjoy the talents of others in those areas.

What can be harder for me is when I compare myself to people in my field. I find that people with whom I was in school now have doctorate degrees or have been in management positions in companies or have publications in journals. I catch myself wondering why I have not made their achievements and wondering whether I am good enough.

The answers to those questions are varied. Could I have gone to school for a Ph.D? Probably. I suppose I still might, but when I got done with my Ed.S program, I really wanted to get experience with people.  Similarly, I have never felt a strong pull to do research and develop that sort of writing. As far as management positions go, I have preferred to work directly with clients rather than focusing on the administrivia of management.

As I consider my answers to those questions, what I find is that who I am and what my skills and preferences are differs from those people with whom I am comparing. This makes me different, but not better or worse.  My path has been my own, and I have become the person I am today. As I head along that path, I will continue to change. With that point of view, comparing becomes irrelevant.  No one else has had my life and my particular circumstances, and even if they had, their responses might be totally different. The only person I can compare with, then, is myself.

Many times, clients come to me frustrated that they are not as successful as others that they know. They identify success in terms of money or relationships or attainments.  As we continue the conversation, however, we often find that they have been very successful in other ways.  Many of my clients have suffered abuse in childhood or adulthood. Many have gone through debilitating depression and great losses.  In these cases, it seems success may need to be redefined.  For trauma survivors, the survival of the trauma is a success. For people who struggle with depression, success can be as simple as getting out of bed, getting dressed, or taking a shower.  Those things may not look like much to others, but anyone who has been there is aware of what a challenge those things can be.  Comparing themselves to those who have not faced those struggles is like comparing apples to jackrabbits. I also say, "You can't compare pain." Two trauma survivors may have similar or different stories, but their pain will be unique to them and their paths will be their own.

Furthermore, many of my clients are hyperfocused on their lack or their "failings" and ignore some impressive strengths. Resiliency, courage, creativity, compassion, and other gifts tend to be glossed over or belittled.  They have the latest mental technology to detect faults and defects, but their tools to detect their strengths and positive attributes are stuck in the stone age. Much of how we see ourselves depends on our perception and interpretation, and learning to change those can be challenging.

One of my favorite exercises to do with clients is to have them list everything they have done right that day. I encourage them to note everything, even if it seems silly or minuscule: "I brushed my teeth. I got the toothpaste on the toothbrush without dripping it in the sink. I remembered to spit rather than swallowing my toothpaste. I spat in the sink and not on the counter." Etc, etc.  As we read over and add to the list in session, clients begin to laugh and smile and get excited about adding more. Often times, they will say, "but that's not an accomplishment. You're supposed to do that." My response is to ask whether there have been times they could not do those things, and the answer is usually yes. In that case, I say, it's an accomplishment.

Ultimately, we all have areas in which we need to grow and areas that are more well-developed.  It helps to be able to be mindful in our self-assessments, meaning that we note what is there without placing judgment on it. What is is. Should doesn't matter. Finding a balance in our focus on ourselves and being able to accept the good as well as the less helpful aspects can help us to make better decisions and have the courage to take next steps.

I like to tell my clients that they are my heroes, and I firmly believe that.  I have great respect for the people who go through all of these struggles and still face the world everyday. It is an honor to learn from them and to grow with them. My hope is that they can learn to value themselves at least as much as I value them. They are worth it.

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