Dear Dr. Andrea,
I would like to think of myself as a good friend, and kind and caring person. But sometimes I feel deep down like I am just so competitive and jealous with everyone that it makes me a not-very-good-person. It doesn’t matter how much I love someone, I often feel resentful of their success.
My sister and I are best friends and yet every milestone she has — work promotions, buying a house, getting married, having a child ― I think I am happy for her but it stings so bad. I want to be able to enjoy her successes, but I always compare things to my own life (my job isn’t going much of anywhere, I don’t make that much money, and I am single).
It’s with friends or co-workers or pretty much anybody. I feel so competitive. And yet I don’t even do anything with it to get particularly motivated, but instead just feel bad about being envious of other people. I don’t want to be a jealous person.
I want to be someone who can be there for other people fully, and not constantly think about how my own life doesn’t measure up. Why am I this way? And how can I tone it down?
— The green-eyed monster
I hear this far more often than you would think. And, as with many human behaviors, I think it’s very easy to fall into all-or-none judgment: Being kind and caring means never being jealous; loving someone and wanting that person’s success means never having that success sting. We can have conflicting feelings at the same time, and we can have thoughts that contradict our feelings, feelings that contradict our thoughts, and thoughts and feelings that both contradict our values.
You wrote in because you’re bothered by this. The fact that you don’t want to have these feelings says a lot about who you are as a person — perhaps just as much as the fact that you have those feelings. And as for them, your competitiveness and envy give us a window — if we are willing to look through it — into how you feel about yourself. Jealousy isn’t just about others; it’s about how others illuminate our own insecurities.
The milestones that you mentioned feeling particularly competitive about with your sister are areas that you seem to feel worst about in yourself. That’s no big shock, but it means something important: Overcoming this will involve the struggle with your own perceived deficits, not so much an adjustment of your feelings about other people. The problem probably doesn’t involve mean-spiritedness toward others, but instead, it’s likely about your harshness toward your own life.
Buried in your letter, among all the self-criticism, is the fact that you feel unmotivated to change your life in the ways that you probably want. What gets in your way? Might you be depressed, and could you use some professional support? Might feeling better require a commitment to getting on a different path in life? Certain things you can’t immediately control, of course — your salary, your job description, whether that Tinder date will be heavenly or harrowing — but enacting long-term plans to get on the track you want to be on, with accountability for small goals along the way, really can bring true change over time.
But it’s not just about changing what you have; it’s about building a different mind-set. It’s commonly understood that gratitude is good for our mental health, and is associated with less depression and a deeper sense of meaning. But harder than knowing that is practicing it. Cultivating gratitude is particularly tough when we assume that it means that we shouldn’t ever have negative feelings, or that being appreciative of what we have means ignoring the things we don’t like in our life. To build real gratitude, you must think more deeply about your values, and whether there are aspects of your life that make it harder to live according to them (or even know what they are.) What would the partner and better job mean, in a deeper sense? And how can you get closer to some of those missing things now? Are you mixing up achievement, milestones and “success” with fulfillment and worth? (In the age of social media, you’d be far from the first.)
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest considering volunteer work. Doing good for others does tend to give us a mood boost. It can broaden our understanding of the bigger picture and how we fit into it — a useful exercise when we’re otherwise too tied to our internal yardstick.