Help me vanquish my green-eyed monster!
March 11, 2014 10:59 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop feeling envy about my friends' successes?

One of the things that I consistently find least admirable about about myself is my capacity for envy. While this has been something that I have always recognized in myself, I feel like it has probably intensified over the past couple of years as I have been increasingly unhappy about my own situation and the choices I made that created it (more here). Many of my friends now are in situations that I consider very enviable in various respects, especially compared to my own.

A good example of this (and what has directly precipitated this AskMe) is something that happened last night. I had dinner with a friend of mine who is also a PhD student (in a very employable field, unlike mine). He mentioned that everything is going really well for him: he has recently had multiple journal articles accepted for publication, he may have a job offer at a major research university, and he's on track to submit his dissertation by this summer (a year ahead of most). (I, on the other hand, am having a huge amount of dissertation stress, am running out of funding this summer and all my recent final-year funding applications have been unsuccessful, and I am having serious doubts about wonder whether I will be able to finish and submit ever; I also am struggling with getting my *very first* journal article into publishable form, and no longer want an academic job anyway.) Even further, this friend met someone fairly randomly a few months ago, they turned out to have an uncanny amount in common, a really wonderful communication dynamic, and are now in a serious relationship and are talking about marriage. You need to trust me that knowing him and the type of personality he has (INTJ), I have no doubt that this will happen: he is very clear-headed and not prone to fits of romanticized fancy or emotional pendulum swings based around soulmates, and if they think they are a good match and are thinking about marriage, they really are. He has never dated or been in a relationship before, and seems through serendipity (his word) to have on his very first try fallen into the exact thing that he (and I) would most have desired. I have various other friends like this - friends who have had an enjoyable and stress-free PhD with lots of time for extracurriculars and plans to submit on time; friends who have been readily offered (some without even asking!) lots of stipend and grant funding; friends with rich and generous parents who have no financial worries during their PhD; friends whose grandparents gave them a condo or a car or a continuing allowance; friends who don't work out or diet and still don't struggle with how their body looks and seem to look effortlessly thin and beautiful; non-academia friends who fell into a lucrative and satisfying career; friends who made the right choice the first time around, went to med school, and are now in residency and about to have awesome employment; friends who have randomly met someone who was an excellent fit (the first time they dated anyone!), and got married less than a year later and are - as far as I can see - blissfully happy; etc. Many of my friends are multiple of these things.

For me, the past few years, and really my whole life, has been a long slog. I have long felt like the prodigal son's older brother. I have painfully clawed my way up for many many years to get where I am, and have sacrificed so much that I value to do it. Even putting in 110%, I feel I am barely performing adequately (broke, barely managing to look reasonably attractive (maybe), struggling with my PhD, no article publications yet, etc.). On paper perhaps I look good, but nothing good seems to happen easily for me. Everything I have ever gotten - stipends, grants, etc. - has been through sheer force of me throwing myself at it enough times, at great personal pain. Many of my friends, by contrast, really seem to lead lives that are charmed in at least one respect, and often many. Spending time with these friends makes me feel horrible and deeply envious (and I'm at one of the top universities, so pretty much all of my friends are like this - golden people who are seemingly effortlessly accomplished). I came home from this lovely dinner with my lovely friend and cried for a while, and still feel miserable about it. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I left Facebook was that I realized that I invariably felt horrible after spending time on it looking at my friends' boyfriends, husbands, graduation ceremonies, jobs, vacations, presents, babies, etc. I was tired of that familiar tightness in my stomach and fevered rush as I would flick through friends' wedding albums, so I just decided not to do Facebook anymore. This made my life somewhat better, but obviously you can't just quit social life like you can quit Facebook (nor would I want to).

I want to make clear that these friends are wonderful people who deserve every good thing that comes their way (to the extent that anyone "deserves" good fortune). The problem here really is with me. I don't want to cut off any of my friendships. My friends really are great people - moral, intelligent, hard-working, witty, fun to be with, successful, beautiful - and I am proud to have them as friends. I don't want to be envious, unhappy, bitter or resentful; basically, I don't want to be the sort of person I'm describing myself to be above. I love my friends and I want to want to rejoice in their successes with them. How do I do this?
posted by ClaireBear to Human Relations (23 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Mudita is the Buddhist concept of vicarious joy.

