Everyone else is already taken.
– – – Oscar Wilde
I grew up in a highly competitive world. I started my dance training when I was eight, I worked very hard, and I was accepted into The Harkness Ballet company when I was 16. In order to be chosen, I endured an eight hour audition like the one in the Broadway show, “A Chorus Line.” My mother and I got up before dawn, drove from Massachusetts to New York and we showed up at 9 AM at The Broadway Theater in Manhattan on 53rd Street. The lobby was filled with hopefuls, two hundred and fifty of us, men and women, and I stood in line to receive a number that I pinned onto my leotard.
When I stepped into the darkened theater, several large spotlights were pointed at an empty stage. A group of judges sat in the fifth row, watching. We were broken up into groups of six and one after the other, we performed the routines they showed us: various classical combinations en pointe, some modern dance and a little jazz to see if we could remember steps we had seen only once and adapt to different styles. Then they began to let people go.
During each elimination, we prayed not to hear our number called which meant we were being sent home. We didn’t look each other in the eye, the competition was so fierce, and by early afternoon, half of us were gone. The physical exhaustion was significant, but the mental exhaustion was brutal. At five o’clock, five other dancers and I stood on the stage, looking out into the darkness. They hadn’t told us how many they were looking for and I didn’t know if they were still eliminating. Suddenly the lights went on in the theater, a woman stepped onto the stage and said to us, “Congratulations! You made it.”
We broke out into smiles and took a good look at each other. We would all become best friends and competitors. I ran over to my mother to hug her. An old life was ending and a new life was beginning.
The following years of competing with other dancers and soothing each other at the same time were confusing. Were we friends or foes? How could we be both? It felt like an anomaly when we encouraged our fellow dancers, helped them when they were
lonely and vied against them for the best roles. When we were on tour someone lent me her toothbrush. When we were in rehearsal, someone else strutted callously when she was cast in a coveted role. We asked ourselves all the time: Is she better than me? Is she thinner? Are her legs longer? Can she pick up choreography faster than I can? Are her arches higher? I lost a role to someone I was close to and I tried to hide my disappointment and feel happy for her. A next to impossible task. When I was cast in a role we both wanted, I hid my emptions once again because I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings.
This early programming of comparing myself to other people, deciding if I was better or worse, has followed me into my current life. I hate to admit that it’s hard not to compare myself to my friends whom I adore. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them, but I still find myself thinking: Is she doing life better I am? Did she made better choices than I did? Would I be happier if I was married and had kids like she does? Is she better looking and more talented? The other side of the coin is just as damaging: I’m doing
better than she is. I made better choices. I’m alone and I’m free. I’m better looking and more talented. But whichever side we embrace, we wouldn’t be happy in someone else’s life and they wouldn’t be happy in ours.
Making comparisons isn’t unique to athletes. Friends of mine who never lived in a competitive world say that they have the same thoughts. It’s so hard to let ourselves just be – happy or sad, successful or lost, kind or mean or any other feeling in the range of
human emotions. A mentor of mine keeps reminding me that we are like snowflakes, members of the same species but none of use are the same, so what’s the point of comparing ourselves to someone who is fundamentally different than we are?
It’s a matter of valuing ourselves and our choices, to let ourselves like what we like and dislike what we don’t with no apologies. When I worked with rock and roller, Grace Slick, she was unashamedly herself at all times, for better and worse, outrageous or quiet, and I still try to emulate her authenticity. Rock Star, Jim Morrison, definitely a one-off, said, “Where’s your will to be weird?” We have to learn to embrace our quirks, the odd things that make us who we are.
It’s hard to be authentic enough to fit into our own skin, let alone try to fit into someone else’s. When I was a ghostwriter, my job was to become someone else as much as possible, to sound like them and think like them and use words that they would use. I got good at it, but I quickly learned that no matter how glamorous or enviable their lives looked, they had their own brand of difficulties, humiliations and disappointments. Stalkers. Public divorces. Nervous breakdowns. Each time I finished a book and slipped off the invisible sheet where
I’d been hiding, a sense of relief washed over me. I was so happy to be myself again.
For me, the way to peace is to stop comparing and accept the choices I’ve made. I imagine there are people who compare themselves to me but I’m aware that they don’t really know me. I may look content at first glance. I’ve achieved some wonderful
things in my life, I live in a beautiful home and I feel happy sometimes. But no one knows my trials and victories, my sorrows and my joys. No one knows how I criticize myself and wish I were better or smarter or prettier or more successful. No ones knows the things in my life that make glad to be me. Dance legend, Martha Graham, told up-and-coming choreographer Agnes de Mille,
“Because there is only one of you in all time, your expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”
Win or lose, happy or sad, satisfied or disappointed, every minute you spend wishing you had someone else’s life is a minute wasting yours. Social media draws people into a fantasy. Everyone posts their best days, their best photos, the best meal they ever had and how perfect their relationship is. For some of them, it’s real, but
whether or not they’re telling the truth is irrelevant to you. If you take your focus off of what someone else is doing and look inward at your personal vision, you’ll be on the path to finding a way to love yourself, warts and all.
Wouldn’t that be grand?