Why can't I just be happy for her?
August 24, 2015 7:39 AM   Subscribe

How do you control jealousy when someone you love is doing very well and your life is just average?

My sister and her husband are very successful. They have an income of about quarter a million annually combined. They have no debt. They are both extremely good at what they do and I am so proud of them. They are humble, hard working and I love them.

My husband and I make about 70K a year. We have a little debt (we are taking care of it slowly), and we are overall okay, but I always had a nagging feeling that I could have become more successful professionally/financially, and I regret choosing a career path that wasn't super profitable.

My sister and I are both in our early 30s. My sister is really kind, considerate, generous (even when she had very little money), and even though I would never ask her, I know she would not even think twice about helping me financially if I ever needed it.

The money itself is not so much the problem. I mean, I know her kids will have a richer life than mine (private school, trips, etc.), and that makes me wish I had those things, but I think most of my negative feelings are because I equate financial success with success at life. I am reasonably happy with my career, but this income disparity has confirmed my fears that I might be kind of a loser and that I may have made the wrong decisions. We are both living in the US, but we are originally from a culture in which wealth = success = how valuable you are. I know our parents are very vocal about being proud of both of us, but I can't help feeling I failed them. The thing is my parents are also wealthy and successful so I feel a little like the black sheep.

My sister and I have always been really close and I feel terrible for having these feelings of jealousy. I know I should be happy for her, but I just can't focus on the good things in her life without thinking about how I don't have them. At the same time I feel like the life style differences will drive us apart and this really freaks me out.

How do you kill feelings of jealousy about the success of a loved one?
How can I learn to be proud and happy for my sister, without feeling like I failed at life?
How can I learn to live with the differences in our life styles, when she travels all around the world and experiences amazing things, and all I can do is go hiking to my local park?
posted by ADent to Human Relations (22 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The way I see it, your problem is not your sister. Your problem is that you equate wealth with success and that is what you must work on. Just Google "equate wealth with success"and you should find plenty of resources to help you understand where this comes from.
posted by Kwadeng at 8:10 AM on August 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Is there any reason you couldn't reskill to do what she does? Like right now?

I don't ask that as a suggestion to do that per se, but rather examine the answer to it. What are the specific reasons you don't immediately start down the path of making your life just like your sister's? Focus on the answer as an explanation of why your life is the way it is. There are three good possibilities:

1. You don't actually want her life, you like your life better than hers and it's a grass is greener situation.
2. You want to do what she does, but she had outside help along her path that is unavailable to you, which means the choice was never yours to begin with. No need to beat yourself up.
3. You do want her life and you can start working toward it. This means that your life situation is your continuing choice, and you can change it if you want.
posted by FakeFreyja at 8:12 AM on August 24, 2015 [36 favorites]

Best answer: Things that helped me in a similar situation with me & my brother. Well he wasn't as kind as your sister & my family were all to keen about rubbing in the fact he was successful & I wasn't.

This bit is going to sound stupid, but it helped me. I saw a quote from a Simpsons episode where Homer defines the difference between Jealousy & envy & realized what I (and you feel) is called Envy. Somehow, for me that flicked a switch in my head as I felt that jealousy was bad thing, only bad people felt jealous. Renaming it took some of it's power away. It's somehow OK to be Envious it becomes less a judgement about me as a bad person and more just a word to describe a perfectly understandable emotion. Someone has more of course you are envious, it's what you do with that emotion that is important.

I started to talk about how I felt, but in a light way. Man I love your new car, I'm so envious. Keeping your envy a secret gives it power, bring it out into the light. You can wish you had the same as someone else & not wish bad on them. Tell your sister your fears the lifestyle difference will drive you apart, let her know it's something you want to work on to make sure your relationship stays strong. Talk to her.

Also don't judge someones highlight reel with your lowlights. The strangest part was, after years of envy I finally got used to the idea that my life was what it was & I liked it, then my brother got addicted to drugs & pissed away his fancy life in a sea of addiction, domestic violence & lord knows what. In a 12 month period he went from well established wealthy business owner to living in a storage unit, with no member of his family willing to talk to him for the horrible toxic things he did trying to keep up his big shiny lifestyle. What your sister has is stuff, they could loose in a heartbeat, one medical emergency, one job restructuring, hell one "here try this it will make you feel good" at a party and it's all gone.