Researching and practicing this might help you, irrespective of your belief in any of the religious teachings around the concept.
posted by bilabial at 11:07 AM on March 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think there are a lot of ways round this that boil down to you Being The Change, ie making your life a happier place to be so that you don't envy others as much, not to mention finding happiness in other people's happiness.

But here is my sneaky hack.

Picture yourself, vividly, in a future where you have experienced one or several successes. Your work is exhilarating, you're in a passionate and fulfilling relationship, and you are financially secure.

Now, how will you enjoy all this if you haven't celebrated your friends/peers successes with them in the past?

What I mean is - picture future-you, with all this success, but every time you want to tell people about it you can't, because you feel guilty for the times you resented them their success, and this also makes you paranoid that they resent you too, and you worry that sharing with them will make them feel bitter the way you felt bitter. And so you miss out on the lovely experience of doing the squealy-jumpy-woopy moment with your friends about this Cool Thing That's Happening, because you weren't able to do it with them.

Ok, now the only way to avoid that horrid situation is to celebrate every success with them, and you have to do it genuinely, and you have to mean it more each time.

I mean, I feel kind of embarrassed admitting that I have had to do this, but I went through the longest time of being the ugly duckling in my friend group. Now that I am experiencing my own success, I am grateful beyond measure that I controlled my envy, found joy in their joy, and celebrated them at every chance I got, as it has both enabled me to enjoy my success more profoundly and built some beautiful friendships.
posted by greenish at 11:15 AM on March 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Since we seem to be starting off on a Buddhist foot, you can only be where and when you are right now and comparing that to something you imagine just causes suffering. You really can't know what pains and sorrows your friend has; of course his situation looks good to you -- you only see the good stuff.

There is a story about a farmer who is very poor, and his family's only advantage is a horse. One day the horse escapes, and the farmer's neighbors are "oh, what a disaster!" And the farmer says "we'll see." Two days later, the horse returns home, followed by several wild horses. The neighbors say "what good fortune!" The farmer says "we'll see." Then the farmer's son is thrown by one of the new horses and breaks his leg. The neighbors say "What a disaster!" The farmer says "we'll see." The next day, men come from the army and round up all the young men in the village as conscripts, but the farmer's son is exempted because of his injury....

So comparing yourself and other people, today to tomorrow or yesterday, and any of that and saying "this is better and this is worse" just makes life difficult. Try and focus on what you need to get done and do it rather than imagining what it will be like. You will get more done and feel better about it than if you keep comparing.

When I remember to do this, it works pretty well for me.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:18 AM on March 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

One of the things people talk about with Facebook is realizing that one is comparing "how one feels inside with what people are presenting outside (posting to FB)". The same thing is sort of at work here - you see all the good fortune for your friends and compare it to how you feel like it's been a slog.

I have Never met someone who didn't feel like life (or, Especially) grad school is HARD. Even the people who were given a condo struggle with their weight, the ones who are looking at great employment ahead and good love life are struggling with a fear of flubbing it. Even when things are pretty objectively going great all around, just making a healthy dinner or getting enough sleep can feel like a ridiculously steep mountain climb sometimes.

So one way to rejoice in your friends' successes is to realize that most of them are hard-earned, even when they look like they were easy. Focus on how much you like (or even love!) that person and how much you want their life to be successful. Don't compare in that moment.

Then! And this is important. Later, when you find yourself thinking about their success and comparing it to your own, Stop thinking about them. Instead focus on where you are now (prestigious university!) and where you'd like to be (blessedly non-academic job). That has nothing to do with anyone but you. If that stresses you out, think about something simpler, like what you're going to do about self-care today. Focus on yourself and your own trajectory and compare it to no others.

By doing this you can begin to realize that others' successes have Nothing to do with yours. Define your own success, and that will allow you to uncomplicatedly celebrate theirs.
posted by ldthomps at 11:20 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Meaning and satisfaction in life come from overcoming your own struggles. They don't come from looking good compared to other people.

