If you’ve recently created a dating profile for yourself, you’re not alone. This is the busiest time of year for online dating sites like this one.
Along with your height, eye color, and favorite films, you’ve probably attempted to include language that informs the reader that you’re worth a look. You want to distinguish yourself from all of the other 5’10”-inch brown-eyed men who like movies and the outdoors. More to the point, you want to convince the gentle strangers reading your profile that you’re a winner–smart, successful, well-rounded, good-looking. You want to set yourself apart.
When you read the profiles, it also becomes clear that there are a whole lot of people out there who think they’re a cut above. In her wonderful book, Self-Compassion, University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff notes that most of Americans are afflicted with the “Lake Wobegon effect”—everyone thinks they’re above average. She cites some very striking figures:
- 85 percent of students rate their interpersonal skills as above average
- 94 percent of college professors say they’re better teachers than their colleagues
- 90 percent of drivers believe they’re above-average drivers—even those who recently caused an accident
Neff says that people commonly see themselves as funnier, more logical, more popular, better looking, nicer, more trustworthy, wiser, and more intelligent than others. “Ironically most people think they’re above average in their ability to view themselves objectively,” she writes.
Obviously, there is a big math problem here—it’s not possible for all of us to be above-average at everything.
But even if we’re all living in the sunny delusion that we’re better than other people, is that so bad? If most people feel pretty good about themselves, isn’t that a positive thing?
The problem, Neff says, is that in order to be “better,” we have to make others “worse.” We have to prop up our impossible self-images by finding ways to convince ourselves that we’re superior to other people. “It’s very common to look for flaws or shortcomings in others as a way to feel better about ourselves. Why else do we love pictures of stars spilling out of their swimsuits, making fashion flubs or having a bad hair day?” writes Neff.
When the house of cards falls—as it inevitably does—we become quite distraught. Neff discusses one experiment in which students were put in pairs and took a test. Those who were told they received a lower score felt more distant and alienated from their partners than those who were told they received a higher score.
That’s the problem: An overinflated sense of self-worth is extremely fragile. Just a tiny pinprick of disappointment and the whole thing collapses.
“The sad irony is that the very reason we want to succeed in the first place is that we want to feel accepted and worthy, to be close to others, to feel that we belong. It’s a classic catch-22. The very act of competing with others for success sets up an unwinnable situation in which the feelings of connectedness we crave are forever out of reach,” she writes.
But Neff also has good news: The happiest people in our society are the ones who can accept the fact that they have more similarities with other people than they have differences. These are people who can cheerfully admit that, yes, they are ordinary.
Feeling special and wonderful is great—when that’s how you legitimately feel. But life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes you don’t get the job. Sometimes you fail the driver’s test. Sometimes the person you adore doesn’t feel reciprocate the feeling. Sometimes you’re left out.
When this happens, trying to convince yourself that you’re better than other people will be tough. So try thinking about how much you have in common with the rest of humanity instead. Everyone fails sometimes. Everyone gets rejected. Everyone experiences sadness, loneliness, and frustration.
Recognizing this won’t make these feelings go away, but it can help you cultivate gentleness with yourself and others. Once you’re not so invested in being superior to others–the inevitable disappoints of life become a lot more manageable.
Chances are, your setback is not remarkable, and the fact that you’re having it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means you’re a person.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.