Status and comparisons.

A social-media-friend posted today that she wants to take a month off of comparing herself to other people. My instant thought was, “Wow. I can’t do what you are doing.” Which cracked me up. Someone else is trying to stop comparing themselves to people so I compare myself to them and feel like a loser. Like I do.

Right this minute I’m waiting for my meds to kick in. We were out of the house for ten hours and holy crap I could use extra apathy right about now. I don’t medicate when I’m driving (safety first!) and it makes my stomach hurt. It is really hard to eat as many calories as I need when my stomach hurts like this. So by the time I got home I was shaking.

During the road trip I think that I need to plan around being able to medicate by 1 or 2pm. I just don’t think it is smart for me to require myself to go longer than that without medication. It hurts my body. It means that by 6pm I’m not able to be patient with the kids and I end up having to apologize and I’m crying and it’s just… not something I can do steadily for five months. This hurts.

It was a good day. Two social calls and dinner/playtime at Ikea. We drove really far north and I stack those days pretty heavily because I’m not willing to drive more days.

Lately every social call feels fraught. Who am I going to drive away next? I don’t feel secure in my relationships. It was funny to talk with the folks at the first social call about insecurity and how it drives people away. Irony and all that.

And now my cat wants to crawl on my lap and I am gently but firmly telling her no. I cannot fucking pay attention to anything but me right this minute.

This insecurity feels tied in with the comparisons and with my wacky-ass perceptions of status. It should be said that my early understanding of “social status” came from the Clan of the Cave Bear books. Status decides that when the group goes for a walk you stand between (wo)man number 4 and (wo)man number 6. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that way in my real life. This means most of my early understandings are completely useless.

Noah tells me that someone else said (dinno who) that societies need to have a clear top and a clear bottom (of the social ladder) and it needs to be hard to tell where the rankings are in the middle. That seems plausible and all.

I read an article today that said it is better to not have “goals” and instead have “systems”. I agree and disagree. (For example: don’t have “run a marathon” as a goal; instead you should have the goal of running x miles on y days through the training period and that will allow you to run the marathon later.) I… Ok I’ll just say it: I think that is stupid. Well, not stupid exactly but missing some important steps.

If your goal is to write a book then you need to figure out a system to support that goal. If your only thing is, “I’ll start writing every day! Surely everything else will work out!”

I can tell you that it is perfectly possible to have a disciplined system where you write daily for years and never get around to writing the book. Sure, the system matters.. but without goals I think just setting up systems kind of burns out.

I don’t know many people who run enough to just do a marathon because they like maintaining that training schedule. I’m sure there must be people in the world but I feel confident saying they are rare. That means a whole lot of people (like me) do a marathon because they have a goal of doing a marathon and not because they want to Have The Long-Term System of Running.

Post-marathon I’m trying to figure out how running and exercise will work for me on a longer-term basis and that is systematized to some degree… but not just set a system and forget it. The system changes because my goals change over time. Sometimes I’m training for a marathon and sometimes I’m training for a 5k. There is not a system that will just cover both situations.

I’m quite certain there are writers who sit down and just babble daily and miraculously a book appears at the end. Most of the people I know who have written books have to start with the idea of what they want to write. They may not have every single line or plot-twist pre-planned, but they know they want to write a book. The goal isn’t just writing for the sake of writing.

Which brings me to: how do you evaluate your system or goals? How do they play into status? And then oh no do you compare yourself to other people to evaluate your progress?

At this moment in time I haven’t cut in over three years. I had one previous longer stretch in my life where I went longer without cutting, but at that time I was engaging in a myriad of other self-harm acts fairly intentionally. I wanted to hurt me. If I compare just to myself, am I doing well or not that well right now? It’s not my longest spree of non-self-harming because there are days when I have some alcohol and I know crystal clear that it hurts me to do so. Is having the occasional drink of alcohol better or worse than my previous tendency to go pick up very risky sex? I’m really not sure.