I've had the good fortune in life of winning a couple of "competitions" -- basically doing things that are cut-and-dry successes. I've learned a couple of things from this. One, relative success mainly serves as a shield from external and internal criticism, it's not that rewarding in and of itself. Two, there are always things to feel bad about. If you are the 10th best person in the world at something, you're probably going to pay a lot more attention to the 9 people who are better than you than to the 7 billion who aren't.

To me, this means that happiness is about the process of improving your lot and overcoming the obstacles in your way. Yeah, external validation is important -- it will be satisfying to publish an article, get your PhD, get married, etc etc. But if you focus purely on these external signs of success, you'll always be unhappy. Your article could have been published in a more prestigious journal. Or it could have had a bigger impact on your field. Or it could have had a bigger impact on society. And you'll always be able to look around and find somebody you know who seems to have something that you don't have. This is a recipe for eternal misery.

You have to accept your lot in life. If something is difficult to do, it's all the more meaningful when you finally manage to accomplish it. If it was easy for you, it would be much less satisfying. Other people have different lots in life. They may have more money in the family, parents who were better at directing their interests, more outgoing personality types, better connections and role models, better luck. Or, you know, they could have less money, abusive parents, suffer from illnesses and disorders, have even worse luck. You can't control these things, so why treat them as the ultimate measures of success? Focus on what you can control and do the best you can.
posted by leopard at 11:21 AM on March 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

A snippet from a Dear Sugar article that seems like it might be a good read for you.

"There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you. Your letter is evidence that it has already begun to do so. It has depleted your happiness, distracted you from your real work, and turned you into a crappy friend."

Full article. It's about a writer who is jealous of friends who are published. So not exactly your position but I feel like a lot of the sentiment is the same.

We all struggle with jealousy at times. I think you need to do a few things. Go easy on yourself while realizing you really don't have it all that bad.

One more thing - those couples who seem "blissfully happy" may very well be as happy as they appear to you. My guess is that they have their own struggles. Realizing that everyone has their own struggles and some are more obvious than others may help you on your way.
posted by morganannie at 11:35 AM on March 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that we often don't know what private sorrows people are carrying. There are plenty of people whom I thought had near-perfect lives, but as I've gotten to know them, I've learned that there are many hardships they have not shared with others. I'm a fairly private person myself, so I know there are things about me that other people would be surprised about--I do have a good life, but it's not perfect by a long shot, and this is the way it is for most people.

It might help you to remember this part of what you said: "On paper perhaps I look good." To other people, your life probably seems very enviable too, because all they know is that you are intelligent and you are on your way to earning a PhD in a subject you love and are passionate about. To someone who wanted to pursue higher education but wasn't able to because of life circumstances and is now stuck in an unfulfilling job, your life is enviable. They don't know you are filled with doubt and that you're worried about money and academic success. To them, you already look successful.

What I'm trying to say is that even though your friends are enjoying successes in their academic careers and their love lives, you actually don't know everything that's going on with them, either. I'm not saying your friend with the new relationship isn't happy; it's just that with a little reframing, his life might have seemed kind of sad a few months ago. I mean, he's probably, what, at least in his mid-20s, and this is the first relationship he's ever been in? It does not actually sound like this came to him very easily at all. Maybe he felt like a total loser at life as well, before he met this person.

Also recognize that grad school is terribly stressful, and this is magnifying everything. I say this with kindness, because I am prone to it too in times of stress, but I think you are catastrophizing a bit. Is there anyone you can talk to? It sounds like you could use a neutral sounding board like a counsellor.

You sound like a nice person who genuinely wants to be happy for her friends, and that is a very good first step. I hope you're able to feel better--about everything--soon.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:36 AM on March 11, 2014 [18 favorites]

You seem to be focused on outwardly visible status symbols and how easy or difficult it is for different people to acquire them. The way you describe it is like you see your friends moving ahead of you on a game of Chutes and Ladders, where they're landing on all the ladders. But what is the goal you are all moving towards?

