There is a vicious, green witch in the female psyche that persistently incites us to compare ourselves to other women.
It demands that we measure our weight, our breast size, our complexion, our careers, our talents, our qualities, our sexiness, our intellects, our wardrobes, our popularity and our whole lives with those of other women. Can any of us claim to be immune to this uncomfortable phenomenon? If we aren’t the one doing the comparing, then we are the one against whom other women measure themselves. And it can feel horrible.
There is nothing worse than detecting a half-hearted compliment from a jealous friend, or feeling the sting of an envious glance from a total stranger. It’s as if one woman’s success or beauty becomes a direct threat to the potential of another: “Because of her beauty, I will never attract a lover. Because of her sharp intellect, my intelligence will never be noticed. Because of her confidence, I will never find my own voice”.
Instead of inspiration, the comparison witch drives us to unreasonable lamentation, and suddenly her existence undermines ours. Kant described it as when “the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others.” Anthropologists blame this primitive reaction in females on our ancestral biology.
There we are, the females, stuck in a cave bearing children, utterly dependent on the male who hunts our food. (I know it’s not a pretty picture, but bear with me here.) When the male’s attention turns from our once perky, now sagging breasts, to those of a younger female, we become at risk of loosing our connection to a reliable food source, and protection. Suddenly, our very existence is under siege, as the more alluring female becomes an actual death sentence to the one she replaces.
Why our female species would carry this alleged survival instinct of measuring our reproductive lure against each other, as if our lives depended on it, into the twenty first century sure beats me! After all, we don’t live in caves anymore. Today, the threats women perceive in each other are no longer actual ones, but are, for the most part, imagined ones. Still, this raw-reaction, women have to the attractiveness of other women, seems to be alive and kicking all around us. What does that tell us about ourselves, as women?
Well, it might inform us that we women have an easily activated tendency to disconnect from our core: our very source of safety and confidence. It’s as if we have a block from those lower chakras that support our sense of security, our courage and our unique individuality. Instead of directing our attention within, and thus accessing our ability to activate our own personal power, we waste time comparing ourselves to other women around us. Worse yet, we try to destroy our perceived rival!
During the time of actual witch-hunts and killings, it is sad to note just how many of these “witches” were brought to trial and burned (or hung), due to the accusations from other females. Shockingly, they say it is the majority. Perhaps that fearful era in history, in which envy between women easily led to death, has yet to be fully extricated from society, as females continue to energetically deplete one another, instead of support one another as often as we could be.
And the literary trail behind us recording our competitive hysteria is just as rich and colorful, full of stories that continue depicting us as witches and snakes, from the Greek goddess Invidia to Shakespeare’s famous observation: “The venom clamors of a jealous woman are more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth.” That sure proved its accuracy for the hundreds of thousands of women who were executed as witches due to the gossip of other women. Who knew that comparisons could be so dangerous!
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Once, a close friend of mine nicknamed me Snow White. I thought it was sweet, until years later that same friend admitted to feeling envy towards me, for my beauty, my brains, my youth, my modesty, my financial stability, she said. She envied my art, my cooking skills, the way I wrote poems and even my metabolism!
I suppose, on that day, my friend unwittingly cast herself as Snow White’s wicked stepmother who, according to the old German story, hired a huntsman to carve out Snow White’s heart. My friend may as well have torn my heart out because that’s how it felt to hear of her envy towards me. At least she was open about it. Maybe it was unrealistic of me to expect her to be happy for me?
Before the Persians invaded Greece, the famed playwright Aeschylus noted of human nature: “It is in the character of very few to honor, without envy, a friend who has prospered”. First, such individuals are proud to call said prosperous person their friend. And then they envy them for their prosperity, as it reminds them of their own perceived lack of prosperity. I say “perceived” because I believe we all have something to be grateful for, and if we are always comparing ourselves to others, we may just miss it altogether. Instead of practicing gratitude, we allow envy to turn us into poison factories. We all remember the poisoned apple the witch offered Snow White, don’t we?
How many of us have been offered poisoned apples to bite into by envious women we once thought to be our friends? Or, perhaps we were the ones offering the poison? It might sound a bit dramatic, but subtle (and not so subtle) “poisoning” occurs every day between women, in the workplace, at school, in the gym, at yoga class, etc, because of feelings of jealousy and envy. In either case scenario we find women disempowering themselves, and disempowering other women. Sometimes this disempowering phenomenon is so thick, you can feel it when you walk into a room. You can feel women comparing themselves to each other, measuring themselves up. You can feel women targeting other women as threats. Instead of creating a conscious and supportive sisterhood, our unconscious primitive impulses inevitably isolate us from one another. It’s a lonesome feeling.
