By Natalie Liu
In an education system which intrinsically pits us against one another, which ranks us on how many marks we lost in some exam or assignment, it’s hard not to compare yourself to others.
In a high-pressure course where every single person is smart, driven and high-achieving, it’s hard not to diminish yourself when you don’t measure up to your peers.
In a world where success is praised, promoted and shared, and ‘failure’ is kept to yourself, it’s hard not to feel ashamed if you didn’t quite make it. Especially if others have.
It’s that clench in your jaw when you can’t grasp a concept that everyone else in the lecture theatre seems to get, the tension in your shoulders when you hear your friend has finished the matrix and you’ve barely begun picking your way through Cardio, the twisting in your gut when you’ve struggled to just pass the year, while others seem to sail through with ease. Thoughts like “what am I doing in this course?”, “how will I ever make a good doctor if I can’t even do xyz?” begin to swirl around; crippling doubts, fears and insecurities seep into your day-to-day psychology.
Is it impostor syndrome? Probably. Med student type A personality? Definitely. The good news is, if all this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Not at all.
We all have defining moments in our lives. Like ripples in still water, they travel unchecked and gradually affect every part of our lives. I’m not sure exactly when or where I picked up the habit of comparing myself to others, but it was making me miserable, and I wasn’t even aware of it.
My epiphany came one fateful afternoon during a delightful Digilab on neuroanatomy (that one where Lazarus maps out all the cranial nerves and their function). I was sitting with a friend – let’s call her X. As X and I struggled to keep up, the other members of our table seemed to pick it up just like*that*, and cruised through. Again, that prickling feeling of panic and frustration began to rise within me; soon enough, I wasn’t even taking in what our professor was saying. I glanced over at X, and was completely shocked to see that she was smiling. I questioned her about the little grin, to which she replied, “all these people are so smart! It’s inspiring, I want to be like that.”
To X, what she’d said was probably just a comment in passing, but to me, it formed the basis of a completely different psychology. It got me thinking- why not let these moments inspire you, rather than highlight your deficits? Why compare yourself to someone whose brain is wired completely differently? Or to someone whose life and circumstances are entirely different? Isn’t it like trying to compare apples and oranges?
And just like that, I created my own ripple, and consciously directed it towards something more positive and self-accepting.
So, here we are, almost a year later. Breaking down habits, especially ones that’ve been rooted within your mindset for years, is like bulldozing a mountain. But I continue to chip away at it at my own pace, and hope I’ll build a new one, with a sunnier view.
At last, here’s my guide to combatting those moments. Can’t say I’ve mastered it, but I’m trying at least.
- Acknowledge: When you feel that panic start to rise again, acknowledge it. It’s normal. And whether you believe it or not, everyone else around you is probably feeling the same deep down.
- Breathe: Take a deep breath in and out. Let that tension dissipate.
- Mantra: At this point, I’ll say to myself- “apples and oranges”. (But if your thing is tacos and quesadillas, well, you do you.)
Then, put those blinkers on and move forward.
“Comparison is the thief of joy”