Is it happiness (where happiness equals finally, really filling whatever that aching hole is deep down)? I know I've thought it before: when I graduate I'll be happy, or when I'm married I'll be happy. But before you got into the prestigious university, were you saying, when I get into the prestigious university, I'll be happy? When I finish the PhD, I'll be happy? And yet here you are at the prestigious university, almost done with the PhD, full of angst. Checking off boxes on a bucket list doesn't get anyone any closer to that kind of lasting happiness. It's not the last square of the game board; it's in a different dimension altogether.

If the ultimate goal is a satisfying life full of loving relationships and meaningful opportunities to improve the world, are your friends really moving toward that any faster than you are by getting their PhD's or getting married? There are plenty of people without a PhD, without a marriage, without any of the other things you listed, who are nonetheless fulfilled and content. Working directly on that inner ache, whether it shows up as depression, anxiety, jealousy, and whether you treat it with medication, meditation, therapy, exercise...that is the best bet for realizing that the status symbol stuff is irrelevant to whether life feels fulfilling.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:53 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

For most of my life I struggled -- and still struggle, though to a lesser degree -- with feelings of intense envy.

Everyone in my extended family does better than me.

I really mean it, just better. Each one of my many first cousins earned graduate, professional or doctoral degrees. I haven't. (For many reasons, including my disability, further education seems impossible for now, even though I do want to pursue eventually.) All of them have excellent jobs that pay very, very well. They have great relationships with their spouses and parents.

Also, my parents were abusive. They actively prevented me from having a social life. I never had the freedom to do things. So throughout my adolescence I, a helpless spectator, sat behind glass walls, watching my cousins, and eventually friends and others, enjoy riches and fruits of their achievements. While they had "perfect" lives I had to, as you say, claw my way at the smallest of successes. Even their problems, if I could admit to myself that they were capable of having problems weren't as bad as mine.

To me, this seemed like the only logical conclusion. My life sucked. Everyone else's was great. I'd never catch up.

In all fairness to myself, for two decades I had to live through constant comparisons. My parents made them. My aunts and uncles made them. And, as if the personal comparisons weren't enough, each time my family attended a reunion THING my family put me down as a way of elevating themselves. Being a part of those things was so traumatizing I threatened to cut my parents off if they tried to keep making me go.

So yeah, I struggled with severe feelings of inadequacy. Therapy helped. I could be doing better, but it's not as bad off as it once was.

I'm still really far "behind". I still feel like everyone is better -- as you've said -- "on paper" than I am. I'm poorer, less educated, less accomplished, less popular. But I've improved a lot since I left my parents four years ago. Here are some things that helped.

1. Make friends outside your academic circle. Do it. Perspective is the best thing ever. When I went to college I found people who came from completely different backgrounds. I didn't know how to compare myself with them. We all live in bubbles without realizing it. Expand yours.

No wonder you feel under constant pressure if you're always hanging out with other doctoral candidates.

2. Just be nice to yourself. Do really cool things on your own. Watch movies, read books, go hiking, go traveling. Even if you're busy try pampering yourself. Massages!

Sometimes focusing inward (positively) helps. Help yourself. Be happy, even if only in the short term, because you've treated yourself.

3. It seems to help others, from reading the responses, to imagine that everyone else has problems too. I wasn't able to do this for the longest time. I simply didn't have the perspective. So I volunteered. I became a doula. Apparently working with animals also helps.

4. Lastly, and this feels weird to admit, but every time I feel absolutely hopeless, I make lists. Everything I want to do, everything I have done, of all the friends I have, of all the ideas I have, of all the things I've read. And I look at them and I think, "Huh, lots of stuff here. Maybe I've done something with my life."
posted by orangutan at 11:54 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've gone through periods of intense envy. It was usually because I needed to make a life change that I was postponing out of fear.

When I was in an unsatisfying relationship and was dreading breaking up, I was envious of happily-married friends. When I was in a job where I didn't get along with my manager, I was envious of people who took jobs that I turned down, imagining that they led comfortable peaceful work lives.

Often, when I finally took the excruciating step of ending my difficult situation, the envy went away.

