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