One of These Things
Remember the segment of Sesame Street, One of These Things is not Like the Others? It was intended to help teach children the essential skill of identifying differences in objects. This skill is useful and necessary for human beings. At the simplest level, we need to know that a shoe and boot are not the same thing. In terms of survival, we need to recognize the differences between a tiger and housecat. This is the way we’re wired, to identify, label and distinguish differences. It is also essential for us as social animals to recognize when we are behaving outside the norm so that we adjust to conform to social expectations.
Unfortunately, this mental ability can be problematic when we over use it. When we begin to focus on differences we go through life comparing ourselves to others. We can also overestimate the differences between ourselves and others. When I was younger I spent innumerable hours comparing myself to my peers and to the images I saw on television and in magazines and I always fell short. This led to a deadly form of perfectionism which I still struggle with today.
But there is a much subtler and more damaging form of this focus on differences. Instead of developing a healthy self-esteem based on an appreciation of our positive attributes we often use differences to define who we are. We place our attention on the “otherness” of the opinion, behavior or appearance of everything and everyone.
As an example, I grew up in a family who sails, as a result I didn’t spend time on motorboats or learn to water ski. Later when invited to water ski, or spend a weekend on a houseboat I would think “Oh, I’m not a motor boat person.” By doing this I defined my identity in a negative way. My self-image is based on what I am not. Worse still, I might even begin to resent people who water ski or drive motor boats or exclude myself from houseboat trips. What is most troubling about this behavior is that I disconnect from other people in that moment of defining the difference. In its most acute state it can turn into bigotry and even violence against others.
The healthy perspective would be to decide if I want to connect with the people who have invited me. I can go on the houseboat trip with the knowledge that I prefer to sail. This would be a way of building my self-esteem without focusing on the difference. What is more important is that I connect with those around instead of disconnecting. The problem with excessive focus on difference is that isolates us from those around us.
This week just try noticing when your mind picks out the difference and then notice if you find yourself disconnecting.