From your question history, it sounds like you need to quit your PhD program. You hate it. Why stick it out for another year? I'm guessing that the thought of quitting your PhD fills you with intense anxiety. The purpose of the envy is to prevent you from having to deal with that anxiety. Well, what if you actually quit next month? Can you start applying for jobs now? Put the word out to people that you're going to stop academia and go into industry. Apply for 50 jobs and see whether you get any interviews. Have friends do mock interviews with you.

Plan to tell your friends and family next week that you're quitting your PhD. Probably the thought of the social questions also makes you anxious. Start with telling a confidant. Figure out what people might ask, and come up with firm replies.

Once you do this, the envy will likely go away.
posted by cheesecake at 12:03 PM on March 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

I can somewhat relate to this, and I could relate to it a lot more in the past, so I have some advice. It's going to be a lot less Buddhist than other people's advice, but it always works for me, so here I go:

1) You have to find at least one thing about yourself that you find superior to that of anyone else you know. More than one is okay too. But at least one. It can be small. It can be stupid. It can be completely ridiculous. It can be mean-spirited. It can be embarrassing to even think about, because you're not going to talk about it. You're just going to think about it, quietly and smugly, when you get in an envious mood. It can be physical, mental, emotional, anything. Everyone has one thing. Find yours. Mine's my boobs and my excel skills. I know. I said it can be stupid. But when I feel "damn, [friend] is doing better than me," "damn, why is [friend] so much prettier than I am" I think, yeah, but my boobs are completely fantastic and look at this pivot table. It's dumb. It's embarrassing. I just admitted it on the internet. But it helps.

2) You need to look at yourself through a more distant context. Don't compare yourself to other people in your fancy PhD program. Compare yourself to mean girls you went to middle school with, who have 6 kids by different dads and live in trailers. Or something. You're doing better than a lot of people. Look at the bigger picture. You're getting a PhD. That's great! I couldn't get a PhD! Most people can't get into a PhD program! You're doing so much better than most people who are alive. Think about that instead of comparing yourself to a tiny subset of the population. This is so important. I used to do the same thing. I still do sometimes. I find it helps to have a few things you have achieved that you are proud of, and recite them (in your head. not out loud) when you feel this way. Like "I am getting a PhD in ____, I have accomplished ____," etc. Mine is "I am a grownup who lives alone in Manhattan and I have a masters degree." I say that in my head so much. I can't believe I'm admitting it. But it's so helpful.
posted by millipede at 12:20 PM on March 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

For me, envy is the desire to have a reward without paying the costs for it.

I want the happy marriage, but I don't want to go on a bunch of terrible first-dates. I want a high-paying fulfilling job, but I don't want to go through 50 embarrassing interviews. When you see your friends do it "effortlessly", you imagine that they found a way to get the reward just by snapping their fingers.

It's actually true that some people easily get things that others have to work really hard for. Some people have parents who teach them and send them to prep school and they easily get into a top college, whereas others have parents that belittle them and refuse to pay for school and give them no role models or help. It's so much harder for the latter people to get to the same place (college in this example). But sometimes overcoming that adversity actually benefits them. The people who "had it easy" were on a slower trajectory, whereas the people who overcame adversity are on a faster trajectory. 20 years later, the silver-spoon graduate kept muddling along and is just punching the clock at some job, but the persevered-through-poverty tough cookie kept applying resilience and is now Oprah. 20 years later, the "love at first sight" couple kept going along and never learned communication skills and are now divorced, and the "unlucky in love" person who went through years of therapy and self-improvement works hard every day on their marriage and is still maintaining a strong bond.

Also, you might find this book useful: So Good They Can't Ignore You.
posted by cheesecake at 12:34 PM on March 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

For further inquiry into Mudita, referenced above, aka sympathetic joy, here's a link to a talk by a teacher with whom I've sat, on cultivating it.

Part I

Part II

I can attest that this teacher is a great example of what he teaches.
posted by janey47 at 12:42 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

One time a friend commented to me that, from my facebook posts, it seemed I had just had a wonderful and care-free weekend visiting friends and eating out. I laughed, because - while I did visit friends and eat out - it was far from a perfect weekend. But no way was I going to post on facebook "I wish to god I had not eaten that burrito from the vendor truck before getting on the train."

