“Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” — Iyanla Vanzant
We learn to compete almost from the very start of our lives. Before we understand words, our parents are comparing us (usually favorably) with other babies. And then we grow and learn to compete ourselves. The games we learn to play have a winner and a loser and we learn about status, and the many factors that affect what is desirable and what isn’t. It’s no wonder that we internalize a tendency to compare ourselves against others so thoroughly that it becomes instinctive.
And it’s not healthy. It is especially not healthy when you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In my conversations with others in the community, and my travels on social media, I see this comparison so often. We look at others who are worse off than ourselves and feel blessed that we are doing okay, but at the same time feel as if we now can’t complain about our very legitimate pain and fatigue. Or we look at someone who is in better health — even much better — perhaps able to do complicated yoga poses or run marathons, and we refuse to believe that they, too, have RA. This makes us feel even worse about everything we cannot do.
This does nothing but make everyone feel awful. Either way, we silence each other and negate the experience of living with a chronic health condition — our own and that of others.
Living with RA is not just a challenge. It can be a hardship, it can feel like torture, it can destroy your ability to work, your marriage, your very self. There is no magic boundary beyond which that impact goes from mild to severe — each of us knows intimately the exhaustion, the unpredictability, the side effects, the pain, and the silence. We all live in a culture that values robust health and questions the legitimacy of invisible symptoms. When that stigma permeates into the community in which we should feel safe to be ourselves, it serves only as division — a division that has the very real potential for exclusion, even to the point of some feeling they don’t belong.
But the toxicity of comparison doesn’t stop there. It poisons our souls, our community, and it limits our capacity to advocate for change. To create legislative and attitudinal change and awareness about RA requires a large united force that is not distracted by internal judgment and stigma.
Fighting back against a lifetime of conditioning, against a fundamental structural part of our culture isn’t easy. But it is not insurmountable.
Like so many other forms of change, it starts on a personal level — with you and with me. It begins with one person, then another becoming aware that there is a problem. And then every single time that urge to compare yourself raises its ugly little head, meeting it with resolute refusal. It will take practice and determination and sometimes be really, really difficult. But the more you pay attention, the more successful you will be.
It doesn’t stop there. It also means speaking up when you see these comparisons, this inadvertent silencing and exclusions that happen so naturally with all of us. Speaking up when you are among friends and, as you gain confidence, in situations that may feel more uncertain, will create ripples and before you know it, you will see others do the same. Sharing your determination to unite rather than divide will widen those ripples.
Making room for everyone — in the RA online community, in our wider real-life world — is the right thing to do. But it also feels really good on a personal level. By including others, you give yourself the gift of companionship and of community. And down the line, this community can create some real change for ourselves in the future with RA.
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Lene Andersen is the Community Leader for HealthCentral’s RA Community. Lene (pronounced Lena) is an award-winning writer, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. She’s written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Follow Lene on Twitter @TheSeatedView and on Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.