We all do it. We all compare ourselves to other people.
We compare ourselves to our friends, our enemies, our neighbors, strangers on the street, and celebrities that we will never know personally. In some cases we feel “superior to” and in other cases we feel “less than” — neither view is particularly healthy.
Our subjective understanding of ourselves is deeply rooted in our understanding of how we fit in (or don’t) to this world. We come to this understanding by comparing ourselves to others. In early years, this is how we learn to become social animals. It’s how we learn to make friends.
I am constantly amazed that my son so easily makes friends when he meets other children his age. I am sure he compares himself to them, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He quickly finds the commonalities and joins in in the fun. Those commonalities may be as specific as the love of Legos or as simple as the mere fact that they are kids and not adults.
I have vague recollections of being able to do this myself when I was young. But somewhere along the line I lost the ability to quickly identify similarities and began to focus on the differences.
I don’t think I’m unique. In my everyday conversations with family and friends, these comparisons happen. Casual comments are made. And very often, the focus is on “them” and how “we” are different from “them.”
We forget that we are all human. We forget that there is a commonality to the human experience, that we all have the same basic needs for survival, and that we all experience similar emotions.
There are times when focusing on the differences between ourselves and others is healthy — protective even. For example, when we choose not to associate with criminals because we don’t break the law, that’s healthy and protective. There are times, though, when we focus more on the differences and fail to find the commonalities when we should. This can be dangerous.
In 2013, I took 30 days off of drinking. I was proud of this. I made everyone I knew aware of it. I wrote several posts about it (previously published on a different blog). I celebrated after 31 days with a single Manhattan. I as proud. I’d beaten this. I’d proven that I didn’t have a problem. But, I quickly found myself back where I’d been before the break — drunk every day, isolating from my friends and family, sleeping poorly, getting angry easily, and blacking out.
Having made a big deal of taking 30 days off on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter, I felt like a failure. I didn’t want to admit that I’d failed. So when I went to a meeting one Thursday afternoon in November, I only told my wife and one close friend. I wasn’t sure if I needed to completely abstain from alcohol. I wasn’t sure if I was an alcoholic. I was truly trying to figure out if I really had a problem or if I just needed to learn to moderate.
I bought myself a copy of the Big Book and read the first several chapters. I read about very desperate cases, people who were what I thought of as “real alcoholics” — people who drank in the morning and all through the day, people who lost their jobs, their families, and their fortunes.
Still unsure what to do, I attended a few more “beginners” meetings in Annapolis. I found people who looked nothing like me. People who didn’t have jobs. People who were visibly high and drunk at the meetings. People who were homeless. People wearing dirty clothing. People who stunk.
The final meeting that I went to in 2013 was a speaker meeting. The speaker told a horrific tale about drinking warm gin out of plastic tumblers all day for several years and eventually having liver failure. She was lucky to still be alive. She’d gotten a liver transplant and had been sober for 19 years.
That story was the final straw. I still had a job, my car, my wife, and my house. I took a shower daily. I never drank in the morning. I was convinced that I was not as bad as these sad cases.
These were not my people.
I compared myself right out of there. I was convinced that I was nothing like these people. Except that I was, even if I couldn’t admit it.
When I made the decision to go to a meeting again in September of 2015, it was only after talking to a dear friend, who told me that I needed to be open minded and look for the similarities.
“Go and listen. You don’t have to like it all. You don’t have to believe it all. There will be things that you don’t agree with. But listen, and see if you hear anything that sounds familiar. If you do, go back.”
This sage advice carried me in the first few months of my recovery. There were lots of things I could find about the people in the meetings that were different from my experience. Lots of stories of loss. Lots of stories of being homeless. Lots and lots of stories of DUIs. Stories of heroin and cocaine. Stories that were not mine. But there was one thing that I kept hearing that really resonated.
All of these people had felt that they could not stop drinking before they started coming to the meetings. All of them had been unable to imagine a day without alcohol, let alone a sober life, just like me.
And yet, they were sober — some of them for decades. And they were smiling and laughing. Laughing a lot. At the same things that I was laughing at — things that normal people probably wouldn’t laugh at like writing notes to themselves so they could remember what they’d had for dinner the night before. That seemed like something I should have thought of on my own, but I didn’t.
I knew that I was an alcoholic at this point, but I still struggled deeply with the verbiage of Step 1 — particularly the words “powerless over alcohol” and “our lives had become unmanageable.” In 2013, I couldn’t get past those words and comparing myself to the people in the rooms focusing on the differences helped me to rationalize that I wasn’t an alcoholic and that I didn’t need to stop. Maybe moderate, but not stop.
When I began looking for the similarities and discovered that these people had felt exactly the same way I had when faced with getting sober, I realized that I had a lot more in common with them than I thought.
I realized that I’d found my people.
As a result of these realizations, I find myself much more able to find the commonalities with others these days inside the rooms and outside the rooms. I find that I’m much more forgiving and understanding. And I find that I when I make snap judgments about others I can course correct much more readily than I did before.
I remind myself daily of this fact — we are only human, each and every one of us.