In truth, all of your friends have secret lives you know nothing about. That could involve anything from an abusive upbringing to a humiliating yet obsessive interest in nose-picking. But if they are truly sailing through, it cannot last. No matter how charmed anyone's life is, there will be struggle. You may never see it.

It sounds like you have worked hard to get where you are. That's something you should be very proud of. Perhaps some of your friends wonder "If I hadn't had all of these advantages, would I have had the grit and drive that ClaireBear does?" Perhaps they aren't sure. Perhaps it keeps them up at night. You'll never know.

Here's another fable for you: The Sorrow Tree.
posted by bunderful at 1:56 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

$100 says those same friends make similar posts on places like MeFi with content such as "Everything should be good -- why am I so depressed?" and "My life seems great, but since i Lost my dad five years ago I feel like I'm faking it."

Point being: We all share our best side by nature. It might be hard for you to believe, but I guarantee these friends aren't as blissful as you imagine.

In terms of envy... It's not something that comes natural to not be envious.
posted by jjmoney at 2:02 PM on March 11, 2014

Nth-ing all the comments about your friends having struggles you probably don't know anything about. We all edit and package our images when dealing with others. It's human nature and it has been made worse by Facebook, etc., which encourage us to share our highlights and then compare our inner world with the manufactured images of others. Keeping that in mind helps put things in perspective for me 85% of the time.

But, for the other 15%, the part that I think of as the "real" envy, I try to look at it as a roadmap to what I really want, especially if it takes me by surprise. Someone once told me that if you see someone getting the things that you're not getting, it's probably because they are doing at least some of the things that you're not willing to do. (They might have been quoting Dr. Phil, but I try not to hold that against the advice.) Whenever I find myself really chewed up by something, it helps to take a serious look at whatever that person "has" and figure out what concrete steps I can take towards getting it myself. Sometimes I don't reach the goal anyway, and other times I decide that I am not willing to pay the price, but either way, I always benefit from the analysis and the decision.
posted by rpfields at 2:12 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

As other people have said above, grad school is really, really hard, and it is almost definitely true that unless they actually have fairy godmothers who bestow funding and publications with magic wands, your friends are not finding it as easy as they say they do. It is fundamentally true that grad school is a rigged and unfair system and some people do better on the job market not because they're better than their peers but because their topic is hot at the moment or there's an opening for which their work is a weird and specific fit. But that doesn't mean the rest of us (yeah, us) aren't good, or even great, at what we do, and it doesn't mean those very successful people haven't worked extremely hard to get there.

I have friends who are like this, and I know that to some of my friends I must look like this, but the reality is that people just have different ways of dealing with the difficulty of being an academic- that doesn't mean it goes away. I got an email at midnight last night telling me that I wasn't getting a fellowship I had high hopes for, and it sucks. And I am going to dinner tonight with a grad student friend, and I am probably not going to talk about it, and she will probably not ever know that I am disappointed about it, even though she's one of my closest friends, but that doesn't mean it didn't hurt. Instead, I am going to talk about how I'm nearly done revising this chapter! and getting excited for a conference at the end of the month! and internet dating is stupid but hilarious!I will focus on those things, instead of dwelling on the hard thing. Remember that even your blessed-seeming grad student friends are probably dealing with loads of rejection and frustration and straight up hard work all the time.

In short, grad school is hard, and it seems like you're adding to that by beating yourself up. Try to focus instead on what you have achieved, and how well you have done. And this is probably not really specific to grad school, either; you've probably had happy relationships and wonderful friendships and really enjoyed many people in your life. Just because you're not currently dating anyone doesn't mean your previous romantic adventures weren't good or valuable!
posted by dizziest at 2:56 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Previously, previously.

What I've said in these threads:

No matter what you do in your life, the rest of the people in the world are still going to exist. Your friend and everyone you've ever met are going to have the same talents and successes and failures and strengths and weaknesses no matter what you do or what your connection is to them (with the exception of situations where you play a role in those successes/failures/whatever). So, once we've taken note of this point, why would you think you'd be better off not having these people in your life?

