“Although there are some ways in which we excel, there is always someone smarter, prettier, more successful. How do we cope with this? Not very well. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison. Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
Some years ago, while watching a band, I jokingly referred to the lead singer as Barbie. My insult was meant to salve my jealousy of this woman who not only had a powerful voice, but also rocked it on the fiddle. Her long flowing hair swinging while she bopped around on stage with a face half covered by her smile only added to my envy. She was what I wished I was, as I wrote about in Waiting to Be Discovered, but was not — a talented singer and musician who also happened to be perky and beautiful. So, through no fault of hers, I couldn’t stand her. I readily admitted to my friend that she was probably also nice and would be fun to hang out with, which really just made it worse. I knew I was jealous and I could laugh at my petty inclinations, but the feeling was real.
Since I’ve been writing, this jealousy has cropped up in relation to other writers, and most especially authors who write about the issues similar to what I want to write about. I don’t experience the green eyed monster when it’s a PhD who studies shame like Brenè Brown or self-compassion like Kristin Neff. They’re allowed to be experts; they’ve studied and done immense amounts of research on top of becoming approachable writers. I have no interest in a PhD or becoming a clinical researcher so I don’t compare myself to them and I’m free to admire and learn from their work.
But Gretchen Rubin writing about happiness — what are her qualifications? She was a kick ass lawyer who managed to make it to the echelons of being a Supreme Court clerk. As a lawyer myself, my comparison starts there since I only made it to being a Federal District Court clerk. My own accomplishment isn’t insignificant, but far from Rubin’s achievement. Being a lawyer though, hardly qualifies one to talk about happiness. So basically, it’s just that she’s a human and wants to be happy. Except that she’s parlayed whatever quality she had that took her to the top in lawyering, to writing a best-selling book on the topic, The Happiness Project. And really, how can I ever compare to that?
Rubin does not seem to struggle with loving herself as I have and she’s clearly more ambitious and organized than I am. I can’t even begin to imagine creating a loving oneself empire in the way she has created a happiness empire. So yes, I was (am) jealous. And because I was (am) jealous, I hated her. Not in any violent way, but in a “I’m not going to read your book” kind of way. As if that will show her.
Jealousy was not, however, my admitted reason that I avoided reading her book. Instead I surmised that it was probably yet another self-help book about how to get happy and rich overnight if you just do this one thing. It didn’t matter that a lot of people I respected liked the book, suggesting that it was something more than another frivolous solve your problems overnight book. Despite my hesitation, I finally broke down and read it because I figured Brenè Brown wouldn’t be such a fan if it was crap. Even once I started reading it though, I resisted and found all sorts of reasons to dislike Rubin. What could I possibly learn from someone searching for an extra fifteen minutes in her day when I’m trying to learn to accept what I get done in a day rather than beat myself up for not doing more?
Aggravatingly, though, like Barbie’s music, I liked Rubin’s book. And even more annoyingly, I found the four tendencies she developed to explain how different people respond to expectations meaningful and helpful. Her quiz concluded that I’m a questioner, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. Perhaps this tendency is also what made it take me so long to read her book.
I had to accept that many of my criticisms were born of jealousy. And that jealousy almost prevented me from being able to learn from the book. Not just about her ideas, but from how she wrote. I loved her combination of research into the science of happiness, using it to formulate a plan for herself, and her storytelling of her journey. And as I wrote about in Where I Turn When I’m Feeling Lost, I also gained some ideas for increasing my own happiness.
My jealousy is not limited to best selling authors, however. On Medium alone I see so many talented writers who are further along or have so many more claps or followers than me. Sometimes it keeps me from reading articles that interest me so I don’t give them the benefit of one more reader. Seriously, who’s the real loser here when my jealousy keeps me from being able to learn from and be inspired by other writers? Fortunately, I am often able to recognize it and turn off my jealousy. In doing so, I have discovered a number of authors on Medium who I greatly appreciate. The most notable that come to mind are Zachary Phillips, Sharon M, and Benjamin Sledge.
Yet I’m human and those pesky comparisons persist. I will continue to feel jealous and denigrate others to comfort myself, then beat myself up for thinking those nasty thoughts. Recognizing this as part of my common humanity though is allowing me to be more compassionate to myself when I fall into its trap. And with this compassion I’m better at allowing for a wide tent with room for all of us to learn from and be inspired by each other.
Also published on Medium.