Have you ever had a conversation with someone, listened, and thought to yourself, “I don’t understand why they are telling me this, my life is much worse than that”…and then go on to tell them your problems. They might look a little surprised that you didn’t hear a word they said, and they nod politely as they listen to you one-up them in the horror story department.

It can also go in the opposite direction. Someone tells you about their great experience, but you just interrupt and let them know that your life/experience has been much more interesting. Either way, they go quiet, and sometimes the conversation ends there, with one walking away thinking that it was such a good experience…”sharing” is always so gratifying. Meanwhile, the other leaves the conversation not feeling listened to, or maybe a little down about themselves. Either they haven’t quite suffered enough, or they aren’t just interesting enough.

I have been on both sides of these conversations, often walking away kicking myself. “Why did I interrupt them? Did I really need to tell them about my own issues?” or “Why don’t they ever listen? Is their life so much worse/better than mine?”

This one-upping happens in all areas of life. One tells of a great deal that they find somewhere, and the other interrupts them with the story of a better deal, maybe also throwing in a brand label in there just to make things even better. Someone can be talking about their child and an accomplishment…and the other has a “wonder-kid” who does no wrong. The list can go on and on…jobs, relationships, faith, possessions, and with deeper problems.

Sometimes I think that maybe I don’t know what the art of conversation is then. Is it about comparing stories? Is it about trying to put things into context by telling your own side of things? Or is it this constant need to compete with someone, just to get validation for yourself? We do spend most of our time thinking about ourselves, and how we fit in.

In sociology there is a great theory called the “Looking Glass Self Theory” by Charles Horton Cooley. I found this so fascinating because it explains how so many of us see ourselves. 1) We IMAGINE how others perceive us. 2) We IMAGINE how others judge their perception of us. 3) We develop feelings and ideas about ourselves based on our IMAGININGS of the judgements of others. Note…it’s all about our imagination of how we are perceived, that’s why we behave the way we do.

We try to validate ourselves by “being a someone”.

But who are we really trying to BE?

If our identity is based on what we think others think about us, then we will always struggle. Our feelings about our identity go up and down based on our human interactions. We give OTHERS the power to define us. And that is dangerous.

This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. My identity was so often tied up in one-upping others. Be it the areas of work, life experience, “depression”, family, or outward appearance in myself or in my home. I was hooked on labels, and often measured my self-worth in possession of them. The labels could also be spiritual ones. “A good christian”…such a toxic label. You get the idea.

Can we really measure ourselves against someone else? We are all created to live our own journey, walking and supporting each other, but still our own experience. Our tragedies and triumphs are ours to help each other with, not to make someone feel worse about themselves.

My identity is now “follower of Jesus”. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter where I measure up in this temporary place called “life of earth”. I just want to stand in line at the gates of heaven, behind the thief at the cross and Billy Graham, and hear these words…”welcome my child, I’ve been waiting for you.”

(painting done by Nicholas Leppanen)