Keeping away from the Joneses
April 11, 2017 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I am often comparing my life to my peers and I end up feeling pretty sad. I have a lot to be grateful for but also have been struggling with adult milestones (infertility, money management, home ownership, etc.) How do I keep my head above water?

I am in my mid 30s and married to a wonderful partner. We are in love, we are the best of friends, we have a wonderful time together whether we're on vacation or sitting at home in silence, and we are both healthy. I have some fantastic friends who are caring and genuine and supportive. I cannot put a price on these things and I know they should be enough, and at the end of the day, they are enough, but I am often comparing myself to others and end up feeling quite disappointed.

I had a very difficult childhood (poverty, abuse, drug addiction of parents) and ended up okay. I certainly had relationships when I was younger that were cringe-worthy and made some poor decisions that ended friendships, which I regret but are probably within the norm for folly of youth. I was able to find a stable career that I loved and built up for over a decade. I was firmly in the middle class and happy there.

In the last two years, for family Reasons, I have had to give up my career, which pains me. I have lost my solid salary and a lot of my confidence. As a former poor kid, I was never into much flash (drove and old reliable car, second hand clothes, etc) but was happy to have some disposable income. My partner has a decent salary but because mine has decreased so greatly, we must budget pretty tightly. So when my friends show up in new Priuses and are putting offers in on first homes, I'm pinching pennies for my bus pass and feeling wistful for my old life. I don't begrudge them anything but am nonetheless saddened by their milestone-making, while I feel like I'm back in 19 year-old me place. It is possible for me to return to my career at some time in the next few years but it will likely be difficult for myself and my partner.

This is worsened by our struggles with infertility. My partner and I have learned that we are collectively infertile, and despite having one miscarriage (which still makes my heart ache) we haven't gotten pregnant again. We have had testing done with no real insight except that we're both on the low end of normal for all of our values. We have been told that we should go to IVF but that is frightening for moral and economic reasons, and a fear that if it doesn't work, that is the end of our road for babies. Adoption is something we are interested in but because of our finances and my history of abuse as a child, we are not certain that will happen for us either.

We are in our mid 30s and are at a point where many people also have things much worse: cancer, heart attacks, divorce, etc, so I know that we could be in a much worse place. And I am grateful, so very grateful, for all that I have. But at the same time, a little bit of my heart breaks whenever another friend is pregnant, buys a house, pays off their loans, etc. I again don't begrudge them anything and am quite happy for my friends and their successes, but it nonetheless makes me wince a bit. And I can't help but feel unsurprised that I'm back in a minimum wage job after my chaotic childhood, and that this is all I was ever capable of.

I suppose this is a way of asking how do you stay centered in being happy with what you have and avoiding the envy of others? In the case of material things, it is not so much a problem but the infertility and feeling that I've failed as an adult are quite hard to cope with. I have already erased my facebook and instagram so I am not bombarded by skewed perspectives of others lives.

Thank you for reading.
posted by robertthebruce to Human Relations (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I would also add that I feel pretty guilty for having these feelings at all. I am well aware of the state of the world, politics, poverty, etc and know that I have no right to complain when I come home to the partner I love in a safe and clean living space and a hot meal to eat. I apologize for being greedy but genuinely want to do a better job at life and managing the feelings expressed above.
posted by robertthebruce at 7:05 PM on April 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is only a small step, but if you use Facebook, Instagram, etc. to keep up with your friends' lives, stop. You don't need to torture yourself with a constant stream of baby pictures and vacation photos.
posted by AFABulous at 7:06 PM on April 11, 2017 [23 favorites]

Working for minimum wage is definitely not all you're capable of. You've gone through struggles that aren't experienced by everyone and it's terrible that you're going through similar ones again.

I had a personal epiphany a few weeks ago that I wanted to share with you - feel free to disregard if it doesn't resonate. I too have gone through some things (both during my childhood and again 5 years ago). The feeling of I can't believe I'm back here again is one I'm familiar with. But the familiarity was the experience of pain that I thought I shouldn't be feeling. The difference now is that I can reject this notion, whereas when I was a child/teenager, I had to pretend to everyone (including myself) that it wasn't so bad and that I was to blame for things happening.

So, please be kind to yourself. Explore what that actually means. Consider looking at Complex PTSD as a way to better process your experiences and feelings of shame, as well as exploring your relationship with stability and feeling safe. Another resource that I found helpful was Brene Brown's TED Talk on Vulnerability. She has another one on Shame as well that you can find on her website.
posted by A hidden well at 7:41 PM on April 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

There has been a lot of research in recent decades loosely collected under the term Positive Psychology that focuses on practices and habits of mind that promote happiness, satisfaction, a sense of meaning in life etc. I'm finding real value in work around this (while also finding it consistently challenging to give time to and sustain in the same way I find it difficult to sustain a practice of mediation - I intellectually recognize the value of it and know it creates positive impact when I practice it, but it is work nonetheless and the impacts are subtle and undramatic, and it involves consciously engaging in mental areas that also touch on significant pain points in my life).

