Comparison is the Thief of Joy

I worked briefly with a child a few days ago as he was struggling with his new secondary school. As I talked with him I found it intriguing as to what bothered him. And it was not the homework, of which there was more than he’d had before, or that the school was high performing, or even making new friends, what we uncovered was that it was that he couldn’t find his ‘place’.

Having been in the top three of his previous school, he was quite used to knowing his position in the class. He knew, with no conceit, that he was a more academic student than the other 10 year olds and in that way knew where he stood.  

Some of our greatest pain comes from the comparison of what we anticipated versus what we experience

This form of comparison is not unusual. I suggest we more often than not define, to judge, ourselves through our own personalised pattern or system of comparison.  Sometimes even our joy is derived from that. How often do we create unhappiness when reality doesn’t meet out expectations? Some of our greatest pain comes from the comparison of what we anticipated versus what we experience. Go inside yourself and take a moment to examine a recent situation and see if it bears out – leave a comment below if you’ve a differing idea.

What I found for this child was that in his new school he was now in a class, year group, and whole school who were on a similar par with him. Where was he then to get his understanding of his place when his usual barometers were not there? He felt lost in a sea of equals.

I may be wrong but it has been said more than once that what helps a child most, in any family environment, is some structure, or at least some known scaffolding of their day or week. Something which they can hang the events of their day on. This can be a flexible structure, not necessarily rigid, but a structureless environment where less and less things are predictable and ‘sure’ has a very destabilising effect on children – though to be fair, that’s probably true of adults too, though we are most of the time better able to negotiate with ourselves about lack of structure.

You’re filling in the spaces with facts, knowledge, insight, not with guessing or worry

Through our time together we identified some action he could take to fill the blanks of his knowledge; to put some scaffolding in place that could better help him understand where he stood. I don’t know why the image came to me, but I like sharing it because it somehow makes some sense: it’s like Spiderman shooting out web from building to building creating his own path through the city. You’re filling in the spaces with facts, knowledge, insight, not with guessing or worry.

The suggestion the child came up with, completely his own idea, was to begin to answer more questions in class. He identified that simply raising his hand in class would begin to make him feel more confident. So the task was set. Answer more questions. Get them right. Get them wrong. That was less important compared to what he would gain by doing it.

I’m realistic that there may be other challenges he’ll face and need to find solutions for. But this first step would be an important step toward getting that scaffolding, that knowledge, that confidence in place.


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2 Comments

  1. “How often do we create unhappiness when reality doesn’t meet out expectations? Some of our greatest pain comes from the comparison of what we anticipated versus what we experience.”

    I see this all the time with autism moms who cry about how their child will never get married, say “I love you” or do this or that. It makes me ANGRY because it’s selfish of the mom to whine about experiences *she will not have with the child* rather than what the child themselves thinks of their situation. It smacks of resentment and blaming.

    I understand that a disabled child isn’t what people expect, but if they grow up being reminded of all the things they can’t do, they’ll have more trouble discovering what they can do because they’ll be trapped under the comparison of “I’m less than my able bodied peers and not really wanted.”

    • I think that’s a hugely powerful point and certainly see it very often in how parents limit and label their children based on their own filters and perceptions of the world. It restricts a child’s potential as they ‘own’ these definitions of themselves. There are by comparison countless children who have a different set of abilities that have surpassed what convention would have dictated; Ben Underw00d comes to mind initially.

      When our blueprint of the world doesn’t match the reality, sadness, upset and pain are often the consequence.

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