I evaluate some of these things by talking to other people who engage in self-harm. I compare my level of self-harm to theirs and I think about the sustainability of what I am doing.

At this stage of my life I feel comfortable saying that I am unlikely to accidentally kill myself with my self-harm. I am no longer doing things that could kill me accidentally. I’m still not good at taking care of myself, but I’m not courting death. That distinction matters to me.

When I say that I compare myself to other people that self-harm I don’t mean I decide that one or the other of us is “better” or “stronger” or “crazier” or … whatever. I mean I look at the range of self-harming behaviors and I try to figure out the potential lethality of what I’m doing. I try to determine if what I am doing something that I can keep up and sustain my life.

Cutting isn’t an option because it is modeling for my kids and they are both emotional enough that I am not going to be the god damn model for that behavior. Just no. I don’t pull my hairs out anymore because look at you fucking funny. I don’t pick up casual sex any more for a whole long list of reasons; very high on the list is that I don’t want to model such behavior for my children.

I know people who are able to be promiscuous AND good parents. I don’t think I am among their number. I’ve seen it happen–really and truly. There are some people who can compartmentalize their lives and engage in behavior when their kids aren’t around. My boundaries are shit. If I think something is ok sometimes I’m not good at saying no when I “should”. So I just don’t look around for prey anymore.

I’ve managed to alter some of my compulsive behaviors–I am working hard on my hypervigilance and I’m making progress. I am not managing to lessen my paranoia that everyone in the world is going to end up hating me because I am a disgusting human being, but I don’t think people will attack me randomly. That is progress.

Noah thinks I deserve to have a high opinion of myself because I have reached many of my life goals. He thinks I should think of myself as successful. I can’t figure out what would make me feel successful. Money isn’t doing it. School didn’t do it. Will parenting when I get to the far side? Somehow I doubt it.

I feel like I have spent my life trying very hard to walk next to the line of status without ever joining. Sure it means I will never be “high status” but it means that my position in society is ambiguous and people don’t know how to treat me. That’s better than people knowing they can treat you badly. Indecision is important. Privilege is important.

Sometimes people in my life say things like, “I don’t believe in privilege.” Invariably they are white. Usually they are men (but not always!). I believe in privilege. I’ve been much closer to the bottom of the social status ladder than the average white person from my current social class. If someone says they don’t believe in privilege my thought is, “Then why do white people commit more crimes and black people spend more time in prison?” It’s systematic. That doesn’t mean that individual white people never get a raw deal.

I went to parties over the past few months. It’s the holiday season–parties happen. Specifically I went back and visited a social group I used to spend a lot of time with and whom I haven’t spent much time since I had kids. It was weird. The whole time I was there I was shaking because I was convinced I would say something off-putting to someone and I would be told I had to leave. Even though the hosts are not that kind of people. I would have to physically assault someone for no reason in front of a crowd to be ejected. They don’t eject the rapists or the other awful people. My paranoia is kind of ridiculous. (Though to be fair I didn’t see a single rapist [that I know of] at this party–which was a great change. Every other time I’ve been in their house I’ve known of 1-3 rapists present.)

Sometimes folks ask me to tell them who the missing stairs are. Sometimes I can tell and sometimes I can’t because if I told it would be obvious who the victim is and I was sworn to secrecy. I’m not good at holding my own secrets. It is hard to hold them for other people. I think I have done so pretty well over the years. I talk about having the knowledge (because having the knowledge and sitting on it is fucking awful for me) because otherwise I will blurt. Talking around something is a way for me to avoid jumping up and down on it.

Sometimes, when I know about a missing stair and I hear from yet another victim I feel very guilty–like it is all my fault this additional person got raped.

These things all feel tied up to me. Status, comparisons, missing stairs, privilege, feeling successful, making goals.