Oh if it makes you feel better for most of my adult life I got by on less than $25K a year in a good year 'd have been so full of nasty jealousy of you with your 70k a year & having your finances under control I couldn't have even talked to you because of how angry & jealous I would have been.
posted by wwax at 8:17 AM on August 24, 2015 [20 favorites]

Best answer: My advice is to adopt some goals and come up with a plan.

Either you or your husband change jobs or careers. Actively work to keep your marriage and children emotionally healthy. Make sure your kids are intellectually healthy, too!

Honestly? Both of those things will take so much of your energy, you won't have time to be jealous. Especially the raising your kids part :))

The answer is to change yourself, not try to be happy with less. You want more? Decide on a "healthy" version of more and go get it!!
posted by jbenben at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, girl, I feel you. My sister is marrying a multi-millionaire and I'm on track to make $23,000 this year. Also she's super beautiful and has an amazing career and travels all the time and has a Facebook feed straight out of Rich Kids of Instagram. Like, who even *knew* there were that many parties held on NYC rooftops where everybody dressed in white? I feel like she goes to one of those approximately once every five minutes.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

1. You can feel bad sometimes about your sister having more than you, but try not to feel bad about feeling bad. That's what the mindfulness people call the second-arrow of unhappiness - having a bad feeling, and then feeling bad about having a bad feeling. That's what leads to unhappiness spirals and real misery. You're allowed to feel jealous of your sister without it meaning that you're a bad person or that your life irredeemably sucks.

2. Having family members who are doing well is a huge safety net. It occurred to me recently that no matter what happens, because my sister has money, my parents will be taken care of in their old age. No matter what happens, we're not going to have to stick them in the cruddiest of cruddy nursing homes or feel like we can't afford medical care that they need. This is a huge, huge relief and it gives me freedom to pursue the life path I want without feeling like I'm shirking my own responsibilities. No matter how much I screw up, I will probably never be homeless. My little brother will never be homeless. This is a good, good thing.

3. Your regrets are your own. That's the hardest thing about this, because if your sister is serving as a mirror for you, you're never going to be fully happy for her if you're not happy with your own life. There's no easy solution - you just have to try your damnedest to live the life you want to live. It's pretty obvious from your earlier questions that you're suffering from depression, so until that goes away, this won't either. But I will testify on the other side of this that I recently bought a bridesmaid's dress for my sister's super-fancy wedding that I found at Goodwill and that cost $8, because that's where I am financially, and in some ways it sucks - but because I am pursuing my dreams pretty hard and making my own choices, in the end I know that even if I had the chance, I wouldn't swap my life for hers. Yes, I'd like to travel and have fancy clothes and go to parties, but I'd rather have all the time in the world to write and have my fiance instead of her fiance and my friends instead of her friends, as lovely as they are. It'd be ridiculous for me to wish for her money and parties and clothes but not the insanely hard work that her life requires, just as it'd be ridiculous for her to wish for my artsy freewheeling lifestyle without the relative poverty that's the price I pay for my independence, you know?

Anyway, good luck. I imagine this will come and go. It's totally, totally normal, and I hope you find your way to a better place with it. Hugs.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:24 AM on August 24, 2015 [33 favorites]

How do you kill feelings of jealousy about the success of a loved one?

It's important to really deeply understand that you and your sister are different people. You and your parents are different people. There are aspects of their lives that you admire, but there are probably aspects of who you are that they also feel jealous of. Think about freedoms that you have that they don't (eg a banker has swank business clothes, but also the responsibility to get up every morning at 7am, put on the suit and full makeup and heels, and go to the office) and the aspects of your lifestyle that you wouldn't change for anything (my crazy lovable bff who is late to everything and spends most of her time barefoot, who would probably never have spoken to me if I had money and designer clothes). It's totally okay to be envious of particular things they have or do, but try to keep it in perspective, and realize that those are pieces of a lifestyle that wouldn't necessarily be enviable top to bottom. Even if you're not playing the "rich daughter" role, it sounds like your family loves you and appreciates you for who you are. Maybe your sister is your professional role model, but maybe you're also her role model for something.

Part of wwax's suggestion about saying it out loud ("What a great dress, I'm so envious!") is about taking power away from that feeling, that once you say it, you're not stewing in it. Another aspect is that it can open up the conversation. You tell her you're envious of the way her kids get to go to trapeeze camp, and she says "Really? You've said things like that a few times, and I should probably tell you how much I love the way you and your kids ___, and I wish I could ___."
posted by aimedwander at 8:37 AM on August 24, 2015

Best answer: In my experience, it is hard to be happy for someone when they succeed when you feel that your worth is defined in relation to others, because them doing well means your doing worse. If you believe your worth is intrinsic and that you have the power to define success for yourself, then other people's journeys mean nothing about you, and you will find you do feel happy for them.

