|As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, August 14, 2008.
There will always be someone who has more than you;
Here’s how to get over it
summers ago, my husband and I visited a friend in Florida. He lived in
an impressive house in a gated community; but I was really taken with
the guesthouse we stayed in. Its 20-foot ceilings made it feel
palatial. The shower room (it would be inaccurate to call it a stall)
was beautifully lit with natural sunlight from one full wall of
translucent glass blocks. And, the painstakingly landscaped pool was
just outside our front door. I was ready to move in—forever.
Really, what more could I want? Well, our host apparently did not feel
the same way. Our first evening there, he took us for a drive in his
Mercedes convertible to show us the street where “the rich people”
no matter how well you are doing, there is always someone, somewhere
who is doing better. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves
to the Joneses; especially when they have so much of what we want. and
seem to occupy every other house on the block. And how is it that every
one else’s house or car or boat is better than what we have? If you’re
often disheartened by others’ success, you can change how you feel.
am not referring to disingenuous self-talk like: Money doesn’t matter
(which is clearly a lie); or, Yeah, he makes a lot of money, but he’s
so superficial (which just screams jealousy).
Consider instead the advice offered by Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness.
Pulling together information from several sources, she suggests three
effective steps for curbing our tendencies to harp on social
comparisons. I’ve seen, first hand, how well this advice can work.
The first step is to stop ogling what everyone else has. There are many
ways to do this, but the trick is to find what works for you.
simple, effective method is to distract yourself with something you
enjoy. It’s hard to be upset about having less than your neighbor while
you are laughing at your favorite Marx Brothers bit—the two emotions
just don’t co-exist well.
my patients can’t stop ruminating, I often teach them the “Stop”
technique. This involves responding by saying or shouting “Stop” to
yourself. If you are around others, I would suggest doing this within
your head rather than aloud—unless you want a little extra space. Heighten the effect by picturing a stop sign in your mind’s eye.
Try it now—really,
go ahead. Note how everything stops for just a moment. At this moment,
redirect your thinking so that you don’t fall back into your
ruminations. You can think about that Marx brother’s routine, your
husband’s smile, or just focus on whatever is happening in the moment.
With practice, this technique stops your runaway thoughts in their
your thoughts can help you gain some relief and a new perspective. One
way to do this is by talking with someone you trust. Another way is to
journal; something I’ve seen many people benefit from.
might also try letting go of your jealousy by looking at your situation
from a distance; project what you will think and feel in the future.
What will matter in a year, or better yet, in 150 years, when no one
around you will be alive? I have found that people’s values almost
always become clearer when they consider what will be most important on
their deathbed. If you have to choose between a new Jaguar and spending
quality time with your family, which choice do you think will leave you
with greater satisfaction in those final moments of life?
none of these methods works, allott yourself thirty minutes a day to
stress over how you are doing compared to other people; but worry only then.
If you begin to worry at other times, remind yourself to hold off until
your assigned time. You might need to use the “Stop” technique to
interrupt your ruminating long enough to remind yourself of this. By
removing social comparisons from your regular flow of thoughts, you
will, over time, ruminate less.
This next step is more straightforward. It assumes that unsolved
problems—such as a bad marriage or troubles at work—might be fueling
your negative assessments of yourself. So, make note of issues that you
need to resolve. Then pick one to work on.
by identifying steps you can take toward solving your problem—this by
itself can be an encouraging step. If the problem is complicated or
particularly thorny, you might need to do some research or brainstorm
with someone you trust. Just calling a marriage counselor for
information or checking out Monster.com can truly make you feel more
hopeful. Also, try asking yourself what someone you respect might do.
you have a plan, act on it right away. If you feel stuck or
unmotivated, perhaps you need to add a smaller first step. In the
beginning, your most important goal is just to get moving.
Identify and avoid triggers.
Think about you who are with when you stress over how you compare to
others. Where are you when this happens? Although easier said than
done, your goal is to avoid or modify situations that start you
worrying about how you measure up.
addition to creating these external changes, work on developing your
sense of self-worth. Make a conscious effort to give yourself
credit for your strengths and find ways to use them. If you are aware
of particular weaknesses that you want to overcome, then set up a plan
to do just that. In either case, do things that you enjoy and that make
you feel good about yourself. Whether this means cooking sumptuous
meals or learning sculpture, you will be less likely to think about the
Joneses if you are happy with what you are doing.
have treated a number of women whose children attend expensive, private
schools. The wealth that surrounds them is implicit in most social
interactions, and many of them feel like they don’t fit in (either
because they don’t have the same level of wealth or they just don’t
feel comfortable in those circles). By focusing on the ways they didn’t
fit in, they intensified their concerns. However, as we worked on them
focusing more on the things that make them feel good, they began to
worry less about their relationships with those women. Instead, they
gravitated toward people and situations that validated the positives
they had to offer.
consider learning to meditate. By helping you to separate yourself from
your thoughts, meditation provides a way to maintain a more objective
perspective; thus, you are less likely to get caught up in how you
compare with others. Research has also confirmed that meditating can
help you worry less and give you a sense of well-being.
breaking free from the urge to compare yourself with others, you can
pay better attention to your own standards. In doing this, you can find
happiness and satisfaction in the Hyundai or BMW that you drive; in the
Target or Bloomingdale’s clothes that you slip on; and in the family
that is yours. And, if you find yourself envying someone else’s house,
reread this column so you can return to appreciating the cottage—or
estate—that you call home.
Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly
editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and
Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