I’m told regularly that I should only compare myself to myself. But what about when I’m backsliding. It totally happens. Then I feel like a shitty piece of shit who should die. But when I’m backsliding and I look around at other people who have comparable problems to mine I can find some compassion for myself. Most people with severe mental illness backslide. It isn’t because I am a failure. It is because I am a person with severe mental illness.

Today I was talking with a friend who has much more severe physical issues than I do. Never the less we could talk about comparable childhood issues and she was able to give me some useful ways to talk about my sensitivity issues.

I had not ever really thought about the fact that I write so poorly partially because holding a pen/pencil hurts my hand. Anything that requires tight movements of my fingers. Know how I freak the fuck out when it comes to having to do fine work I have to pinch my fingers to do? It hurts. It always has. I have to talk to someone with a diagnosable hyper-flexibility disorder in order to find someone with comparable problems. Talking to her means that I got to be told, “Hyperflexibility problems happen on a spectrum. It is possible to have one or two hyperflexible joints that will cause you major life problems.”

Oh. Yeah, I’ve always had several joints that were hyperflexible. My hands hurt like a motherfucker when I try to write. My knees hyperextend like a motherfucker. They always have. I have to be careful how I hold my legs or they hurt really badly.

I don’t recognize that these things are problems unless I compare myself to other people. For me they are just how my body works. I can compare how my body changes over time, but even that is hard to do because memory is imperfect. I can watch how my behavior changes over time… sorta… mostly I assume that my behavior is shit because I’m a shitty person.

Sometimes I cry and apologize to my kids for being so mean and they look at me very confused and say, “I didn’t hear anything mean.” I am not a good judge of whether or not my behavior is acceptable.

Partially because “acceptable” changes from person to person and I know a rather freakishly diverse group of people. I fucking love my friends. They are so awesome. I’m grateful you spend time with me and show me what it is like to be a person like you.

Noah sometimes tells me he thinks I should feel more successful because of how I handle money. I don’t know how to really make him understand that I don’t feel like having money is a sign of success. It’s mostly a sign that nothing bad has happened recently. That doesn’t mean I’m so good or anything like that.

One of my friends was talking about her money situation with regards to having two special needs kids. I listened and thought, “I’m a fucking piece of shit for complaining about my life. Compared to this I have such a fucking cake walk.” At this stage my problems are mostly self-imposed to the degree that mental illness can be self-imposed.

I do not feel that someone else having a hard time means that I am successful and judging your success or not by how much money you have seems to necessitate thinking that people who have less money are less successful. Oh barf. Fuck you with a fucking chain saw.

I don’t envy money. I envy people who have emotionally-close families. I envy people who have a life-long group of very close friends. Most of the people I’ve met who have noticeably more money than me… I don’t envy a god damn thing about their life. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs for anything. Once in a while I meet the rare rich person who also has a ridiculously tight family unit… ok, I envy them. That seems god damn unfair.

It has been a weird life. Seeing my boss last week was fascinating. He knew me when I was very poor. He gave me work so I didn’t have to live on ramen any more. He semi-regularly bought me food because otherwise I wouldn’t be eating during work shifts. Now I can take him out to lunch. Does that make me feel “successful”? Not really. Mostly I felt very sad that life has been so hard to him over the past decade that he needs to have people buy him food. He looks like a scarecrow. He’s lost almost 30 pounds and he was always a slender man.

I went to the park with one of my former students. I listened to her life woes. She talked about longing for a $2 ball of string for crochet and having to put that desire off for months or years because she doesn’t have an extra $2. I said, “When is your birthday?” “Two weeks ago.” “Here is money. Happy Birthday. I love you very much and I think it is not ok that there is a universe where I have extra money and you can’t have a $2 ball of string. Don’t tell your husband I gave you the money.” (Long story there I’m not sharing on the internet.)

Do I feel “successful” because I rarely pass a homeless person without giving them food or money? No.