Some women have comparison witches that direct their poison outwards like emotional arrows they shoot at their perceived rival: “How comes she looks good in any pair of shoes? I wish she had short legs! I hate her!” This reaction is usually followed by guilt. Then there is the kind of comparison witch that does the exact opposite, she directs her poison inwards: “She looks so much better in those shoes than I do. I don’t even know why I bought mine. I wish I had longer legs. ” Yes, it’s harsh. Yes, it’s pointless. And yes, it’s self-annihilating. But women do it to themselves every day. Why? What do we feel we lack? What do we want?
After thirty years of researching the feminine soul, Sigmund Freud considered much of his work incomplete because he had not uncovered our deepest desires, and lamented that he had never been able to answer the question: What does a woman want? Considering it’s Freud we’re talking about here, it’s not surprising he never discovered what it was. But as individual women, we are our own authorities on what we want.
The comparison witch is but a challenge that can move us into answering that very question: What do we really want? Whatever it is, it’s not found in what other women have, or seem to have. It’s found inside of us.
My friend is now working on a little formula to defeat the Witch of Envy and quell her reaction to compare herself to me (or other women) in ways that make her feel inferior. It consists of five simple steps:
1. Identify your feelings: a) Are they feelings of jealousy in which you fear losing something of yours to another woman? Like your boyfriend, your job, your popularity, etc? (Jealous feelings are usually accompanied by distrust, anxiety, suspicion and anger about a perceived betrayal, uncertainty and loneliness, and a bad case of the blues over the perceived loss)
b) Or are you experiencing feelings of envy, in which you are directly frustrated or pained since learning about her weight loss, or her sensitive new boyfriend, or her ability to flex into all those advanced yoga postures? (Envious feelings are usually accompanied by resentment, feeling inferior, motivation to improve oneself, an ill feeling towards the woman envied –usually accompanied by guilt, and a unrelenting desire to posses the other woman’s qualities)
c) Or maybe you are feeling a combination of all these, as it’s common for jealousy and envy to hand out their torment at the same time.
2. Observe your feelings without judging them, and without energizing them. Allow yourself the experience without letting the experience overwhelm you. Practice being a witness of the experience instead of an eager participant. Make the distinction between your self and your emotions. Your emotions are fleeting; no need to let them devour your whole self.
3. Bring your attention to your body and breath, and make efforts to release muscle tightness and tensions. (We usually contract when feeling threatened and deprive our body of oxygen by taking in shallow breaths). Breathe deep, full breaths. Notice how your perception of the other woman is affecting the way you carry yourself: Are you suddenly slouching? Are you crossing your arms? Has the volume of your voice been affected? Return to your normal, comfortable posture through the aid of the breath.
4. Consider the big picture: There will always be women in the world who are more qualified than you in certain ways, and there will always be those that are not. There will always be women in the world whose forms are more aesthetically pleasing to look at then yours, and there will always be those that are not. These facts will never bear any direct impact on your own personal potential unless you let them. Make the decision not to let them, and restore your own sense of power.
5. Feel the LOVE: There is a Buddhist practice prescribed as an antidote to envy and jealousy which involves finding joy in the good fortune of another. It’s called mudita, and it has to do with perceiving the interconnectedness between us all. We need not separate our self from the successes of other women. In genuinely rejoicing when we see other women thriving, being prosperous and reaching their goals, we are also celebrating our own ability to do the same. The blossoming of one flower actually stands as an encouraging reminder that all flowers were made to blossom, in their own time. Keep this vision of yourself prominent. It honors abundance instead of scarcity, and it salvages the compassion for self and others that is always shadowed by the Witch of Envy.
When we surround ourselves with other women who are grounded in this inner sense of their own purpose, the whole energy between us changes! Suddenly we are watering one another’s flowers instead of stomping on them. We are no longer our own worst enemies. We appreciate the beauty in a mixed bouquet of flowers. What Freud failed to discover in all our glorious feminine complexity is that we all want to blossom. So, next time the witch of envy visits us, or we feel the sting of her stare, we’ll know exactly what to do.