close connections: comparing without criticizing

By Nancy Norman

By nature, we’re a comparing species. We grow up seeing how similar or different we are to other people. And somewhere along in our young years, we don’t just compare. We begin to feel better or worse about ourselves in comparison to others.

Certain styles for accomplishing a task, for example, have a higher approval rating than others. Society has preferences, no doubt. So it’s not just our mothers or fathers we compare ourselves to. It’s what the whole culture embraces, “the best way to do things,” that becomes our judge and jury.

Take these two contrasting styles for completing a job:

1.  Knowing the deadline, outlining the steps, planning the time frame

    and checking the steps off the list til the task is finished.

2.  Knowing the deadline and completing the whole project when the

     deadline is imminent.

Style #1 has gotten to be society’s gold standard. I know lots of people who use this method and feel good about it. But they also feel upset when deadlines are canceled and they’ve missed out on several fun things while making lists and checking off steps. And I have friends who consistently finish tasks using Style #2 but feel like they’re doing something wrong, even feel ashamed of themselves. They often apologize for being distractible and call themselves “procrastinators,” which is certainly no compliment by society’s standards.

A friend just finished a project using her usual Style #2. She did other things til deadline came closer, then focused clearly on the objective and “got ‘er done” in eight hours. But when I complimented her, she called herself a procrastinator and said she still feels one-down when she’s around anyone using Style #1. 

The yardstick we measure ourselves with has values behind it. Among Style #1 values are conformity and acceptance and praise. Promoted as the “right way” by many, it also can value superiority. Style #2 has values of patience and pleasure and intensity. It may feel more satisfying to do other things than the task to be done since it’s not at deadline.

I wonder if other people’s anxiety helped push Style #1 into the preferred status? Watching someone wait til close to deadline can be extremely nerve-wracking. President Bill Clinton’s aides can attest to that, as he often put speech-writing off til the last minute. Maybe he “procrastinated” on purpose? There’s a vital difference between avoiding something because we don’t want to do it and deciding to wait because it doesn’t feel like the right time to do it.

During the virus restrictions, many deadlines have gone away. All of a sudden we seem to have endless days to do projects. Without firm deadlines, Style #1 can easily morph into Style #2. I have my usual list, but I find myself saying, “I have plenty of time to do that. I’ll just wait til the last minute.”

Whichever style fits us best–and we can use both–the most important thing is what we think of ourselves while we’re using it. Since we can’t really stop the comparisons, maybe we can slow down the criticisms.

Nancy Norman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, musician with THE STORYS musical duo and former “Intimacy” columnist for The Wichita Eagle. Email her at  

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