When we compare ourselves with another person we usually do so either:
1. to inspire ourselves to achieve or 2. to put ourselves down.
To compare in a negative light is to like hauling ourselves out of our own journey and hurling ourselves onto a path strewn with obstacles -- as if a steam shovel has shifted soil from underfoot and dumped it on the path in front of our feet.
For example, Mr. J. compares himself to his three brothers, who married and raised families. He assumed his life would go in a similar direction. When he reached mid-life, he realized matters hadn't worked out as he expected. In order to accept himself, he had to recognize that his position and role in the family differed from theirs and set him on an equally respectable, albeit distinctive path.
In his memoir On the Move Oliver Sacks says, "Individuality is deeply imbued in us from the very start, at the neuronal level....We are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life."
A common tendency of parents is to compare their children with others. Most helpful is to recognize the unique talents and liabilities of each child.
For example, Ms. T. noticed that her 20-year-old daughter, Amy, avoided family get togethers. Amy struggled with a learning disorder and was comparing herself to her high-achieving cousins. Instead of criticizing Amy for withdrawing, Ms. T. expressed pride in her daughter's progress as she worked to overcome her difficulties. Reassured, Amy began to participate in social events.
A middle-aged man, Mr. O. saw his life as a continuous downhill trajectory. As we spoke, we realized he was comparing himself with his younger, 30-year-old self. Naturally as we age our minds and bodies change. Seeing ourselves in the context of age is an essential step toward self-acceptance.
Ideally, we embrace our individuality with neither defeat nor conceit. The challenge is to develop our unique gifts and confront our deficits and, whenever possible, transform a challenge into an asset. To return to Dr. Sack's experience: After World War II, he had trouble "with the three B's: bombing, belonging and believing" -- difficulties that he attributed to helping him empathize with patients who felt like misfits and outsiders.
Conclusion: To view ourselves in the context of our background, history and the present, is an essential aspect of self-acceptance.