Having more “things”, having more money than other people does not make me feel better about myself at all. It feels orthogonal to my search for self-worth.

What has made me feel successful? Having strangers on the internet tell me that my book made their life better. I made them feel less alone and less bad about themselves. That feels like success. Mostly my life doesn’t involve a lot of people telling me how I’ve made their lives better. Life doesn’t really go that way by and large. It’s ok. It is what it is.

I walked out of my college graduation feeling like a fraud and a piece of shit. It is pretty remarkable (and pathetic) how I can turn things that *should* make me feel good about myself into reasons to hate me.

I have many pictures on my walls. Well over 150 pictures. More will come. Some are studio pictures, many are candid shots. They span many many decades. I have the one picture of my grandparents that I have on the wall. I see the faces of my sister and brother and many many friends who are no longer in my life.

I think I consciously don’t want to cull the pictures of the people who are no longer actively in my life because I know how important they are to me, even though I don’t see them any more.

If my sister showed up at my door tomorrow crying and apologizing… I’m pretty sure I couldn’t shut the door on her. If she showed up yelling I could slam the door in her face. If my brother ever decides to try to mend fences I will probably bend over backwards. If my mother ever has the courage to approach me I will probably fall to my knees apologizing for being such a bad daughter.

It is hard for me to have boundaries. Even with people who hurt me very much.

Sometimes I feel like I am “not attached” to people because I can walk away from so many relationships. Last year I ended a 15 year relationship. That hurts. I did not feel the person could be safe for my kids and that’s just a non-starter. Sorry, you aren’t more important to me than my kids. My kids are my responsibility in a way that no friend ever could be.

My favorite shirt now has nine holes in it. (To completely jump topics.) I’m very sad about this. The biggest holes are the size of a quarter. It’s time for this shirt to go. (I’ve already sewn up holes several times and it is starting to look like shit.) Money is convenient and awesome to use for trading for goods and services. Money can be used to trade for things that other people perceive as social status whether I agree with their evaluations or not.

I had the fucking ladies who worked in Tiffany’s oohing and awwwing over my wedding ring. I believe the whisper was, “Oooooh. That’s real.” Which… how the fuck they can tell is beyond me. Frankly that seemed weird to me. The rings that other women wear are imaginary? What the fuck?

It was a fucking outrageously expensive ring that I still feel guilty about buying. I could have paid down my fucking mortgage more.

The thing is, I’ve had several occasions as an adult (since getting married) where I needed to manipulate the fuck out of people to get them on my side. (Police officers, lawyers, and judges top the list!) The fact that rich people look at me and know my jewelry is real means that I get less pushback than I would get if I were more visibly poor.

I watched how my mother was treated. It was really bad.

Rich white people look at me and think, “Ahh. On My Side.” Knowing that rich white people look at me and think that makes me want to puke. But I’ll exploit it when I have to. Because that’s how the world works.

I deeply admire my friend who is trying to find self-worth without comparing herself to other people. I think that is healthy and admirable. I also think I’m not capable of doing it. Maybe never, definitely not right now. (Not that she said nor implied that I should copy her. Err, I am just having my feels over here.)

I don’t like me very much, but my kids do. My kids pick hanging out with me over options that frankly sound more fun to me. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are entirely sincere about the depths of their devotion. They prove it over and over again. They pick hanging out with me over other people. Blows me the fuck away. When we talk about our favorite part of the day at dinner, more than half the time one or both of my kids tell me that their favorite thing was snuggling with me or spending time with me.

I know this will change and I need to let it change. I tell the kids, “I’m really happy you feel this way about me right now. It will be ok if I am not your FAVORITE PERSON forever. I will adjust and learn to live with whoever supplants me in your affections.” When I say that Shanna looks at me intently and says, “Moooom.” She has an adorable glare that goes with it.