I feel a lot like you with respect to the blessings in my life, that I have more to be thankful for than to regret, and yet often regret and the sense of what I lack seem to have the upper hand. To me one of the benefits of grappling with intentional practices of gratitude and the like is that it draws this awareness out of the comparative context (invoking what I have mainly as a defense against negative feelings caused by feelings of loss or lack or envy) and invites me to bring the positive forward for its own sake - to cherish and value and honor these gifts on level ground as it were, which they merit and prosper by. A book I've been working through is The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, there are many other accessible works in this field. The exercises can seem sort of hokey and simplistic, but it can be worth pushing past that superficial judgment and giving the practice some honest time and effort.
posted by nanojath at 9:37 PM on April 11, 2017

Sounds like you need a Purpose. Your career and potential children were filling that part of your identity, and now they're gone. Do you have much spare time? Is there a cause you feel passionate enough to put your spare spoons into, to make you feel like you're contributing to society? Can you foster cats or call lonely people or go on marches, or volunteer at the local soup kitchen?

If you can find something that brings you into contact with other people that are also struggling financially, you will develop a different variety of Jones' to compare yourself to. Even joining a Frugal facebook group or two may change your feed away from "We achieved an adulting milestone!!" pictures.
posted by kjs4 at 9:39 PM on April 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

One other thing: I strongly relate to the feelings of guilt over feelings of dissatisfaction within a life of relative first world privilege. I'd encourage you to subject the worth of that guilt to some heavy skepticism. Every compassionate person who has privilege needs to examine that privilege and how our actions contribute to the creation of a more or less just world. But pain is also pain, and in many respects happiness, satisfaction and a sense of meaning are not a zero sum game in this world.
posted by nanojath at 9:51 PM on April 11, 2017

I don't think you should feel at all guilty about feeling bad, especially with such blows as losing a career and infertility. Work is a great source of identity and self-esteem; poverty is demoralising; the drive to have children is primordial - and learning you might never have them is heartbreaking. (I'm in a similar situation - we haven't been tested yet, but we also haven't been successful after trying for a while). You have every reason to feel upset. Own your pain - it's real and it's justified.

But I do understand that's not always helpful - and that also you need to keep going. When I'm trying to feel better (about similar issues), I don't try to think of my life as great (because it isn't), but just about the small blessings. My life doesn't have to be great to appreciate a sunny day, or my cat on my lap. And yeah - it may be good to stay away from people buying houses and having babies right now. (Also easier said than done - I feel like half my friends are propagating. I'm happy for them, but sometimes it's bittersweet).
posted by jb at 10:06 PM on April 11, 2017

also: Adulting success shouldn't be about money or children. It's about being mature: about taking responsibility for your choices and commitments, about respecting people around you and their needs. You can be totally dependent on other people financially, and still be a success as an adult because adulting should be about how you treat other people.
posted by jb at 10:11 PM on April 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Someone once pointed out that when you get on a plane you walk past the first class cabin and see how good they have it as you walk to economy. You don't think about the people in economy who have back problems or longer legs or are otherwise worse off than you. You think about your cramped seat. Mentally it's like we're wired to think of how our life compares to those who are better off. And of course people try to present their best selves so it emphasizes that disconnect more.

I admit it's a trite observation. It's just a specific middle class version of "count your blessings" and we all know this intellectually. But that one analogy stuck with me and I will now often say "Oh, this is the airplane seating fallacy all over again" and I move on.

Normal humans probably need a different mnemonic to trigger that but if you can come up with one it may help.
posted by mark k at 10:21 PM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can focus on what's good, but I want to say also that you don't need to undercut your own suffering either. There are pains you're experiencing. Infertility is not a "first world problem". Having to give up a source of purpose in your life is a real challenge. And it's worth respecting those challenges and acknowledging your own need for time, support, space, and kindness to work through them. You can have compassion for yourself.
posted by Lady Li at 11:50 PM on April 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

What would make your life really nice? What brings you peace and calm?

Could it be a walk in the morning - especially in some sun?
A phone call with an old friend?
Some exercise?
A weekend hike?

Also, as folks 'buy' new things consider that they too might not be positioned for it. Like in this video.
posted by jander03 at 2:45 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Infertility is not a "first world problem".

