Broken Rulers: Determining Identity and Value by Comparison

The Real “Mr. Big Stuff”

How we define things and people in life can often be so relative.

One Saturday I took my wife and kids out to dinner.  We had placed our orders and were waiting quite impatiently for our food to arrive.  We had not eaten since breakfast, so everyone was more than ready to chow down.  When you’re hungry, waiting on your food at a restaurant seems to take forever.  We found ourselves getting really bored and began people watching.

“Whoa, he’s really tall,” my wife said, breaking several minutes of silence.  “Who?” I asked as I swiveled my head like a periscope.  Being relatively tall myself at about 6’5”, I am always quick to look when my wife says someone else is tall.  “Behind you to your left… the waiter,” she clarified.  I turned briefly to my left and looked over my shoulder, then turned back to my table.  “He’s not that tall.  I’m taller than he is.”  She squinted her eyes and pressed her lips tightly together, “Mmm, I don’t know.”

What?  Did she really just challenge my tallness?  Our kids looked up from their phones, suddenly interested in what we had to say.  “Where, where?!” they inquired, almost standing from their chairs as they panned the restaurant.  “Sit down you guys,” I said, trying not to cause a disturbance.  “Over there,” my wife said, nodding her head.  “I think he’s gotcha,” my own son said in betrayal, with my daughter’s endorsement trailing closely behind.  “Yeah, daddy, he’s taller than you.”

Ok, that was it.  It was time to put this to rest once and for all.  “Watch.  I’m gonna walk by him,” I announced.  “No, Jon, do NOT walk over there.  You’ll look crazy!” my wife pleaded.  “No I won’t.  The restroom is over there.  I’m just gonna go use the bathroom.”

The kids watched closely as I stood up and walked that direction.  I paused briefly as I passed the waiter, standing as straight as possible with my chin up, then proceeded to the restroom.  When I returned to our table the kids were waiting in anticipation.  “He’s DEFINITELY taller!” they said.  “Whatever!” I said, laughing.  My wife gave a big victorious grin.  “I love you,” she gloated.

Though height is one of the more trivial ways to describe or identify a person, this scenario still illustrates an important point: how we define a person is often based on how they compare to other people.  Unfortunately, the same is true when defining ourselves.


Boxes & Labels

Assessing and categorizing others is a natural human instinct.  We use all of our senses to make judgments about everything in our environment, including people.  These assessments enable us to quickly decide whether something or someone is safe or dangerous, similar or different, appealing or unappealing.  This instinct is necessary for survival and has its place as far as making quick, short-term decisions.  However, when we use comparison as the primary basis for making permanent judgements about others and ourselves, it can wreak havoc on our self-esteem and cause confusion about who we are.

I remember intelligence being a big part of my identity during my childhood.  My brother was good looking, charming, fun, and athletic.  I was smart.  People in my family were always saying how sharp I was, and I received lots of praise for getting good grades in school.  Though the positive reinforcement was great, the fact that I began associating intelligence with my self-worth was a problem.  From my perspective, academic performance was the measuring stick my family used to not only determine intelligence, but my value.  It was one of the few things in life that got me lots of compliments and attention.  Good grades resulted in high praise that made me feel valuable, and anything less either got no reaction or resulted in punishment if my parents believed I was not giving my best effort.  This led to a perfectionist mentality in which I tried to earn my love and increase my worth through achievement.

Eventually, some of my advanced classes were so challenging for me that I earned lower grades than normal.  Not only did my grades drop, but most of the other students in the class were outperforming me.  I felt behind, lost, and outclassed.  This caused a major identity crisis because, if intelligence equaled high academic performance and I was not performing well, then I was no longer intelligent.  Since being the smart kid in my family was my identity and the only thing that made me feel exceptional, then who was I and what was I worth when my grades were just average?  My brother had good looking, charming, fun, and athletic on lock, so what else was left?  The unspoken assumption that only one of us could own the label for a particular quality put each of us in a box and discouraged me from even entertaining the idea that I could have some of the same qualities as my brother.  This is why such a big part of the problem with comparison is its tendency to impose limitations.


Escape the Box (and the labels)

It is never a good idea to base our identity on how others label us, or how we compare to someone else.  It is human nature for people to make assessments of one another and determine what others are and are not, and only the most mature and evolved humans move beyond that tendency.  However, we do not have to become prisoner to other people’s judgements or ideas of us, even if they are close friends or family.  Often in life, those closest to us are the ones most likely to try and put us in a box and keep us there.  They have trouble imagining you as anyone other than who you have been in their eyes.  They develop expectations for how you will behave, and if you try and change or reveal a different side of yourself they will show their displeasure and accuse you of trying to be someone your not.  In fairness, sometimes the mere anticipation that we will not be accepted or that the relationship will suffer leads us to behave in line with their expectations without them saying a word.

If a relationship is not strong enough to endure the growth or true nature of those in it, maybe it’s time to let it go or reprioritize it.  This can be much more complicated when it comes to family, but at a minimum we must work to involve ourselves in as many supportive, accepting, and empowering relationships as possible.  We all deserve to be surrounded by people who love and appreciate us for who we really are and support what we are working to achieve.

We are all unique and powerful individuals crafted by our creator for a reason.  God has given each of us our own set of characteristics, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.  A trait or skill might create an advantage in one situation or environment, and be of little value in another.  The only way to find out is through experience.  The important thing is to explore the world for ourselves to determine what we can do, what we are interested in and who we are.  We can then embrace our true selves and what we have to offer, and strive to maximize our potential in service to others.

It took many years for me to learn this lesson, and in some ways I am still learning it.  The temptation to prove my value through achievement still haunts me to this day, and if I am not conscious of it’s presence it can still get the best of me.  I also, like many of us, occasionally fall into the comparison trap.  Everyone does at some point.  The key is not to be perfect, but to stay aware of these habits as they creep into your life and quickly redirect your focus to the qualities and aspirations God has given you.

All of us have things we can offer the world for which we should be thankful.  Having gratitude is the absolute best way to avoid the comparison trap.  Those who are grateful are more likely to give and less likely to compare.  However, in order to be grateful, you must first know what you have.  This is why recognizing your gifts and positive qualities is a critical part of building and maintaining strong self-esteem and making an impact in the world.  Do you know what you have to offer?  Are you thankful for who you are and what you have been given?  Are you doing your best to get the most out of yourself and positively impact others?  Do you love and appreciate yourself even when you make mistakes?


No Ruler Big Enough

Since others will not always recognize the greatness inside of us, it is up to us to see the value in ourselves.  Take a few minutes to sit down and identify everything you can think of that’s positive about you.  Write all of them down on paper, ideally in a journal, and access your list regularly to remind yourself of who you are and what you have to offer.  As you have different experiences in life, you might identify additional strengths or qualities you didn’t know you had.  Add them to the list!

Always remember that there is no ruler big enough to measure who you are.  Focus on how you see yourself, not on how others have labeled you or how you compare to other people.  Then thank God for everything you’ve written down and think of ways you can use those qualities or abilities to benefit others.

This exercise might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but it is extremely beneficial.  Even if it’s awkward, stick it out and see it through to completion.  I promise you the result will be well worth it.

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