What i have come to call conditional self-worth has been a central theme in my therapy: the idea that I have value only if I achieve enough or do enough, and that if I fail, I lose validity, become a non-person, somehow cease to exist, or rather lose my right to exist. It is interesting to follow these fears. I realized I was desperately trying to avoid some moment where everyone would know I had failed. A newspaper headline, "local man's life deemed a failure", "seemed to have so much potential", etc. Why am I afraid of these things so much? Well, that was put into me. Insead of teaching me that I had value no matter what, my upbringing taught me that my value depended on what I could achieve. It has been hard work untangling this, but very rewarding. I have been able to feel happy for many of my peers while in the past I would have felt threatened by their success. Consider seeing a therapist.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:39 AM on August 24, 2015 [11 favorites]

Yeah, it's often hard to not be resentful. The only thing that helps me is to look for things that aren't great in their lives, like what aimedwander suggests. I have a friend who is disgustingly perfect. Her Christmas newsletters make me throw up. She's rich, and goes on these elaborate jetsetting trips to Europe every year. Her husband is perfect and supportive. She opened her own business, and it's wildly successful. Her kids are in college, and they make all As and do volunteer work rescuing puppies. And yet, her twin daughters both have a kidney condition which means they will probably lose their kidneys in their 30s or 40s. My friend has spent their entire lives researching and advocating for new treatments. And, she was just diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer, which is never fun. So while she's doing all these amazing things, she's also tired and terrified for her daughters' well-being. Nobody's life is completely perfect, ever.
posted by Melismata at 8:58 AM on August 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's a book about this topic called "I'm Happy for You (Sort Of...Not Really): Finding Contentment in a Culture of Comparison" by Kay Wills Wyma.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:04 AM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Envy between siblings is perfectly normal, and it may have even been, unintentionally, encouraged by your parents. I'm in agreement with most of the advice above, but I do want to mark one point of dissent.

I understand how talking about your envy can discharge it, but I would encourage you to discuss this, if you do, with people *other* than your sister. She sounds like a good and kind person, and I think being open about this with her could damage your relationship without doing anything to solve the issue. She might begin to feel defensive or guilty, and it could create a barrier between you. So, talk about your envy to remove its power (along with thinking about what it can teach you about what you value), but don't necessarily talk to her about it.
posted by girl flaneur at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just read a great article about how some envy can be good for you. It talks about malicious envy versus benign envy, and I think it could help you reframe some of the jealousy you're feeling.
posted by ellieBOA at 9:27 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I always had a nagging feeling that I could have become more successful professionally/financially, and I regret choosing a career path that wasn't super profitable.

I rhink this is your real problem. It speaks of dissatisfaction with your own life. I think that is the thing you really need to work on.

My sister has a lot more visible, socially validated success than I have. I am not jealous of her in any way. I am not because I am working on getting what I want out of life.

You need to work on figuring out what you feel is lacking. Either get over your feeling that money=success (it doesn't) or figure out what is missing from your life other than money and work on resolving it. Or both.
posted by Michele in California at 10:20 AM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know it's not easy, but you need to devote more attention to yourself and things that matter to you. This can include just doing things that you enjoy or are interested in -- they can be little things. Any pleasure in life helps to distract from things that bother you.

Setting goals is good. But I'm not even talking about major life goals. They can just be small things that will make your life better in some way. Creating beauty. Being a loving partner. Trying new things.

I'm not trying to minimize your situation at all. I've experienced envy and resentment at my own sister's way of living. I was unhappy and dissatisfied in general, and I channeled a lot of those bad feelings into envy. If you can create new areas of focus that make you feel good, it can help a lot.

Also, if you can develop some mental trick to keep yourself from following the bad thoughts, that's very good. It's easier said than done. But do something when you realize you're thinking negative thoughts about having less money and "success" than your sister. Wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it to break the spell. Sing a few lines of a silly song. Stand up and walk around. Dumb examples -- you'll find your own.
posted by wryly at 10:29 AM on August 24, 2015

Best answer: The Buddha taught there there are four "divine abodes" for the mind, comprising compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness, and sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is the joy we feel for the happiness of other people, and it is said that this is the most difficult of the mindstates to cultivate, so just to affirm to you that you are not alone and that this has been an issue for millennia.

