Picture the scene:
Salma’s seven years old.
Like most seven year old girls, she likes to draw pictures, play with her friends and dreams of one day becoming a ballerina.
Some days she dreams of being a princess.
And on the days her parents talk about her future, she hears the terms your family and your own children and thinks: I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound too bad. But why do they keep mentioning doctors and lawyers? I don’t like blood and I don’t know what the second one is.
Her dreams change daily. She’s seven years old.
As Salma gets older, she starts to realise what lawyers are and thinks their job sounds dull. But that’s ok. She’s twelve years old now and really likes maths. She’s good at it.
One Thursday in May she gets 98% in her maths test. Excited to see her mum at the school gates, she runs up to her and breathlessly declares:
“Ammi, I got 98% in my maths exam! The highest in my class!”
Her mum’s had a lot on her mind that day. She smiles at Salma and doesn’t react the way Salma had hoped.
Later that evening, Salma tries again. This time her dad’s there too. Maybe he’ll react differently?
“I got 98% in my maths test. Can you believe it? It’s way better than Aisha got. I think she got, like, 50% or something. So I did better.”
Her dad smiles at her: “Good job”, and pats her on the back.
Salma’s mum smiles too and says, “Yes. That’s good. 98% in maths isn’t helping you make better chapattis, is it? And you know that Aisha’s learning to become a Quran Hafiz, don’t you? It takes a big brain to learn the Quran off by heart. Her parents must be so proud.”
And like that, Salma’s self-pride’s snatched away from her.
But twelve year old’s have a way of forgetting remarks like that and moving on, don’t they?
So that’s what Salma does.
Growing older, Salma’s starting to come into her own. Sixteen year old’s have a tendency to go off the rails sometimes, but not Salma.
She loves school. You could call her a geek. Or a boffin. Whatever term you label her with, one thing’s clear: she’s an intelligent girl with a bright future ahead of her.
That doesn’t seem to impact her parents, though.
“This daal is good, Salma”, her mum tells her over dinner. “The salt’s perfect this time. You know I went to the neighbours yesterday and their Yasmin made chicken tikka? It’s better than her mother’s! And she’s only thirteen. You didn’t even know how to wash your hands at thirteen. She really is my favourite girl.”
This hurts Salma’s feelings. A lot. When will I ever be good enough? she thinks to herself.
On the surface, Salma couldn’t give two hoots about cooking. She’s on track to become something big. Nobody knows what, but given the A’s she’s getting at school, that something big is definitely on the horizon.
As Salma goes through the motions of school, exams, university applications and graduation, she’s ready for the world of work.
Not sure about what she wants to be when she grows up, she decides to apply for graduate schemes in some pretty big companies. She’s accepted at one of them and is now four years into her job.
The same job. For four years. She hasn’t moved on in the company.
She keeps passing up the opportunity to change what she does because others seem to be better at the job than her.
It doesn’t occur to her to just give it a go and see what happens. Not Salma. She has to be perfect first.
The same thing happens when she’s in meetings. She feels like her opinion doesn’t count and she’s fading into the background.
But on closer inspection, Salma admits that she doesn’t voice her opinions because she doesn’t think they count. How can they? Other people’s opinions are always better.
And then there’s her boyfriend. Her family don’t know about him and her friends hate him. They’ve hated her last three boyfriends, in fact.
The first one was cheating on his girlfriend with Salma but she didn’t know it.
The second one was focused on his career and didn’t give Salma much attention.
And this recent third? He’s the gem. He told Salma that he and his wife are separated, but her friends don’t believe it. They’ve seen him out with another woman. She’s more his age and looks exactly like his wife.
He isn’t even being discreet and Salma can’t see it.
“I don’t believe you”, she tells her friends. “I’m thinner, prettier and younger than her. Compared to his wife, I have everything. There’s no way he’s lying to me.”
It’s a fool’s game. But some fools have been conditioned to compare themselves to others their whole lives.
When you want to celebrate your exam results, your parents are beaming about your cousin who does better than you at everything else. So you strive to be better, always seeking their approval.
When you want to move out and live alone, they give you examples of all the others your age that listen to what their parents say and don’t cause trouble. So you put everything on hold and wait for the day they’ll give you their blessing.
And when you decide you don’t want to marry whomever they chose, they praise the daughters of their friends who got married only last year and just look at how happy she is. AND HER PARENTS ARE TOO. So you do as they say. It can’t be that bad, can it?
Their words may be hurtful and cover the insecurities your parents feel, but they also scream one thing, and one thing only:
You’re a disappointment
There’s no denying it. They bought you into the world so you’d succumb to their every request.
And since you don’t, you’re not worthy of praise. Sorry. Find another family that’ll give you praise ‘cos we don’t do that ‘round these parts.
Your self-worth doesn’t matter to us.
But our reputation does.
And we’ll do anything to preserve it.
We want to hold our head high when we talk about our children. Your responsibility is to help us do this. We don’t care whether you’re happy or not. Happiness is for white people. Not for us.
Ever wonder what happens when your parents constantly compare you to others as a child?
It’s not just that you grow up insecure. It isn’t only a case of assuming others are always better than you and you must strive to achieve unattainable goals.
You simply don’t stop and consider what it is that you want.
You never question why you think others are better – they just are.
The impact doesn’t stop with comparison syndrome.
You become a people pleaser, always seeking approval.
And in the darkest of times, you resort to bad-mouthing others because it’ll shed positive light on you.
Only it doesn’t. Because now you’re needlessly belittling people and that makes you a bad person.
You can never win
It’s the guy that passes up a promotion because he doesn’t think he’s good enough.
It’s the girl that dates married men because she subconsciously chooses to be second best.
It’s the father that starts comparing his children to others because it made me stronger, didn’t it?
At some point, this rotting cycle has to stop.
And it stops with you.
You’re reading the self-help blogs, the books that teach you about emotional intelligence, and articles like this that hold a mirror up to you.
What are you going to do about it?
I’ll tell you what I did:
I stopped playing their game. Skipped off the conveyor belt. Went my own way.
Because once you realise your parents are comparing you to others because they secretly think they did a bad job at raising you themselves, the tables turn.
The rules change when it’s clear that they make their happiness depend on you.
And they guilt-trip you into believing you’re at fault and pressure you to fix it, secretly knowing that you can’t.
They do this because you allow them to.
Because their happiness (that isn’t just reserved for white people) doesn’t depend on you.
You don’t have the power to make them happy. They do.
So stop trying to make them happy.
Do what makes you happy instead. I don’t mean drink alcohol in front of them, purposely marry a black Jew and blow all your cash in Vegas just to spite them.
When you’re agreeing to something they requested, ask yourself: Is this what I really want? Am I saying yes because I want this, or because I want to make them happy?
And that doesn’t lead you to rejecting their every request either. It just means you’re being an adult about decision making.
That’s right. An adult. An independent, fully-functioning human being who has the right to make her own decisions.
Don’t make it all the way to 80 and realise you had this right all along. Start today.
Enter your email address to get articles & foul-mouthed exposés delivered directly to your inbox every week. So you can figure out this East/West thing, finally feel understood, or dance around naked (no judgement here).