The Number

My post I wrote Sunday on being okay with Normal, being fine with Fine left me thinking.  Thinking a lot.  More than I normally do about one of my own posts.  Pondering Perfection.  And how crazy it is that there are so many places in our lives where we seek what we believe is perfection.   I think it’s safe to say we all have “Ideals” we strive to achieve throughout our lives.  An ideal score on a test.  An ideal class rank.  An ideal rating on a review at work.  An ideal weight.   An ideal time in a race.  An ideal size of pants.  An ideal income.   Interestingly, all of these ideals are Numbers.  We live so much of our lives, trying to achieve a Number.

And when we finally do achieve that Number… what then?  Can we then say, we’re Happy?  Do we check it off our list or do we then change the Number and strive for even more?  What if that Number really isn’t “All That”?  Do we mention our achievement or keep it to ourselves?

I spent far too many years obsessing about my weight.  I just couldn’t seem to be thin enough.  I had a weight in my mind that I wanted to be and didn’t think I would be happy until I reached it.  I’m not sure where I pulled the number from, but it sounded good and I believed at that weight, I could wear the size pants I also dreamed of wearing.  My battle with weight is for another post, one I’m not ready to write, but I can say, it wasn’t until I got healthy and STOPPED obsessing, that I actually reached that Number.  And now, I’m at that number, fine with how I look in clothes, rarely having a problem finding something I’m happy to wear.

And then shopping experience from hell happened.

With thoughts of my upcoming beach vacation in my head, I decided to go bathing suit shopping.  I scooped a few suits off the rack and hurried into the changing room dreading seeing my pale flesh revealed from a long winter, but not fearing the experience other than that.  I pulled on the first suit… and gasped.  WHO was that looking back at me?  THIS was not what that NUMBER was supposed to look like!  Flab here, dimples there, jiggles here, wiggles there.  No. No. No.  Could it possibly have been that the right Number was not Right at all?  They say muscle ways more than fat… it’s what got me through many of my depressed heavier days.  What they don’t say as often is “No muscle ways less than In Shape”.   I sat down on the bench in the fitting room, trying to avoid all eye contact with the three way mirror, and thought, “now what”.  The ideal weight… wasn’t working for me. I realized that the Number had nothing to do with how happy I was with myself.  What I want is not a number.  Or a size.  It’s a “look”… and as someone who likes to have measurable goals, I struggle with that.

It makes me wonder if this may be the same case in other areas of my life. I know that when I graduated college and was offered a job for $24K I immediately set my goal at $40K.  I remember thinking, “If I could just make $40K, I’d be SET.”  At $40K I wanted $60K,  and on and on.  I was just never satisfied.  I saw more, better, higher end, better quality and Always Strove For More.  The cliche says “money doesn’t buy happiness”.  And I strongly agree with that statement. I have plenty of friends who have more money than they even know how to spend, and they complain more than my friends who live pay check to pay check.  I guess the more they have, the more they can find dissatisfaction in.  Again, it’s not the income Number that should be the goal, it’s the satisfaction from the money that should be the ideal.  It’s how Happy you are with what you have.

I vividly remember the day I got into my first choice business school.  I got the GMAT score I hoped for to get into that school and then got in.  And as thrilled as I was, something in me was disappointed.  Disappointed that I didn’t apply to a “Better” school.  A higher ranked school.  Why didn’t I REACH more? And even though I worked at companies that supposedly only MBA’s from “Better” schools got into, I struggled admitting that I went to my lower ranked school.  Why did the rank matter?  Why does the Number matter So Much.

Hannah is 5 and knows the difference between coming in first and coming in last.  She wants to win and doesn’t want to lose.  Her gymnastics teacher has them stand in order of who holds their handstand against the wall longest.  She was last in line.  And talks throughout the week about who was first, second, third, etc…  She already understands it’s the Number that people care about.  Yes, she has fun.  “But mommy, I want to hold my handstand longest so I can be First.”

This post isn’t really coming together the way I had planned… it’s meandering, missing the point I started with… I’m still working out what my point is.  But I know that just as I’d like Fine to be just Fine in my life and just as I want to make it clear that Perfect should not be the goal, I also want to teach my kids that they don’t always need to set their sights on a Number.  I want to teach them that the Number really may not represent the happiness gained from the number.  And it’s the Happiness that is important.  The amount of Happiness should be the Ideal they seek.

If it were up to me, I’d do away with Numbers all together.



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28 responses to “The Number

  1. Yes! And once you reach the Number, whatever it is and whatever it’s for, there’s the pressure, stress, and compulsion to maintain it (or beat it). I have battled this mindset for a long time and see it emerging in my daughter. I, too, really wish I knew what to do about it (besides worry!).