Sharon Salzberg is a fantastic teacher, and here is a link to a talk that she gave on the topic of sympathetic joy and its cultivation. You can also search the dharmaseed site using the search term "Mudita", which is Pali for sympathetic joy.

All four of the divine abodes go hand in hand, and lovingkindness is a great practice, including directing lovingkindness toward yourself and your sister.
posted by janey47 at 11:06 AM on August 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

I always had a nagging feeling that I could have become more successful professionally/financially, and I regret choosing a career path that wasn't super profitable.

There are some suggestions that you consider a different career, but I think you should think about the reasons for your original career decision. Did you choose your field because you find the work interesting or rewarding, get to help people in ways that are satisfying to you, can have a good work-life balance, or for some other non-financial reason? If so, do those reasons still hold true for you? Your chosen line of work may well be rewarding in non-pecuniary ways and, if so, you shouldn't let yourself overlook those rewards.

Overall, your focus should be on learning not to judge yourself by how much money you make. It sounds like neither your parents nor your sister think of you as a failure, you do, and the yardstick you are using to measure yourself is deeply flawed.

At the same time I feel like the life style differences will drive us apart and this really freaks me out.

I think you should trust yourself and her more. You can vacation separately (you at the state park and her in Europe), own cars of varying qualities, send your kids to different schools, and still have great visits, phone calls, and e-mail exchanges that keep your relationship strong. I've seen these dynamics play out in my family (my dad makes more than his siblings, there was a long period when my mom did too, and I've chosen a more lucrative profession than my brother and sister) and in my experience the differences in income don't have to be that important. A few of my dad's siblings do resent him for making more than them, but those are also the same siblings with whom there were always tensions. Some people in my mom's family do great, but not profitable, work, in social services, teaching, childcare, etc. while others have more money, and those brothers and sisters are still close in their 50s and 60s.
posted by Area Man at 11:33 AM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You recognize and dislike this feeling that you have. Congratulations! You are a nice human.

I have some friends who are wealthy, in one case, very rich. Man, must be fun. I recognize that Mr. Very Rich is smart, works hard and is lucky. I recognize that Upper Middle Friend was smart about their career path. I recognize that Ms. Doing Well married someone from a wealthy family. I am happy they are my friends; they are interesting, nice, fun people. So, when I feel envy, I look at Lower Middle Friend, whose divorce screwed her, at Friend on Disability, who has to make difficult choices about money, at the vast majority of people who don't have the 1st World Problems that I have. I have a home, good food, a car, and access to the opportunities of the United States. When I feel envy, I try to stop and feel gratitude, for my parents who educated me and gave me a privileged start. I feel pride that I raised my child with no financial support from his irresponsible Dad, and that I used my brain and hard work to make myself financially stable.

Wealth insulates people from certain things that cause unhappiness; money buys health care, personal safety, better food, etc. but then it evens out. The Rich envy the Very Rich, who envy the Truly Rich, who envy the Extremely Rich. Rich people are lonely, sad, and depressed, too. They have mental and physical illnesses. I sound like Pollyanna, but Pollyanna had a lot going for her. Count your blessings.
posted by theora55 at 12:28 PM on August 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

I very much relate. There is a huge disparity between my sister and BIL's quite large combined income and mine + my SO's piddly one. I have definitely felt like a "loser" at times, especially as I had tons of opportunities, did super well academically, etc., while my sister mostly majored in partying in college (though, to her credit, did a 180 and became very serious about her profession in her 20s). I had a very lucrative (but super demanding) career of my own for a while, but I gave it up for a lesser paying job so I would be able to have a family. And I don't regret that one bit.

I do have feelings of envy at times, and I acknowledge them. I've chatted about them with a therapist in the past, and that has been helpful. I also know I am really lucky and happy to have the life that I do: I chose where I wanted to live, and have a great partner, child, and friends. These are the things I really value at this point in my life.
posted by medeine at 1:37 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I always had a nagging feeling that I could have become more successful professionally/financially.

My sibling is smart, ambitious, personable, hard-working and has consistently been on a much sharper upwards trajectory than I am. And, like you, I was raised with pretty high expectations for what I "could" or "ought to" achieve -- partly because my sibling blazed the trail and set a crazy precedent.

It has been difficult for me to come to terms with being 'second best' both objectively and in our parents' eyes. It was also difficult to repeatedly hear that I too could achieve X, if only I put my mind to it.

