DV’s culture of comparison harms self-worth

Sraavya Sambara, Editor-in-Chief

A thick blanket of low-lying fog envelops students at Dougherty Valley High School. In one breath the fog enters the lungs. From there, its effects are immediate and noxious. The students jolt forward convulsively, and suddenly it’s as if everything, and everyone, is different.

A classmate is not a classmate, but an opponent in the frenzied race that is college admissions. A friend is not a friend, but competition, someone to be compared against. And amid all this, another symptom of the deadly fog begins to surface; a suffocating, heart-wrenching feeling of inadequacy.

Someone is always better, yet no one is good enough. Most kids at Dougherty undoubtedly have it pretty good, but on the inside, we all struggle with the feeling that no matter what we do, someone is always doing better and more, and so our own accomplishments pale. It’s as if people walk around with their resume over their head, so every time we look at someone, we are quantifying their accomplishments and comparing them to our own. And more often than not, this cycle of comparison only lowers our self-esteem and invokes a feeling that we will never be good enough.

When I was a freshman — though I still feel like one — I took my first Honors class and was utterly crushed by the fact that I actually had to start trying. In middle school, everything came easy, so easy in fact, that I was brimming with self-confidence, validated by my stellar grades. So after my second chemistry test, when I realized I would actually have to study to capture that ever-elusive A, my amour propre was injured, especially when I began hearing whispers in the halls of Those People who got A’s without even studying. It burned me that I wasn’t inherently intelligent enough to be good at everything without trying. And this sentiment was only amplified by the rumors I heard of people who were.

The rumors of Those People didn’t stop, and I didn’t pause to consider the fact they may have just been that — rumors. I heard of people who won science fairs, debate tournaments, maintained a 5.0 and played a varsity sport, and their accomplishments somehow made me feel worse about myself. I felt that in light of their accomplishments, mine weren’t as meritorious, and I refused to consider any evidence to the contrary.

More than anything, I wanted to be one of Those People, someone who was effortlessly good at everything they put their hand to.

More than once, I came back home after a long day of school feeling like absolute trash because someone had won some major award or aced some hard test and I didn’t. Once, after a particularly tough AP Biology quiz, I sat in my room, my eyes brimming with tears over my failure. My phone lit up with the glow of an incoming iMessage, and I immediately was filled with anxiety upon seeing that the text message was from my friend, who was asking me what I got on the quiz. Before I could consider my options and answer, she texted me again that she had gotten an A. And all by “winging it.” Those two text bubbles on my lock screen made me feel so terrible, seeing someone else effortlessly achieve what I couldn’t even accomplish with considerable effort.

I was intuitive enough to recognize that the root of all my feelings of inadequacy was my need to be validated by my peers. I felt that somehow if they assured me that I was “good enough,” I would be so. I understood that this philosophy was wrong and that I shouldn’t allow my happiness to stem from the approval of others, but I just couldn’t change this mindset, to the chagrin of my conscience.  

But I wasn’t alone in my feelings, which made me feel strangely normal. Many of my friends and classmates also struggled with feelings of ineptitude, which was apparent to me in even a single conversation. Interjected in generic conversations about classes and sports were phrases like: “She’s so smart!” or  “I’m such an L.” and “OMG, I wish I was her.”

It seemed like all my friends and I just felt horrible about ourselves, and all because someone else was doing well. But seeing how widespread this trend was, even if the successful person above us all existed, he or she probably felt inadequate, too, because of someone else. This cycle of inadequacy seemed to be a game with no winners.

Taking a step back, it seems that by comparing ourselves in such a negative fashion, the only thing we gain is loss of self-esteem. I don’t think we can stop comparing ourselves to each other — it’s almost human nature. But maybe instead of comparing ourselves to Those People and then consequently undermining ourselves, we can learn from their habits, and become successful ourselves. There is a fine line we need to draw between destructive and constructive comparison. Through constructive comparison, we can become better through observing people, instead of just feeling worse about ourselves. It’s a crazy thought, I know, but maybe it’s worth a shot.