    And bathing suits: Blech, blech, blech. No matter your Number.

  2. Well, Becca, your post has me thinking about why, in my family, it was always the other side of the coin. No ambition, no striving, always settling and encouraging everyone else to settle. Breaking out of that and teaching myself how to want more than what I had – does that sound crazy? – was so hard because we had a culture of taking what was sitting in front of us rather than striving.

    From your post I see how damaging it can be to wonder if anything’s good enough, what got away by taking this thing? It’s not my life history, but it is the other side of the coin.

    • Maybe I assumed that everyone always feels the pressure to want more. To strive for more… reach for more. That was a wrong assumption wasn’t it? I think it would be easier to no be under such pressure to reach and want more all the time. Interesting that you view that as settling.

      Yes, I do think it can be damaging to always be wondering what else is out there, if there’s something better. Definitely a different side of the coin.

  3. I’m trying every day to be happy and appreciative of what I have, and not obsessed with what I don’t. I don’t always make it through the day without living in the future and the past, but I’m trying.

    Teaching it to the kids is tough. My oldest is so highly competitive and ambitious. I look at him and know that he’s gonna have a hard time being happy. I hope I’m wrong.

    • Highly competitive and ambitious is not a bad thing. It’s just how the competition is handled. And when he “loses” or don’t reach as high as he had hoped, how does he react. How do YOU react? I would hope if you’re happy with him No Matter What (which I know you are), he’ll learn to cope with the ups and downs. At least that’s what I hope for my kids.

  4. My very first reaction is REALLY? They make the little girls line up in order of who can hold the handstand the longest. MAN oh MAN. She’s FIVE! Ouch. I don’t know how you teach a kid that numbers don’t matter when you are dealing with a life that does. It’s hard. Really hard.

    The score of the basketball game on the TV. The dress size you buy her when you find a pretty dress. The shoe size. The cost of something (more expensive = bigger gift, or something like that). And on and on, right?

    I SO hear what you are saying here. But remember, there is a part of you that is Perfect being a perfect who STRIVES so much. You wouldn’t be where you are without it. And can you imagine any other life? It is that part of you that you should impart on your kids, right? The part that says WORK HARD, ALWAYS WORD HARD. And it’s damn hard to work so hard and not get wrapped up in the outcome, the numbers, or the next step. But I think (and I’m trying to do this with my kids) that if we are careful, we can also teach our kids about Happiness. What it means, where it TRULY comes from, and we can ALSO impart that Happiness is not gained from THINGS but from the feelings we have about those things that really, down deep, are about the person we are inside…

    Hmm. Wow. I, too, wasn’t sure where this comment was going, but it works, I think. Just like your post. It works. IT TOTALLY WORKS.


    • My dream of a life without numbers is crazy really. Crazy. It’s definitely impossible with the way our world works.

      I just want to figure out the right way to have my kids handle the competition that’s out there. Help them to set the right, appropriate goals. I was brought up constantly being told to try to be the BEST. And the BEST was unattainable for me. I would have been better off applauded for just doing “fine”.

      I also think that what is expected can change with age. At my kids YOUNG age, I just think trying should be congratulated. Setting them up to be ranked (like in gymnastics) can only do harm, even if Hannah was #1 in the handstand rankings.

  5. I completely understand what you are saying and I think you made a very valid point but that being said; let me tell you why I love numbers. They are my personal motivation, they help me to gage where I am going and where I have been. The key for me to not going overboard is to have my own set of numbers. What I mean is: never compare your numbers to someone else’s. Why? They have nothing to do with you, no one has live your life and noone can know what a number means to you. In the past year I have began a long course of competing in marathons and triathalons. It is all about numbers. How long did you run today, this week, how far did you swim and how long did it take? And you wanna know something? I love watching numbers change from day to day. They motivate me to keep on moving. All three of my children are in school and this has given me something healthy and productive to do. So dont be so hard on yourself about numbers, they can be your friend as long as you never compare your numbers. So tell Hannah not to worry about the other girls and the headstands, tell her to worry about her own number. Maybe next week she is 5 seconds longer but still last, so what, celebrate that number.

    • If numbers are used correctly, and healthily, I agree, they can be motivating. But I do think for the most part, the goal to attain a Number in many parts of our lives can be frustrating and disheartening. And at Hannah’s young age, I worry that she’s already setting goals in her head that she shouldn’t even be concerning herself with. I just want her to have FUN!

      I’m envious that you have so much time for training for all of your races… one day, when my kids are in school, i hope to be right there with you!