I really don’t know how the future will go. And I’m scared. But I’m really grateful I get to face the future with Noah and Shanna and Calli. And my friends. I have great friends even if I don’t trust that will still like me in the future. I’m sorry I don’t have more trust. I have a lot of good reasons to think people aren’t going to like me long term. It’s not just paranoia.

But I recognize that I’m pretty paranoid and that isn’t useful or necessary.

4 thoughts on “Status and comparisons.

  1. P.

    my new years goals are always around “do x per [time period]”. i started when i worked somewhere that invoked quarterly stretch goals, with the expectation of 70% hit rate. (if you miss, it’s a calibration problem. obviously you forgot about treading water.) it was perspective-changing.

    if i were truly interested in doing x more? i wouldn’t need a new years resolution to do so. so i end up setting goals around watching movies in the theatre (not my thing, any success there coincided with a pro-film dating partner) or camping (hello, thanksgiving revelation).

    goals to me, make sense. but they are a thing i don’t need a new year’s resolution for. i just aim at them anyhow. new years resolutions are a second tier of accomplishment (that i know i won’t actually accomplish, but make strides towards). to become a better person. if i’m still on it in june, it is noteworthy.

    new years goals should be stetch goals. if i really wanted it.. i would have just started already.

    this year:
    fold a paper crane a day (on average)
    learn how to go camping (metrics elided, but they totes exist)
    read a book a week (this is an aggressive goal, i mostly read articles or schoolwork)
    take a selfie a week (i have already given up.)

    am i successful person? i don’t know, but i’m pretty sure that my origami crane count actually doesn’t influence that. i have big and huge goals (currently), but they aren’t the stuff of new years resolutions. they are bigger than 2015. they are more important to me than new years resolutions are. they are dreams that i am making progress on, because they are fucking important. more important than losing twenty pounds. in parallel, i’m making big and important progress on my life (work), but those weren’t goals because they are bigger than i could dream. today, it is exciting to be bigger than my dreams. what will tomorrow bring?

    sometimes life is bigger and smaller than our dreams and goals and processes. the processes feel like the smallest but most controllable parts. processes are where i put my new years goals, but life is bigger than that. i know yours is, too.

  2. Noah

    The bit about status illegibility was from Venkat Rao ( Specifically, it’s from one of the sections of his “The Office According to The Office.”

  3. inflectionpoint

    You write, “I can’t figure out what would make me feel successful.”

    That makes me think a lot, because I have some difficulties with that of my own.

    If I sit up and make a list of Stuff What I’ve Done, it’s un debatably badass.
    If I add in my background and the level of support I had when younger, it’s super bad ass.

    And yet, there’s a weird thing that happens, where I can’t seem to credit myself for what I’ve done. In situations where I can credit another person who shows up with an identical list of stuff.

    It’s very very frustrating. It’s like I do the work, get the result, and it still doesn’t feel right. I suspect some of this for me came from some toxic patterns I grew up with – my mother was genius at using someone’s labor (her children) while devaluing any contributions they made. The work we did for her because she didn’t do it wasn’t up to her standards, I guess?

    She was also genius at devaluing effort and improvement, in a very weird way. I was an active,strong little person as a kid, and I did a lot of lifting and moving that a kid shouldn’t have helped with. And her only comment would be, “It’s easy for you, because you’re strong,” said in a tone that made clear that this was something I should be ashamed of, as if my being young and active was something I was doing at her, instead of just a fact of being a child. For her, this tied in to some of the martyr stuff that went on in our household, which was awful awful awful. Not that there were many other options really available for women who weren’t ready to fight every inch of their lives every day.

    Anyway, I know I struggle with appreciating what I do and with feeling successful, even as more and more evidence piles up, and it’s really hard. I don’t know how to unpack it, but I would love to be able to feel successful and like enough.

    1. Krissy Gibbs Post author

      Your comment is interesting for me because I can *easily* see myself as a bad ass. Successful is so different…

      You are doing public speaking for work! Because you know shit!

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