For instance, I have a friend who went to Yale Law School, widely considered the best law school in the US. I went to law school but could never have gotten into Yale. Is that worth me spending one second of my life feeling jealous about? Of course not, because after all, no matter who my friends are, Yale Law School is going to have a couple hundred new law students, year after year after year. Why does it matter that one of them is this friend of mine? I should only feel good about the fact that I know the outstanding people I know.
posted by John Cohen at 4:20 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm like you, I've struggled with this my entire life and still do. I've read the previous threads that John Cohen linked to (and just noticed that I've favorited his comment before! Thanks, it's helped!) which have helped me stamp the feeling out when I notice myself doing it. It was particularly bad in my 20s when I was trying to "be somebody," but even now that I'm in my 40s, living a good life by any standard, I still notice myself doing it from time to time.

I quit Facebook for the same reasons as you. I couldn't stand it. Facebook brought out the worst in me, and it was just awful. I don't think you should feel bad at all for quitting it. If my friends, the people who matter, want to contact me for whatever reason, they know where I am and vice versa. And if they can't be bothered to keep in touch, well, too bad, but I can live with that.

I don't have any constructive advice for you, but I'd just like to say that I know how you feel, I think you were brave to admit that you grapple with it, and that I too am working on being a better person in this regard. Good luck to you.
posted by misozaki at 5:33 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the few things that I remember from all of the self-help books I've read is this idea: Jealousy is a valuable tool - when you examine it, it can point you towards what you want. Jealousy can lead us towards necessary action.

Sometimes the root is not immediately obvious. I might get jealous when a friend publishes a book but when it comes down to it I don't want to write a book myself. Perhaps I just want the acknowledgement that comes with publication - I work hard too, just not in a field where the fruits of my labor will be made public under my name. So then I can think about what I can do that might help me get some of the acknowledgement that I want. Or perhaps I recognize my yearning for professional acknowledgement and accept that it isn't going to happen in my current field, but when I count up all of the plusses of my career I decide I'm ok with that.

I think you would like your life to be not necessarily easier, but more aligned with your desires. Perhaps the thing you are most jealous of is that the people around you seem happy with their vocations, while you are unhappy. What would it take to point you in a direction that felt right for you?
posted by bunderful at 6:19 PM on March 11, 2014

I was talking about this recently with a friend! I think it's helpful to deeply internalize this idea: somebody else having something awesome doesn't diminish the amount of awesome that is possible in your own life. There is not a finite amount of cool stuff in the world, where if your friend has more than you, it means that you have to have less. It's easier to be happy with yourself and with the world if you realize that the success of others doesn't mean you have to lose.
posted by zoetrope at 7:25 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I’m sorry you’re feeling this way.. you really sound at your wits end, and I think your immediate distress and anxiety – your frustration with your program, with the paper, with the major life decisions you’re facing – might be shading your evaluation of your history and present circumstances.

If you’re asking, “Why me?”, or “why?”, these are completely natural questions to ask in challenging times. The answers to those kinds of questions can only be existential or religious, though. Lately, the answers I’ve come up with have been: “there’s no ultimate moral reason in particular, but plenty of proximal ones”, and “why not you? Other people have it worse”. Which is the sort of thing my mother used to say, which I used to find unhelpful, to say the least. “Yes, it’s very sad that so-and-so is seriously ill; yes, the earthquake was tragic – still, I still have my own life to face.” Now, I do find comfort in it. Not so much by way of downward comparison or gratitude, but more so in terms of – well, there just isn’t anything special protecting me from my troubles or worse - it’s all odds, really.

We have to work with what we’ve got, and there’s little fairness in terms of who gets what.

It sounds like you’ve done incredibly well with what you’ve got, which must include intelligence, passion, talent, and determination, and I’ve seen your kindness here on AskMe too. Those are wonderful gifts, and they’ll continue to serve you whatever you do next.