This is very true. Working in a low income country, I have encountered many people living there who are also heartbroken over infertility. Infertility affects 1 in 8 couples, so it's really common, and you are not alone (I suffered with infertility too). I don't know that I ever really learned how to be content with what I had during that time, but the number one thing that helped me then was yoga. YMMV but doing yoga as often as possible helped greatly with my sanity.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:57 AM on April 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

My sister always believed this about me, e.g. that I was married, husband had a good job, had it made etc. Then my husband fell ill very suddenly and it was cancer. He was gone within six weeks and now I'm on my own at 39, with the fabulous baby we went through IVF to have. My point is, you never know what someone else is going through. So just focus on yourself.
posted by ficbot at 4:50 AM on April 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

Comparing yourself to others might be the way this feels to you (and I am not allowed on Facebook because I am so bad about this, so I know that feeling), but I also agree with kjs4 and jb that a lot of things that were meaningful parts of your identity and purpose are now gone. The setbacks in money and family and real and hurtful, but they also leave a void that it's important to fill, even if the replacement isn't as great.

I'm not clear on why you had to give up your job and whether you are able to work or commit to some other activity outside the home, or whether your time is free and at loose ends or you're busy with some family role (caretaking others or recovering your own health), but I know that when I took a long break from work for good and valid reasons, it was VERY hard on me mentally. I missed the structure, but I also missed the community and the identity that it gave me. These are huge things; please don't discount them.

Find something to focus on, even if it's not something that means a lot to you yet. Joining a community organization can give you a sense of focus and something to use your problem solving skills on with a fairly low time commitment. A hobby or personal goal can make this period feel like you're getting somewhere, even if it's not where you had wanted to be.

But don't be too hard on yourself, please. It's okay to mourn things you had and lost or hoped for and won't have, even if your situation is still good by objective standards. These are feelings about the structure of your life, not about how many "things" you have; they are real, important losses, even if your "new" life is still good by objective standards.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:05 AM on April 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

maybe try to get deeper into each separate feeling instead of conflating them all together.

Infertility is a genuinely sorrowful thing to go through and you should allow yourself to mourn if that's what feels right. And look into counseling to help you come to grips with it. Once you have more of an acceptance of those feelings, you might feel less frightened by IVF, or have more of an optimistic viewpoint that lets you take action to fulfill that part of you that wants kids, even if that means volunteer work, or other ways to connect to young people.

Not paying off loans or buying a house... these things DO NOT MATTER. Whenever I see people bragging about that stuff, I think about Death, how we're all going to die, and how you can't take it with you. The more you put weight into this material baggage, the more you divert yourself from what's really important in life. As someone who grew up without luxury you already have the advantage of being resourceful and knowing what it's like to not have every need met and perhaps you can use that knowledge to figure out how to have true happiness (because we all know that money can't buy it). Succeeding and having a flourishing life is about meeting the obstacles that come into your path and working with what you've been given to have the best life possible

Don't discount your struggles just because other people have pretty houses and cars. Overcoming things is what makes life meaningful and that is all there is to it. If you can find within yourself that fierce being that's made it through hard times before, ask that goddess what's next on your path and how you can satisfy your desires taking into account the obstacles you're facing. You are working with what you're working with... once you can accept that, you can find the way forward.
posted by winterportage at 5:50 AM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding that cars and houses...these mean nothing. At least try to disentangle feelings about those from feelings about loss of purpose and potential infertility. Those are meaningful and deeply human concerns. Cars and houses are consumerism. I'm a middle-class professional, have never owned a car or a house in my life, and couldn't care less, except to the extent that it would have been nice to take advantage of the run-up in real estate values where I live. Many of my friends are the same.
posted by praemunire at 9:54 AM on April 12, 2017

As someone who had some real economic struggles, as well as significant peer abuse, during childhood, I can sympathize with some of the problems you have as an adult. I will say that one thing that has helped me is to try to more fully realize my place on the spectrum – that I may not have a mortgage, wife or children, but also to try to consciously be mindful of what I do have that others, strangers, may consider me lucky to have.

AFABulous: "This is only a small step, but if you use Facebook, Instagram, etc. to keep up with your friends' lives, stop. You don't need to torture yourself with a constant stream of baby pictures and vacation photos."

Just as a slight technical addition to this, there is an extension called "F.B. Purity" that will work on many browsers. Facebook actually knows that a picture of a baby is a picture of a baby, even without anyone tagging it; the extension can use this knowledge to filter out baby photos. Similarly, it can filter updates based on content, i.e., updates that have "new home" or "mortgage" or "new digs", etc.

It may be of use if you are reluctant to disconnect from Facebook. It does not work on mobile apps, though, just the Facebook web interface.
posted by WCityMike at 9:57 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

We take so much for granted in our lives. Despite all the challenges you're facing, it's awesome that you're asking about how to be more grateful for what you do have in your life. That's huge and admirable.

