When I was a sophomore in high school, the guy I really, really liked got asked to Winter Formal by another girl. Naturally, 15-year-old me was completely devastated. She was one of the leads in the fall play that year, and I was sound board operator, meaning that four nights in a row after this crushing blow to my ego, I watched her in her beautiful costume, acting magnificently, while I sulked in the sound room adjusting mic levels in my black pants and black shirt. She seemed so elegant, talented, beautiful, and everything I felt I wasn’t… and I completely resented her for it. Of course she got to go to the dance with the guy, because she was an upgrade from the awkward, goofy, nerdy techie I was.
So who cares about a high school dance that was almost six years ago now? I ended up having way more fun with my friends that year than I probably would have had with a date anyway… but as you may have guessed, this post isn’t really about the dance. My experience with that dance (and the aftermath) marks the time when I began using other people as rulers to measure myself by. I looked at the girl who got to go with the guy as a measuring stick to compare myself to, marking down all of my deficiencies in relation to her, and coming up vastly short of where I felt I “should” be. I became a master at picking apart each little detail of myself and looking them up and down with a magnifying glass, becoming disheartened at every perceived shortcoming I possessed until everyone around me had the potential to become a ruler, each measuring me against a new set of self-shaming criteria.
I never really paid much attention to my measuring tendencies, because it seems like we all do it to some degree– look at people around us who have what we want or do what we wish we could. I always felt a few steps behind or like I was always going to be just short of the place where I wanted to be, but those around me didn’t seem to have that problem. I started to pay attention not long after I broke up with my last boyfriend… in some ways, I think he was my biggest measuring stick of all. We were very similar in many respects– both English majors (at the time I hadn’t added Professional Writing yet), and both passionate about writing and helping people. He eventually landed a great internship and began some great research and was doing other great things… it felt like he was just gliding through the year as I floundered my way through intro to playwriting, not sure why I felt that my writing was stagnating.
I felt lost next to my ex boyfriend, because everything seemed to be falling together for him while everything for me was falling apart. I never felt like I was enough when I measured myself next to him– not kind enough, not smart enough, not successful enough, just plain not good enough. I just thought I was going through a rough patch… after all, those are normal, right? Sometimes there are times when things feel tougher than at others, and you just have to power through until you reach the other side. I waited for months to reach that other side, but all I saw whenever I looked forward was more inadequacy. I felt small, and I was terrified.
It wasn’t until after we broke up that I realized how big of a measuring stick he had become for me. It was as if I had strategically placed each tickmark to coincide with my greatest insecurities and my greatest perceived deficiencies. I remember giving a tour over the summer and taking a minute at the end of the tour to highlight his project while talking about the undergraduate research opportunities at my school, and afterward having a mother come up to me and say, “Your boyfriend is a smart boy. You’d better hold on to him, and you’ll be set!” None of what I had spoken of doing during my time in college seemed to matter in wake of that comment, and I suddenly felt about three inches tall. It was as if she had punched me in the stomach and said, “Well, you don’t have anything going for you but your boyfriend sure does, so keep him around or you’re screwed!”
Having given myself space from those “measuring” situations, I’ve realized how hard I’ve been on myself. I’ve harbored an incredible amount of resentment at my measuring sticks and resentment at myself for failing to “measure up.” It’s easy and often feels natural to compare yourself to the people around you to gauge your successes (and failures), but all it’s done for me is dishearten me and prevent my own path forward because I’ve been too focused on the paths of the people around me. I have only just begun to regain faith in myself and my abilities, which has been a long (and sometimes painful) process. It’s difficult to unlearn years of telling myself who I am not because of who others are, and to learn how to be kind to myself and recognize the value I possess .
Regaining my self-worth is something I’ve done in baby steps, because I’ve had to fight against many measuring sticks and a long history of telling myself I was not enough and never would be. In truth, there are many things I am not– measuring myself against other people has only ended in shortcoming, because other people are not me and never will be. There will always be plenty of roles I will never step into, but the roles that are worth paying attention to are the ones I do. There is no room in my toolbox anymore for any measuring sticks other than me, because they can’t tell me anything about the person I am or the person I can become.
When I was fifteen, I wanted nothing more than to be the girl who got to go with that guy to the dance. I wanted nothing more than to be elegant, beautiful, and talented like she was… so much so that I lost sight of the ways I myself was elegant, beautiful, and talented. I’ve spent far too much time measuring, measuring, and measuring against rulers that have absolutely nothing to do with me or my abilities, which has chiseled me down until I was inches and feet below where I should have been standing. A very wise person (who once dropped me out of a tree) told me a few weeks ago that my success is not contingent on any one else, which means I don’t need to worry about my ex boyfriend, the 14-year-old geniuses who’ve already graduated college and published a bestseller, or the girl from high school who got the guy. The only person who I need to measure against is the person I was yesterday to see how I’ve grown. It’s a tough habit to break, but I’m getting there.
The first time I stepped into my web authoring class this semester, every single measurement I felt I’d fallen short of next to my ex-boyfriend came flooding to the forefront of my brain… and I didn’t have him as a crutch to fall back on anymore if I struggled. All I could see every time I tried to code some HTML was the vastly more complex work he had already been capable of. I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough for my new major or for an introductory web authoring class. Even after saying goodbye to him, I still allowed myself to measure against him and predict my own failure in comparison to his success. I wasn’t willing to give myself time to learn the new things in front of me, because according to those old tickmarks I should have already known everything.
I am an insanely stubborn person, so even amidst the shrinking down I was experiencing as I compared myself to that arbitrary ruler, I fought. I did learn (a LOT), and I found I was just as capable as anyone in the class (or my ex boyfriend) to create something well-designed and beautiful. I look at my portfolio website and still sometimes think “holy crap, I can’t believe I created this,” but I did, right down to the last div. I look at that website, and I am proud of myself… an emotion that has been vastly underrepresented in my arsenal that is slowly coming back more as I stop letting others define me and recognize the success I am indeed capable of. It can be tough to give yourself credit and pat yourself on the back, but it is so much better than letting yourself feel small. Measuring sticks only have power if you allow them to, so I’ve finally learned that when I tell myself who I am, I must always speak much louder than the tickmarks trying to tell me who I’m not.