Monday, February 28, 2011

Comparing Apples to Oranges

The topic of a recent meeting was self-esteem.

The chairperson covered a lot of ground with a number of different readings. But the one I seized on was the trouble with making comparisons. That comparing myself to others contributes to a distorted sense of self.

Seeing myself as “less than” or “greater than” is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Apples and oranges are both fruits. But they have different properties. Each has its own best use.

An orange would taste terrible sprinkled with cinnamon and baked in a crust. That doesn’t mean the orange is bad. It means I’ve misused it.

Maybe I’m an apple and you’re an orange. There’s little benefit in comparisons because we’re just different, each with our own purpose and best use.

But most importantly, when I compare myself with others, I’ve taken the focus off myself. I’m taking another person’s inventory, and that never leads me anywhere I want to go.

It’s hard, though, not to do it. For me, comparing feels as natural as breathing.

One of the most helpful tools I’ve found to address the issue of comparisons is the 4 Cs inventory.

For six months, I carried a notebook around with me divided into four sections. Every time I found myself Comparing, Condemning, Criticizing or Complaining I had to write it in this notebook under the appropriate tab. I had to do this whether I said it out loud or just thought it.

In doing this, it was important that I did not judge myself or try not to think or feel whatever I was thinking or feeling. I simply was to record it with the detachment of a scientist.

The results were fascinating.

As with any inventory, a picture began to emerge. Patterns became clear. But also, as with every inventory I’ve taken in this program, in the midst of recording I began to change.

The change was not as a result of trying to change my behavior, it seemed to just happen.

Which reminded me of a different type of inventory I did years ago.

I came across the book “Your Money or Your Life.” It was about how to manage personal finances. But the authors didn’t believe in budgets because, they said, they simply don’t work.

We make up a budget, try to stick to it. Inevitably we fail. Then we berate ourselves by heaping on shame and guilt.

It doesn’t work.

There is more to it than this, but the heart of the system was to record every penny I spent. I was not to judge myself or try to change. I was simply to record.

At the end of each month, I would crunch the numbers. I spent this much on food, rent, books, movies, clothes, whatever.

For each of these categories, I had to calculate how many hours of my life I had traded for each of these things and I had to assign each a value. I had to say whether I got so much enjoyment out of that thing, I was willing to invest even more of my life to it. Or if I didn’t find it worth it. Or if it was just about right.

I didn’t do anything with this information. I just kept recording it, month after month.

When I started this process, I was struggling with my finances. I wrote down my expenses on paper. I had housing, a car payment, insurance, childcare. These expenses seemed fixed. I couldn’t see any flexibility.

Yet, when I did this exercise, I found my spending behavior began to change, seemingly without any effort on my part.

Though I wasn’t making much, I starting saving about half of what I earned. I found ways to economize, and the solutions turned out to be things I never considered before.

I planted a garden. Tapped maple trees for syrup. Foraged for wild blueberries. I made almost everything I could from scratch, including business stationery and envelopes using high-quality paper samples the local paper mill gave away. I moved from the city to a rural area, where housing was also less expensive.

I eliminated my childcare expense entirely by working from home. That involved a career change. But it was a change I got the courage to make because I had figured out how to live on very little.

These were my solutions, of course. Different people would find different solutions. That’s the beauty of it. The point wasn’t to get me to believe or behave in a certain way. The point was for me to find my own way. To align my spending with my own values. When I did, I became happier. Literally, my whole life changed.

And that’s why this process reminds me not only of the 4C’s inventory but of the whole process of recovery. It’s not about getting me to adopt a certain belief. It’s about getting me to align my behavior with my own values.

I could not change myself, my thoughts or my feelings through self will any more than I could control my finances by trying to stick to a budget.

But if I took the suggestions and observed my behaviors with the detachment of a scientist, without judging myself, change seemed to come of its own accord. As with the money exercise, I began to behave in ways that were more aligned with my values.

Of course, in recovery, the higher power I call God is involved in my change. But then I believe it was God who lead me to this book when I was ready to hear that message.

When I became willing to give up my self will, solutions came in forms that never occurred to me before.

Recovery has been every bit as life changing as that financial exercise. Today I know I don’t have to worry about how far I’ve come, how far I have to go or how I compare to others.

My internal barometer is stronger. I’m less susceptible to applause and condemnation.

I won’t say I never make those comparisons or that I don’t sometimes feel “less than” or “greater than.” I’m only human.

But when I do, I try not to berate myself or vow to do better. I know that old beating stick doesn’t work.

I just have to remember that if I do my part, if I continue to do the things that I’ve been taught to do in this program, change will come. And it will be easier than I ever imagined.


  1. I had not heard of the "4 C inventory". Thank you.

  2. For me, this reminds me to mind my own business.
    Plenty of work just taking care of my own stuff. Hope things are going well with you.

  3. What a great concept!!! (? is that the right word? ha!) I love the insight about giving up your self-will. Okay, so this is one I am going to have to work on - a lot...
    I have never heard of the 4C's inventory before, very cool! Not ready to do the whole notebook thing, BUT, am at least going to have those 4 words out where I can be reminded of them for now.
    Thanks! (I'm always telling you thanks!)
    God bless.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I do my best not to compare or criticize. And I am learning not to be hard on myself.

  5. This was just perfect as I have made the transition of change and I understand very well what you have shared.

    Thanks you so much for your post.

  6. what a great post. and what a wonderful idea! i need to write when those issues arise. i still find myself engaging in thought patterns related to other people that i don't think are helpful or constructive to my own life. thanks for sharing a way that helps get the focus where it needs to be.

    always appreciate your posts. wishing you well always, kathy! :)

  7. This is an awesome concept. It seems as if by recording things for a period of time you see patterns and then are able to look at a problem or situation differently. This makes the idea of gratitude lists seem more valuable - I've never been able to stick with mine for more than a couple of weeks.

    I'm going to give this some more thought. Thanks Kathy