How many egg shell high horses have you mounted? How many times have you looked down at another human being for the number of unread emails in their inbox or their weight or a trivial habit of theirs? It’s easy to do. I think it’s a survival instinct to classify ourselves against our peers. Our behavior flexes when feeling threatened versus when we feel superior. Inferiority drives defensiveness, lashing out, paranoia, and aggression. Superiority promotes puffing out, an inflated self esteem. But a puffy ego is like a balloon animal– it always deflates. Humans are just animals with highly developed brains, right?
But if this is all a survival instinct that means we’re in this together. We are all striving to survive. This is something I, a rabid perfectionist and people pleaser, struggle with– the foundational truth that most people are doing the best they can. I want to critique people for how I see them, for how they measure against my values, but I don’t know their values, I’m just perceiving them. We aren’t other people’s ideas of us. We are greater than some mislead notion in someone else’s head, and the only way to really embrace that is to divorce ourselves from perpetually categorizing everyone around us– chasing a superiority that we will always evade us.
I say this as someone who LOVED a pissing contest. I kept meticulous score of how I measured up to everyone around me until I wasn’t competitive, and by that, I mean life really dragged me. I graduated from college without a full-time job, with a lot of debt, no love life, and promptly gained 10-15 pounds of depression weight. I even had to live with my parents for a few weeks. Humbling is an understatement for that experience. Post-grad grated away my veneer, but I got a job and fell right back onto the same grueling hamster wheel. I got another job. This time, with a greater salary. I was ahead of my peers. I could buy fancy things. But when that job mistreated me, when it dehumanized me, I stayed. I discounted myself.
When you exchange your self worth for a situation, you shackle yourself to golden handcuffs. The aesthetic is gold, but the bondage is real. Inside constraints, my mental illness spiraled out of control. Everyday, I’d glance onto the city below the parking garage, fantasizing, “If I hurl my body from here, I’ll never have to hurt again”. Then, I’d remember my little sisters. They look up to me. I am tasked with the divine responsibility of being their example instead of a cautionary tale. Who will protect them if I’m gone? For as disinterested in life as I was, I never lost interest in being all the things I am to everyone in my life. Months of that passed before life pried me from that situation.
I emerged different from that experience. Not only the traumatic work culture, but the aftermath. I wept on my kitchen floor for many nights after. I navigated public without makeup or a bra. Concern for perception dissipated. To continue moving was such intensive labor that I couldn’t fathom tending to my vanity anymore. I couldn’t perform. In many ways, being socialized to be “gifted” is largely about performance and pedigree. Institutions encourage this by rewarding performance. We institutionally ascend by playing the game, but game playing also leads to us playing ourselves.
I am still competitive. I love winning. But those victories aren’t my why. They aren’t my worth or a reflection of my character. Separating me from the petty details is hard, but it also gives me the space for both my best and worst self to show up– to be whole rather than number one. I repeatedly have to remind myself of the following things:
- Your education matters, but it doesn’t make you better than anyone who didn’t have access to it or chose another path. A degree is not a personality trait. It isn’t a mark of character. It is tangible proof of academic adequacy and professional acumen in a specific space.
- you are not the way you make money. It isn’t a moral failing to want to take care of yourself. I slaughtered myself for a solid year for having salary requirements. But, I don’t want to live in a tent or a van. I want WiFi and hot water and a pricey gym membership, and there’s no shame in taking care of myself. We all deserve good things.
- Your eulogy is most likely NOT going to center around what car you drove or what brands you wore. Stuff comes and it goes. It’s ok to be excited by a shiny new gadget. It’s also ok to let it go when it grows lackluster. Marie Kondo has made a whole career out of that, and I think it’s brilliant.
- Rarely do we know people’s whole story. There’s a context to everything. Vilifying people who’ve failed according to a neoliberal doctrine is a really easy way to never get to know anybody better. Maybe that messy friend is struggle with depression and it takes every ounce of energy to part their body from the loving thread count beneath it. We vilify addicts, robbing them of their personhood in the process. And maybe that person who took an unconventional job after college did it because they wanted to, because that is the work that calls to them. The story isn’t in the inbox. The story isn’t in the salary, nor their class or education or words or teeth. The story of everyone unfolds when we meet them with empathy and compassion. But in order to do that, we have to meet ourselves there first.
The scary thing lies in letting go—that beyond our inboxes, follows, brands, and stuff— it is just us. The fear of being enough hides there, knowing she will be found, awaiting her calling hour. I say this as a woman who still feels sometimes that she has so much to compensate for. I like that feeling. I like the challenge of gritting my teeth and digging into what seems impossible. But if I never give myself kindness, I will never know peace.
I’ve never avoided the tough stuff. I’m not going to start now. We think we have forever. We think time is a flowing thing that will carry us in its current. It might not. And if you go, none of this pettiness is going to matter. Nobody is going to rave about how luxurious your sofa was in your eulogy or the state of your inbox. You can be proud of your standardized test scores and acknowledge that it has little bearing on your life to day. What matters is how you treat people. How much flavor did you pack into each day of this life? Did you try to unburden yourself and others? Did you to the best you could? Notice how little the real stuff weighs on everything our ego tells us it does.
Here’s the thing– even if you grace this planet for another eighty years, it’s better to do it without golden handcuffs. You don’t have to play this like everyone else. This life can be your own masterpiece, a love letter in your own handwriting. Don’t surrender that power so freely to something that matters so little in the end. Don’t root your worth in such fleeting things.
An eggshell high horse is a phase I made up to describe the fragility of posturing above everyone else. I get it. You’re scared to be seen on the ground level. Superiority and inferiority have the common theme of separating you from everyone else. We’re all on the same elevation. I’m not perfect, and I’m scared for you to see that. I’m scared my imperfections validate abandonment and rejection. My pride fears losing the upper hand. But what I’m more afraid of is looking back on my life wondering why I worried so much about everything that didn’t matter. Because the price of that worry subtracts from everything that does matter. Nobody is going to care about my inbox when I’m gone, but if I focus on the real stuff, I hope they’ll still care about me.