by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
My neighbor is pissing me off. It’s not like he’s doing it on purpose, but still…
For years the house next door was rental. The indifferent stream of renters took no pride in the appearance of the house and yard. On the other side of my house is a rotting mess of a home which could double as a moss nursery or a post apocalyptic movie set.
By contrast, my house looked—if not perfect—than at least well loved and tidy.
When the owner of the rental came by and told me she was selling I was happy. Maybe a family with kids the same age as mine would move in! Regardless, new owners meant someone would care about the blighted cherry tree in the back yard, the dead limbs in the pine tree, the general vibe of neglect.
I have a firm belief in welcoming new neighbors, and this guy was easy to welcome because from the moment he moved in he has been working in the yard. It took him approximately five seconds to prune the trees, take down an old fence, and dig out the garden beds. One morning after a windstorm he was up on his immaculate roof, sweeping away pine needles. As I write this, he is constructing a sixteen foot trellis.
This man makes your average late summer bee hive look like a living room full of slackers after a quarter-bag. My once tidy and neat home now looks like the midpoint of a montage where the moss nursery to the left is the “bad” house and Mr. Industrious’ home to the right is the “good” house.
I am comparing myself to him. I am comparing the state of my home to his. I am being a fool. Here is what I know about comparisons: they assume all other factors are equal and all other factors are NEVER equal. Not only does this gentleman not have children, he also has a stronger work ethic than I do.
And that’s the part that is hard for me to accept. I have a strong work ethic as well as a lot of energy so I’m used to being the one that friends look to as an example. I have heard the phrase, “I don’t know how you do it!” many times. I take pride in being a mom, therapist, writer, philosopher, gardener, and all around nerdy intellectual type. But because I insist on a life of variety of roles and experiences I will never match the accomplishments of the specialist. This means I get a multifaceted life, but my house won’t be featured on Sunset magazine. When I compare myself to my neighbor I am forgetting this important context, this larger truth about my preferences and allocations of time and energy.
Many of my clients suffer from a similar tendency. We see other’s through the lens of our own limited understanding and interpret their lives as easier, their successes as a reflection of some inherent superiority instead of the result of a different set of circumstances and choices. On the other side of the same coin, we see people whose lives are decimated by addiction and mental illness as not trying hard enough.
I believe that comparisons are a sneaky boundary violation because they are a deeply self-centered way of relating. The only person we should compare ourselves to is ourselves.
My house today looks much better than it did five years ago. Yesterday I defeated a bunch of blackberry brambles and today as I sit in the kitchen with my coffee writing this blog, each scratch and puncture from the blackberries fighting back is a point of pride. I’m sporadically but passionately improving my yard.
And I’m proud of me.