  6. Wow, you have had a lot of thoughts racing through your brain. I wish I had something profound to say. The gymnastic handstands blow my mind. I was a competetive swimmer growing up. Swimming is ALL about the number. It wasn’t until I met a coach who’s philosophy was to reach for your personal best did I actually begin to enjoy the sport.

    Remember, as the Amish say, Only God can make something perfect.

    • Yes, Erica, I do have FAR too much going through my head All The Time. I love your coach’s philosophy. It makes sense and definitely takes so much stress out of life!

  7. My reaction was the same as Sarah’s. That gymnastics teacher needs to re-think how she has the kids line up. Hannah is FIVE!!

    I am not competitive at ALL. I never cared if I won or lost a game. In fact, my husband says that I am the “least satisfying person to play a game with…ever.” Because I’m equally happy if I win or lose.

    But with myself? Hoo-boy. Never satisfied there. No matter what I do, it’s not good enough. I guess that’s why I found myself nodding my head throughout this entire post.

    • Yeah, the gymnastics coach is a little insane. I have so many stories about her. The funny thing is that Hannah LOVES her and when I mention how serious she is, Hannah totally disagrees. Funny, the perception of a five year old, huh?

      I also am so hard on myself. never satisfied. And I guess the reason I overthink all of this so much is because I want to be sure my kids ARE satisfied with themselves and all of their achievements.

  8. jen

    Becca. I think I know what you mean. Numbers. Ages. Scores. First. Last. It’s so hard to get away from. But you are on the right track, I think, just thinking about it. Those posts that make you keep thinking–they’re the best ones and the worst, aren’t they?

    • Thanks jen. yes, these posts that make me think and think and think… are too exhausting. Which is why I need to LIGHTEN UP! Sheesh, I overwhelm myself with all of my thinking sometimes.

      Thanks for bearing with me in all of this thinking!

  9. Aidan touched on this same topic last fall: You should check it out.

    One of the things you allude to here is the “I’ll be happy when…” game. When I earn $X. When I weigh X. When my house is X big. When my 401(k) is X. It’s a dangerous game because it can transform innocent goals into a life where you’re never happy.

    I don’t have an answer for you, except to say that by exploring the topic I’m sure you’re on the right track. It’s when we turn a blind eye to situations like this that they really have a chance to take root.

    • I think just writing about all of this is making me more aware and is helping in my finding happiness where I may not have in my past. Because I totally agree… this striving for something better, can lead to a vicious cycle of achieving goals and not being satisfied, one after the other, over and over. I don’t want that for me or my kids!

      Thanks for forwarding Aidan’s site… I’m off to read it!

  10. Such a hard thing. I think as Americans we collectively have this problem. In concept we grasp the “happy” or “satisfied” but not so much in practice.

    • Nice to see you Headless Mom! I agree… it’s a national issue. Most people I speak to, just aren’t satisfied. Or at least don’t admit to be.

  11. Yes, yes, and yes again. The size wars I held with myself. Not ready to write that post either, but my subconscious sat up and took notice big time while I was reading this.

    I have shied away from competitive things in my adult life because I came from a family that bred a fear of failure in me. Out of that fear, I willed myself to achieve a good number of things that look nice on a resume or CV. But the terror I felt while I was pursuing those achievements, the fear of what would happen if I did not succeed — it’s left a lasting impression to say the least.

    Thanks for writing about this.

    • I think I also had a fear of failure growing up. Actually, I know I did. I hated disappointing my parents and never felt like I was doing enough. I’m sure this is the root of my insecurities today and what makes me so desperate to avoid it with my kids! Thanks for your comment CT!

  12. Hey! Found you on TMC! I love that you and your little girl watch Project Runway together…. so cute!!! Following your blog now… come say hi sometime! 😉

  13. You seem one step ahead of the rest of us. I just watched a wonderful documentary called “Race to Nowhere!” It is so easy to get caught up in a number or a score. And wait till it has to do with your children.

    That’s why I full heartedly agree–fine is GREAT!

  14. I think (I haven’t read the comments, sorry!) that we can all relate to your number searching! It is easy to get sucked into the grass is greener syndrome. I do this frequently and am trying to press pause and enjoy what I have now.

    P.S. You are beautiful. I think that swimsuits are evil–they make the skinniest person feel ungainly. Arrggh. (I hope that’s comforting. It’s supposed to be.)

  15. Such a wonderful, thought-provoking post, followed by some really insightful comments. And my tardiness has left me with any wisdom to add, other than to recommend a really great piece about swimsuit shopping by Amy @ Never-True Tales – funny and serious all at once:

  16. Pingback: The Best Medicine « Drama For Mama

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