What has helped me is to STOP trying to ask myself (and answer) these sorts of questions: How can I quell these jealous feelings? Am I 'best' at something else? Am I really not achieving enough? How can I make people proud of me? Am I a bad person for feeling this way?

Instead, I asked myself: How do I want to spend my life's energy? My answers to that question helped me see that I am already living my life the way I want to live it... and the happiness and self-confidence that came out of that realization have been unassailable. It also helped highlight what is an absolute waste of time. I can't say I'm perfect, but it has put things into perspective rather helpfully.
posted by cranberrymonger at 2:02 PM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A few years ago, I read the book Siblings Without Rivalry. It's meant to help parents raising multiple children, but it made me cry a lot, because I realized that so many of my feelings of inadequacy and competition with my sister had been inadvertently created by my parents, in an attempt to avoid favoring one sibling over the other.

I think this is incredibly common, especially with same-gender siblings. Your parents want to be "fair," so they attempt to treat you as equal. But all this does is create a hole in you whenever your sibling gets something that you don't--can't, won't ever--have.

It's not actually fair to raise children "the same." Instead, parents should raise children to be unique, and to have those unique needs met. When a small child feels jealous over something, it's not really because they want things to be the same. It's because they want to be seen and heard and valued as a unique person.

And this is true for adults, too. I hear you feeling like your life is lacking without these monetary things that your sister has. But I'm sure your life has reaped its own rewards, has its own richness as a result of your unique journey. It makes me sad that you're assuming your children's lives will be poor for lack of money. Richness in experience doesn't come out of private schools or vacations. It comes out of laughter, compassion, a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world.

As an adult, you can be the loving parent for yourself and your inner child that you never had. Instead of focusing on "fairness"--instead of expecting to get the same things as your sister--look at what makes your life unique and fulfilling and beautiful. See that person, acknowledge them, hear their pain and elucidate the beauty of their experiences.

Jealousy like this has the potential to sour a relationship far more than simple monetary differences. So I think it's a good thing to start to process, and it's never really too late to do so.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:11 PM on August 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I personally know a lot of seemingly unhappy people who seem to make and have a lot of money. I also know a lot of seemingly low income people who seem to be very happy. Note I used the word "seem" 4 times here because I really don't know what is going on with these people's lives. Usually constant selfies of someone's kickass party lifestyle indicates some underlying dissatisfaction. If money and career success was all it took to be happy, people like Elvis and Whitney Houston wouldn't have drugged themselves to death. Don't compare yourself to others because the only thing you really know is your own experience of this life. If you can find peace and basic happiness with yourself, people will see it, and envy you, I promise.
posted by banishedimmortal at 10:02 PM on August 24, 2015

Best answer: Congratulations, you are discovering that what you thought was important to you in life isn't as important to you as you thought, and what you thought wasn't so important is actually more important to you than you expected. There's nothing wrong with this! One of my big confessions is that I landed my ideal job at a decent salary and then after a year looked at the lives my coworkers were living and thought, "This isn't the life I want for myself and my family" and went off in a different direction.

There are always going to be people who have more money than you have and will be able to afford things that you would like but can't have, particularly things that would require you to sacrifice other things you don't want to give up. You may want to recalibrate your personal and professional priorities.

You don't need to hear from me that money doesn't grant you happiness. (I hate listening to people who makes lots of money complain about their lives) But you may be realizing that you have goals that can only be fulfilled with more money, so you should figure out what those goals are and how you can achieve them.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 12:18 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much. I have marked the answers that have resonated with me the most, although all of them have been really insightful and helpful.

I have finally accepted that I am indeed envious of my sister and just saying that out loud to my husband was really helpful.

I have also accepted that money matters to me more than I thought it did, and after talking to my husband, he reassured me that it is okay for me to care about money or prestige, as long as I don't let them become too important in my life.

This means I will actively focus on developing the aspects of my career that I have been neglecting for a while, because I think this whole issue with my sister is really about an event that has made me face my own regrets in life.

"The only thing that helps me is to look for things that aren't great in their lives..."

I have seen a couple of answers recommend this idea, and I understand why it would work for some, but not for me. I love my sister and just feeling jealous was making me sick. I don't think I will find any solace in her suffering and as much as it is unlikely I want her to have a charmed life. I think other posters are right that this is all about me, the things I feel entitled to (feeling like I should have the same things she does), the things I have not worked towards, and the positives and negatives of my own life journey.

I feel a lot better now, and much more in control of my own emotions. Thank you all!
posted by ADent at 5:32 AM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

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