With that in mind, when I sometimes feel sorry for myself (which I do!), I try to move away from “why” and go to “how” – what were my odds, and what were the relevant proximal causes? And when I’ve answered those to my satisfaction, outcomes are much easier to accept and work with. I can then say and believe, “Sure, so-and-so is doing wonderfully, but I’ve done pretty damn well for myself, all things considered”, and can take myself out of comparison to others, and instead compare myself just to myself. And I’ve definitely seen progress in many areas, so I feel good about it.

So I would encourage you to review the dynamics of your circumstances with a cold eye. Just highlighting points you yourself have mentioned:

1) Everything I understand about your world suggests it’s characterized by intense competition for limited funding and resources, especially for certain subjects, including yours, I guess, and that it’s rigidly hierarchically structured, and heavily political. Anxiety and envy must be more normative than magnanimity. I really, really doubt it’s just you who feels what you’re feeling. If you’re at a top-top university hanging out with people who’ve hit upon the right subjects, you may see less evidence of this, but I bet if you spoke intimately with colleagues at other institutions, you’d more clearly see you’re not alone, as comments above suggest.

Perhaps reaching out to people who because of a similar background might understand your experience, who you suspect might feel the same way, might help validate your sense that it’s not just you. And sometimes, it’s just a relief to let these kinds of feelings out.

2) golden people who are seemingly effortlessly accomplished

usually come from wealth and benefit from material and social capital – including “effortless” beauty (lack of early stress; excellent health care and health-supporting lifestyle norms; the best products from early on), and a native understanding of the politics of the competitive world in which you live. The personal qualities that facilitate smooth navigation are inculcated if they weren’t apparent early on. (I’m not suggesting all and only wealthy people are necessarily attractive, conscientious, good-tempered, strong decision-makers, etc, - clearly there are some disasters - but they do benefit from cumulative advantage, at least, in most life domains. The people who don’t demonstrate these qualities wouldn’t be in your immediate environment.) Odds.

3) You’re so stressed that of course already hard things are going to feel extra hard right now! I hope you are able to find effective help in managing your stress – it sounds like you really need it :(

Also, as others say – life is long, and odds are even your golden friends will face unhappiness sooner or later, by way of divorce, or illness… Not that one would wish those on friends, but no one gets off without being touched by sadness sooner or later. And you don’t know for sure what people have in front of them now. (Facebook definitely isn’t real, people curate their profiles, and it’s good you’re staying away from it.)

It sounds like you have been fighting for a while, and maybe you need a break (maybe a little holiday?). Please take care of yourself these days.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:48 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like I am in a similar position to yours (lots of dissertation problems, friends who have fewer problems), yet surprisingly (to me), I am not jealous of my friends' success but happy for them.

Here is a question: do you talk to your successful friends about the problems you are having? When they ask, "how are you?", are you honest in your reply? I've found that when I talk honestly with my friends about the problems that I am going through, they are all very supportive of me. (And if they aren't, that is a sure sign that there is no need to invest time in them as friends.) And when I feel supported and loved by them, how on earth can I be anything but happy for them when they find success? Additionally, I know that their quicker advancement through their dissertations will only be helpful to me in that in the future, they will have gone through other experiences first, and I can ask for advice. I could imagine that it might be really frustrating to have conversations with them in which you don't talk about your problems/current state of affairs because you are worried they will judge you, but then you end up resenting your friends because you don't feel like they understand what is going on for you.

I also understand exactly why I'm having difficulty with my PhD (years of therapy), and frankly, I wouldn't wish my unpleasant life experiences leading up to this on anyone -- particularly not someone I would call a friend. This is helpful in terms of not being jealous of others, because it allows me to understand my own accomplishments (i.e. getting into a top PhD program is not the same for someone who never met someone with a PhD before I went to college, vs. friends who have two parents who are professors), and feel proud of them, rather than comparing myself to others who haven't had the same experiences. Sadly, life isn't "fair."

Additionally, it sounds like you're conflating your academic performance with your self-worth a bit, which is obviously a really easy thing to do in the hyper-competitive environment of academia. But I think if you could extricate the two -- easier said than done obviously -- you might be happier. That should also make it easier for you to feel more comfortable talking about the issues you are facing, if you aren't already.
posted by angelusnovus at 4:01 AM on April 7, 2014

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