I had this epiphany the other day as I was waiting in line at Chipotle. I was listening to a conversation between two businessmen. “I have two kids—my oldest is getting scouted by
[insert renowned school here] and holds the record in passing yards for his high school football team,” one of the gentlemen proudly explained. “My youngest…” he continued looking embarrassed, “is struggling to keep his GPA above 2.0 and would be lucky to get five minutes of playing time.”
Both of the gentlemen laughed and proceeded to lament about the number of calories in the burritos they were planning to order.
“Yikes,” I thought to myself. How sad that these men had placed so much value in a series of numbers– GPA, minutes of playing time, calories in a burrito and passing yards in a high school football game.
This exchange got me thinking about the significance of numbers in my own life.
Just this past weekend:
• One of my friends was bragging about how many steps they took
• My parents celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary
• Someone at Panera changed their original order because they were “horrified” by the number of calories posted on the menu
• While on a walk, I overheard a group of teenagers make an inappropriate comment about a young woman running – rating that person’s looks on a scale of 1 to 10.
• My friend just completed a marathon and was dissatisfied with her finishing time of 3 hours and 38 minutes
For those who haven’t hit these milestones, or who don’t reach an ambiguous point that has been deemed by society as worthy, these numbers can have detrimental effects on self-esteem and self-worth. Who cares how many steps you take in a day? If a human being was able to run 26.2 miles, who cares how long they took to do so?! Why are my parents celebrated because they stayed together for a greater amount of time than someone who got divorced after ten years of marriage? In a world where having the highest (or best) number is some invisible trophy in life, it almost seems as though we’re setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment.
Being in the eating disorder field, I am surrounded by the “weight” of numbers (pun intended). Our clients place an extreme amount of importance on the number displayed on the scale, are consumed by thoughts of calories, and base their worth off of how many minutes of exercise they finished and an ambiguous measurement of their body mass index (BMI).
We can’t blame society for emphasizing numbers like this. We, as humans have an innate desire to compete and compare as a way for us to relate to one another and, unfortunately, assign a value to ourselves.
The Social Learning Theory, developed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950’s, suggests that there is an internal drive within individuals to understand how they “stack” up against the rest of the world to gain a more accurate reflection of self. We do this in all areas of our lives including relationships, education, health/fitness and careers.
So what can do to combat this human tendency that we are all basically hard-wired to experience?!
Well it’s certainly tough. Being a type-A person myself, I struggle to accept a world that doesn’t involve striving for perfection, certainty and control. If the only way that we can understand ourselves is in terms of measurable numeric milestones, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We are all far more than a combination of numeric standards put in place to minimize our own anxieties. I am not just a number. I am a writer. I am a daughter and a sister. I am a dog mama. I am kind and loyal–empathic and witty. I am worthy of disconnecting my worth from my weight, my IQ, my age, the amount of hours I spent at the gym and how many calories I consumed.
As I continue my journey into adulthood, I realize that I am not working to “better” myself. Rather than focusing on more numbers to rank myself arbitrarily in the world, I am learning how to better understand myself. Could I loosen up a little more? Absolutely. Would it benefit me to learn to accept that I don’t have control over everything? Of course. Instead of using comparison as a way to experience belonging and acceptance, I am going to try being more self-aware.
I will notice when I am minimizing myself to numbers. I will appreciate characteristics in others rather than diminish myself for not possessing them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will accept where and who I am in life. My journey is unique, my journey is my own and I will certainly not allow my journey to be reduced to numbers and amounts.
Natalie Cohen is the Senior Marketing and Community Relations Associate as well as the Social Media Coordinator for Walden Behavioral Care. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Maine in Orono. Her favorite part of working at Walden is being able to act as an advocate for clients living with mental illnesses and interacting with other eating disorder professionals in the community. In her free time, Ms. Cohen enjoys practicing yoga, exploring the restaurant scene and spending time with her dog, Bella.