I can only speak to the infertility piece because I have first-hand knowledge of it. Infertility is devastating, life-altering and terribly misunderstood. IVF does not equal baby. Adoption does not equal baby. And the whole process involves processing a ton of grief: grief over not having a child via sex, grief over having to do invasive procedures, grief over miscarriages, grief over the smallest things that fertile people don't ever have to even think about. I don't know what your support system is like, but if you have anyone you can talk to honestly about this stuff, please do. That may help ease your burden a bit.

You cannot control your feelings. You will feel what you feel. So maybe that means a little bit of your heart breaks when you see a baby announcement. That is normal. Wouldn't it be stranger if you didn't feel that envy? Feeling negative emotions is totally okay. You just don't want to be consumed by them. Name the feeling, and try to let it go. This is hard work, but you can do it.

I am so sorry for all the difficult times you're enduring. It's not fair, but I really think if you're at the point where you're trying to be more grateful for what you do have, you're on the right path.
posted by purple24 at 11:04 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

You are entitled to your feelings. The issues you are struggling with are real and substantial, and they are so even if you enjoy, on a global scale, a very comfortable "first world" standard of living. Infertility challenges deeply held drives to procreate and build a family life—and having watched friends struggle for years with this, I know that genuine social support is surpisingly hard to come by. Straightened financial circumstances and the feeling of reduced economic security cause real anxiety. Having to give up work that you enjoy and a career path that felt promising challenges your sense of identity, productivity, and self-sufficiency. You're not talking about frivolous or materialistic topics here.

I very much relate to feeling guilty about not being sufficiently grateful for one's material advantages. Admonishments to "focus on the positive" or "count your blessings" have become something of a trigger point for me. I recognize that some people find gratitude-oriented reflection helpful and centering, but my personal experience with this message is that it's often used to silence or invalidate—"shut up about whatever is bothering you"—rather than inspire productive change or a positive sense of acceptance or contentment. If you likewise don't find it helpful, there's no value in forcing yourself to do it or in ruminating on the sense of guilt.

I started experiencing what you describe—"stay[ing] centered in being happy with what you have and avoiding the envy of others"—pretty recently (I'm in my mid-30s) and it feels very different from performative or guilt-based "gratitude". I attribute it to a few different things. One is calibrating my sense of the true global variation in people's means and experiences. It's a feature of behavioral economics that we tend to compare ourselves most with people just above and just below our own socioeconomic bracket (so we keep up with the Joneses but not the Gettys or the Rockefellers, and also not with poor villagers ekeing out a living by subsistence farming), and traveling to different parts of the world helped me really grasp my fortunate lot in life (albeit this pursuit was itself enabled by my considerable resources).

Another is aggressively curating my exposure to media, both mass and social, and also my exposure to people who were insensitive about my experiences or preening about their own good fortune. I see you have already stepped away from Facebook and Instagram, which are known to present a particularly skewed version of reality that increases feelings of isolation, negative mood, and competition—this is good. While you don't want to cut yourself off from sources of emotional and social support—and friends will naturally want to share news of positive events and accomplishments, which is fine—feel free to also limit time with someone who, say, blathers on about how easy it was to get pregnant despite knowing about your struggle with infertility.

I think what helped the most, though, was increasing my sense of agency. I also went through a significant period of upheaval in my early 30s, one that certainly challenged my assumptions about the path my life would take and made me feel that I had failed at adulting in a big way. I also had 6 months of continued stressors last year (forced moved, work challenges, death in the family, and more). A big part of what helped me through that was the feeling that I had meaningful choices in how I responded to these events, that I wasn't stuck just putting up with things or reacting in a panic to events happening to me (or to to things done to me). I could recognize that my situation was imperfect but felt a lot more at peace with it when I also felt that I had acted according to my own values and preferences, and was free to make changes (or not) in a way that worked for me.

Traumatic experiences and chronic stress, especially in childhood, can really mess with your locus of control—your sense of the ability to influence events and outcomes. I see some of that in what you write about here—you have a feeling that ending up in a low-paying in job is inevitable because of your upbringing, infertility is certainly not something you chose, and I can't help but wonder what is behind being/feeling obligated to give up your career for family reasons. If you see opportunities to (re-)build your sense of agency about responding to these challenges, consider pursuing them. Maybe that means proceeding with IVF treatment—or if you choose not to, make it a conscious choice based on your values. Maybe there are ways you can remain connected to your career field, even if you aren't able to work in the field full time. Consider how you can prioritize and facilitate self-care and pleasurable experiences in your daily life, even (maybe especially) small ones.

Best wishes in making it through these challenges.
posted by 4rtemis at 11:58 AM on April 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

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