Avoiding the Comparison Trap

“We thrive on comparison. And we trade in its marketplace with the currency of human dignity… Our worth is inherent. And never, ever subject to comparison.” – Diary of a Mom

I’ve had at least two people tell me they were glad they weren’t blind, and then describe their own misfortunes. One guy said he was receiving dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys. The other disclosed that he was homeless.

As a needle-phobe, I can’t imagine anything about my own life being worse than having to get my blood filtered through a machine. Nor can I imagine my daily struggles rivaling the absence of a warm bed each night.

But that is the nature of comparisons. The criteria for “better” and “worse” are defined by the one making them. We tend to view familiar challenges as less “bad” than unfamiliar ones. And, we have a psychological need to see ourselves as being on top.

People engage in “social comparisons” all the time. Doing so can serve several functions. We might use “upward comparisons” to measure ourselves against the admired achievements of older siblings, mentors, or celebrities. In this way, upward comparisons can spur growth. “Downward comparisons,” on the other hand, are comparisons we make to those we perceive as worse off, or less competent. These downward comparisons help us protect our self-esteem from threats.

Social comparisons are rampant in the disability community. We readily compare upward to nondisabled peers, or to our former nondisabled selves. We face the daily self-esteem threats of being put down by nondisabled people who express superiority and gratitude that they are not like us. And, naturally, the temptation is to compare downward to others whose disabilities seem worse than our own.

I know this, because I used to do it quite openly. And I still probably do, to an extent.

As a child in public school, I knew that I was terrible at sports and drawing. I felt inadequate because of the many areas in which my sighted peers seemed to beat me. But, I also discovered that I was good at academics. After being labeled “gifted” in the third grade, and tracked into the “Program for the Academically and Cognitively Talented,” I relished my skill in reading and math. While some of my peers competed in sports, I competed in spelling bees and the “Battle of the Books.” And, along with the heightened value I placed on academic success, I came to perceive those who were less academically skilled as less able.

In the sixth grade, a small group of students came into my advanced language arts class. They were not in the rest of my classes, and they were accompanied by another teacher, probably a reading specialist. One day, I recall asking their teacher, in an arrogant tone, why “those kids” were in my class. The teacher told me that was a mean question to ask. She added, “How would you feel if somebody didn’t want you in their class?”

I didn’t get it at the time. But, today, I recognize my error. I didn’t know those kids well. They may not have been able to read as fluently as I could. But I’d bet any of them could have kicked my butt in a game of basketball. More importantly, though, they deserved to be in the same class as I was. Their learning disabilities had nothing to do with their worth.

At the time of my conversation with the reading teacher, though, I vaguely recall feeling isolated. I think it was during some kind of class social activity, where my blindness was seen as a liability. So, I protected my self-esteem by putting other people down whom I perceived as more “disabled” than I was.

These kinds of comparisons have divided the disabled community. As my opening quote illustrates, people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities have been judged as less worthy, less deserving of civil rights than those with physical or sensory disabilities. People from the latter groups may celebrate the fact that they don’t belong to one of the former groups, and use that absence of stigma as a reason to argue that they are worthy of inclusion. I also see this kind of social comparison within impairment groups. For example, a blind person who has developed strong coping skills may put down a blind brother or sister whom they perceive as “sheltered” or not “independent” enough. These comparisons prevent impairment groups from collaborating toward common goals, and they prevent some people from being fully accepted within their own impairment group, particularly if they have multiple impairments.

For these reasons, I struggled to identify with cross-disability communities. I always felt I had little in common with those who had learning or intellectual disabilities. At the same time, when I attended cross-impairment events, I felt that others looked down on my disability. Though blind people enjoy privilege within the disability world, we are also “low-incidence,” rare within the community.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I started meeting and reading the writings of other disabled people with different impairments, that I began to recognize some of our common experiences. And I realized that comparing myself to others with different impairment experiences was pointless and counterproductive. I can appreciate my own strengths and weaknesses without using them to put down others, or conversely, to burden myself to meet an artificially high standard.

The man with the kidney issue, and the homeless man, are neither better nor worse off than I am. They can do some things I cannot, and they likely have some days that are better than mine. They also have challenges I can’t imagine. Despite our differences, they probably share many commonalities with me, too. Comparing our lives is comparing apples to oranges.

This Thanksgiving season, let’s appreciate what we have, without comparing ourselves to those who don’t have what we have. And let’s appreciate what we have, without comparing ourselves to those who have things we lack. Above all, let’s acknowledge that despite the hand life has dealt each of us, and despite what we have achieved or not achieved, we all have the same inherent worth as human beings.

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