On Comparison and Being 'The Only One'

grasping for meaning, internally and externally

I increasingly find myself in conversations with business types who have come across my story (i.e. high-achiever who feels nothing — and deeply judges herself for it — so wants more and finds herself on a journey to follow her passion) and felt compelled to reach out — because they feel the same, and they thought they were the only one.

This feeling of being ‘the only one’ is a resonant theme in my life and really, in the human experience. I find it guides both our external and internal lives in opposing, yet similarly dominating, ways. Externally, especially in individualistic Western cultures, we are encouraged to be ‘the only one:’ the one at the top, the best, the unique — the one who is different in an exceptional way and therefore notable. We celebrate being the best. At work, we want to be irreplaceable. In love, we want to be the love of someone’s life — or the one that got away. Inherent in all this is the idea of being ‘the only one.’ The individual, in her highest form, is the original non-fungible token. There is only one of us.

Only one.

Internally, this feeling dominates our experience in an equally extreme, yet completely opposite, valence. In our darkest moments our deepest fear reveals itself to be that yes, we are in fact the only one. We are the only one that feels this way or the only one who doesn’t feel. Everyone is moving easily through the world except us; we are the only one who struggles. We are the exception that no one wants to be: the defective, the faulty. We are the only one and no one could possibly understand, so who is there to help us get out of darkness? Who are we to forge the path through the thicket of sorrow into the light? We were misled into thinking we should be the first. The first, in this case, is a death sentence. The first has to find the path out.

Rationally, of course, we know we cannot be the only one — for is it true, that amongst 3+ billion living on the planet today, that internally not a single person feels the same way we do? Of course not. But internal darkness is anything but rational. And in my experience, the presence of rational thought only serves to hasten a downward spiral in that it can be held, paradoxically, with the irrational feeling of loneliness. And feelings, left unexamined, trump thought in any match. Externally, we find the same dilemma. The push to be the only one in the ‘best’ sense of the archetype is nothing but tyranny, a Sisyphean effort that society strongly suggested, yet we willingly chained ourselves to. To define our success by being the best is a losing game — for the definition of success is ever-changing. When you get to the top there will always be someone else on the next peak over.

We center our lives around an external definition of worth that is inherently fungible based on where the viewer sits. It’s a moving goal post and it keeps us in a state of dissatisfaction. I see this so often in my peers and in myself. Their company achieves unicorn status, a $1B valuation, and yet their friend built a bigger unicorn and married a social media influencer. They buy a $6M brown stone in New York City, but it doesn’t have a garden, and it’s not on the block they wanted. They get promoted but they don’t get the news article, sell 100 paintings but not 1000. In my own life, as I’ve gotten more traditionally/externally successful, I’ve watched as my (self-defined) peer set has changed — how I am suddenly comparing myself to different people, how I, upon every achievement, have shifted the goal posts a little bit farther to push my idea of success. And on the rare occasion that I happened to hit the goal posts before I got to move them, I have found myself looking around what I saw at the top, expecting jubilation but feeling nothing, and asking: “who the hell told me I wanted to be here?” Then immediately, I look a ways away and realize — there is someone on the next peak over, one a little higher than mine, and so the journey continues…

As they say, comparison is the thief of joy. But contrast creates definition and we cannot help but compare. Comparison is an evolutionary framework which helps us find our place in social groups. Comparison makes sense and is practical. In a more spiritual sense, comparison helps us understand who we are by showing us who we are not. Through comparison, we can also see where we can go and who we can be. In its most balanced use case, comparison creates possibility in that, via another’s example/existence, we see a potential for our own existence — often a potential we could not have imagined on our own for ourselves.

Comparison has a negative valence in our society, but in the most abstracted sense of the word comparison is just how we put two human experiences next to each other. Comparison is our mind, heart, and dare I say spirit, grasping for connection — are you like me? And perhaps does that mean I am not the only one?

The act of comparison relies on there being someone or something to compare to. Externally, well, let’s just say we are not at a loss for people or situations to compare ourselves to. The advent of social media in the past decade has created one, ever multiplying, comparison set not only that we can pull from, but that is being actively shoved in our faces. Here, the practice is moderating your comparison and deepening your sense of worth apart from your shifting definition of success. The intention is not to push you away from growing or being the best, but rather to invite you to shift your goal from being the best to being instead, the best you can be, and to give yourself more grace on that path. At the risk of digressing — while we’re here, I also invite you examine your definition of ‘the best you can be’ and deconstruct what is truly real vs. what has been a viewpoint society conditioned you to. More on this another time.

Internally, however, is a different story; one, in my informed optimism, that is changing very rapidly as people become more open about their mental health experiences. If so many of us that fear we are the only one with internal struggles and balanced comparison — i.e. the ability to see someone else and hold their experience in parallel to our own — is a fix for that, then what the world truly needs is a larger comparison set of examples. A larger library of individuals, like ourselves, who have also had internal struggles, who have also felt like the only one. More individuals who allow themselves the freedom of sharing not only external success but internal struggle. To meet the irrational fear, we need rational proof. We need stories and we need examples and we need them shared fearlessly with the intention of revealing the surprisingly well-trodden path out of the proverbial thicket of darkness. Not everyone is ready to do that, but for those of you who are, we need you — the world needs your stories.

Personal stories are a light — I increasingly believe they are the brightest lights we have. Because the truth I have found is that the more deeply personal the story, the more universal. The spectrum of individualism to collectivism is perhaps not a line but a circle. When you dive, willingly or unwillingly, into the depths of your individual experience, your being ‘the only one’ -ness, eventually you hit the meadow of the collective human experience. Eventually you realize it is not just you, but everyone — what you feared was your unique defectiveness is actually a universal human experience. Rather than being the only one, you are held as part of a larger collective. And it is in the field of the collective experience that you find the path you seek — to connection, to freedom, to the peace of knowing you are not the only one.

Further Reading:

Out Beyond Ideas by Rumi

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.

Eckhart Tolle on “The Dark Night of the Soul”

“It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness… Or you had built up your life, and given it meaning – and the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”

Google: “Dark Night of the Soul” which is a common concept that describes the human experience of losing meaning, hitting a deep depression, and then redefining your life around another thing.

The Second Mountain (Book) by David Brooks

I’m not the world’s biggest David Brooks fan, but I loved The Second Mountain. The book examines why so many highly successful people shift their lives after a huge business success and instead begin to pursue meaning. You can read the book, or watch pieces of him discussing it here.

A Note from Amac:

Hello! If you’re new here, welcome. This post was originally published on my substack: nfts (notes, feelings, thoughts) with amac. I am slowly but surely bringing my writing to Mirror. nfts (notes, feelings, thoughts) is one part personal essays, one part creative studio announcements, one part thought pieces on modern creativity (including, occasionally, pieces on NFTs i.e. non-fungible tokens). I’m glad you’re here and I’d love to hear from you. Much love and many blessings.

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