When I was a little girl, I very sincerely wanted to BE my big sister. Tracie was smart, cool, stylish, and calm, and she had some truly awesome friends. As an 8-year-old little sister with a serious case of hero worship, I was certain my life would be immeasurably better if I could figure out a way to Freaky Friday my way into becoming my big sister.
I can remember the exact moment when I realized a minor flaw in my otherwise logical desire to become my sister. One afternoon, as we were getting in the car after baton-twirling class (and I swear I am not making that up—Dad signed us up for some weird stuff in childhood), Tracie got her hand caught in the car door, smashing her fingernail and emitting quite a howl of pain.
That was the first time that I realized that I would not happily trade places with my sister, since such a trade would mean I was the one in pain. Not my most empathetic moment, but it did help crystalize something I needed to understand, both as a small child and throughout my life:
Life is not a buffet, even though we often yearn for things like it is one.
Here’s what I mean:
Envy Is Not a Nuanced Emotion
Anytime we are feeling jealous of someone because of something they have that we do not, we’re laser-focused on the single missing piece from our lives. Our life would be so much better if we could just have…
· a published novel
· a six-figure income
· an advanced degree
· a gorgeous spouse
· easygoing children
· an enormous house
· a 1978 convertible Porsche 911 in superman blue with a tan interior (wait, is this one just me?)
We see anyone who has these things and immediately put them on our mental nemesis list because they have the one thing (or half dozen things) we’re lacking.
But feeling envious of someone because they have a single thing (or even a laundry list of things) that you wish you had misses the greater context. They may have what you want, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happier, more fulfilled, or spending their commutes driving on winding mountain roads with the wind blowing through their hair.
We envy what we don’t have, and we mentally treat the missing piece as if it were something we could pick up on the buffet of life to add to our own experiences. Which means we end up resenting some poor schmoe for having something we don’t, even though they haven’t even fired up the ol’ 911 in months because they’re going through a contentious divorce.
Envy ends up painting with a broad brush, when the details make all the difference.
Mentally Switch Places to Provide Context
My early experiences with wanting to literally become my big sister inadvertently gave me an excellent strategy for combatting envy. I spent all of my time mentally switching places with my sister because she seemed to have an infinitely cooler life than I did. Since I wanted everything about her life, I took the time to think about how that everything would look on me.
But the day she smashed her hand in the car door reminded me that switching places would get me the bad as well as the good. Prior to that day, it had never occurred to me that there was much bad stuff, but seeing her pain helped me realize there were some good things about being me (even if it was just not having a flattened fingernail).
So anytime I’m finding myself feeling envious of something another person has, I start thinking about what it would mean to actually switch places with them. If I had the opportunity to do an actual body swap (which occurs far less often in my adulthood than movies and books from my childhood led me to believe), would I take it?
Here’s why this works: when you’re feeling envious or resentful because someone else is achieving or receiving more than you, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. You’re thinking of their life in terms of the one thing you’re lacking—but you can’t switch out the single aspect of that person’s life with your own. So would you really prefer to have all of the other person’s problems, weaknesses, and tribulations just because of the one thing they have that you don’t?
And furthermore, mentally switching places with the object of your envy can help you recognize what’s in your life that you would miss if you became the other person. There’s some stuff that you probably love about your life that you often forget to appreciate when you’re burning with envy over something.
Identify the Story You’re Telling Yourself
Buffet-thinking is as prevalent and tempting as it is because of how it helps us craft a story about our lives. We are always trying to make sense of the world and our place in it through storytelling, but those stories are not necessarily reflective of reality.
For instance, maybe you told yourself that Sheila got the promotion because she kissed up to the boss or that Mom gave an heirloom to another sibling because she always loved them best. In thinking that life is like a buffet, we can tell ourselves that we’re missing the one item we want because of things that are outside of our control or because people don’t appreciate us or because others are willing to do things we find repugnant. In a perfect world, we should have been able to access that missing buffet item while being exactly who we are without making any changes.
But many of the stories we tell ourselves are based on assumptions rather than facts—and these stories often reinforce our sense of resentment without in any way forcing us to examine our own actions, motives, reactions, or beliefs.
This is why shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown suggests in her book Rising Strong that you should complete the sentence, “The story I’m making up is…” whenever you find yourself feeling envious or resentful. Recognizing that you are making up a story can often be enough for you to realize what assumptions are at the root of the story you’re telling yourself. That can help spur you to do some self-reflection and let go of the envy you may be feeling toward those who have something you lack.
Understanding that you are telling yourself a story by thinking your life would be complete with the single item you are missing can give you back the nuance you need. That nuance can help you remember how much you love about your life as it is and help you recognize that those with more aren’t necessarily happier, more successful, or more satisfied.
Spend Your Time Being You
It’s become a cliché to falsely quote Oscar Wilde, who never actually said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” But as much I hate to jump on a misquoting Internet meme bandwagon, there’s some excellent advice within this made-up quotation.
We spend a great deal of our time wishing to have the things that other people have. We nearly vibrate with the intensity of our longing for things that belong to someone else, as if we could have simply scooped up the best-selling novel/model-handsome husband/beachfront house/highly-compensated work if we’d arrived at the life buffet at exactly the right time.
But even if you could trade places with the object of your envy, or swap out the missing ingredient from their life to yours, that life wouldn’t be yours and the missing item wouldn’t be yours.
Anything other than doing the work yourself to make your life reflect your values, wants, and needs, would be a life that doesn’t fit you. Only you can create the life you want that reflects your own love, history, struggle, work, support system, belief system, and preference for a rear-engined sports car.
Just be careful of your hands when you’re closing those car doors.