On Monday afternoon I go to my kick-boxing class. I’m a little nervous. It’s been a few weeks since I was last able to go, and I worry that I won’t have the stamina I need to get through.
But, today, there’s a second student in the class. She’s older than me, stiffer, less fit, and clearly a beginner. I find the anxious part of myself relaxing.
I catch myself in the act. There’s nothing much different here from my expectations. I’m the same person I was on my walk to the dojo, with the same limitations that had worried me before I arrived. And yet, in the light of there being someone who’ll have more difficulty than me in the class, I’m settled. My sense of self and my possibility, I realise, is largely being shaped by the narrative of “I’m better than you”. My energy and commitment lift. This is going to be just fine.
And I begin to see how often I prop myself up – without paying much attention to it – with this kind of comparison. How I manoeuvre myself, subtly or overtly, to give myself a sense of superiority over others when I’m feeling anxious or unsure. How I can speak and act in a way that puts others into second place so I can be first. The subtle put-downs I can engage in. And, most importantly, the impact it can have on the people closest in, the people I say I most care about. The closer I look, the more I can see, and the less attractive this way of feeling good at the expense of others seems.
I’m struck by how easy, and how habitual, the ways in which we bolster self-esteem can become. How invisible. And how they may be silently shaping many or all of our relationships with others, perhaps at enormous cost to intimacy, trust and our shared sense of possibility.