Firstly, I know this is a first world problem and I need to “dry my eyes” (as we say in Ireland) but I have a very small dishwasher. In a very small kitchen. Yet when we moved out of our tiny London flat to the house I live in now, I marveled that we had a dishwasher at all. I was so excited to have help with the dishes. Our son was only 2 and we were amazed at all the space. Cut to nine years later and now with two children, the house feels a lot smaller. And that dishwasher? It has to run three times a day because of all the cutlery and dishes a family of four manages to dirty in the course of a day. I often fantasize about moving to a new house and having a huge dishwasher. To me, that is the dream!
So the other week when a friend showed me a brochure of the house she was moving into — a $2 million dollar home at that — I ogled at what will be her brand spanking new kitchen and stared at the enormous dishwasher. I felt my throat go tight. I didn’t quite know what to say. She mentioned that they needed a bigger garden — when their garden at present is eight times the size of my postage stamp garden. In my mind I thought, If she thinks her garden is small, what does she think of mine? I felt inferior, crazy as it sounds. I went back home to my tiny kitchen in the house I am desperate to move from and felt a complete and utter failure.
Why is that? Why do I even compare my life to other people’s?
A friend who recently moved to my pretty, quaint village outside of London admitted that when she first arrived, she felt she was “doing pretty good for myself,” with her three-bedroom house and new baby and good career in publishing. But the longer she’s been here, the worse she’s started feeling, as everyone around us are über-wealthy people who have much bigger houses, fancier vacations, privately educated kids, and all the trappings of a very comfortable life.
Every other conversation here seems to be about house or kitchen extensions or which private school to go to and suddenly — no matter how hard you try — you are swept up in it yourself. Life envy swallows you whole and turns you into someone you don’t even recognize. Years ago when I volunteered at a suicide support hotline, I used to listen to the worst problems people could ever have — and all the time I felt grateful for what I had. Some days I wonder where that girl has gone.
Maybe you’ll admit you have this life envy bug too? That when you hear of a friend’s promotion, your instant reaction is a gut feeling of negativity — Why didn’t that happen to me? — before you can even feel joy for your friend. Why is this?
I think a huge factor is how addicted we’ve all become to social media. We stare at people’s idyllic vacation pictures, or photos of them at some glitzy party wondering, Why isn’t my life like that? Why don’t I have that? We forget that what we see is the edited highlights of a person’s life carefully curated to give an impression of what they want you to see — not necessarily how their life actually is. We don’t see that the vacation was rubbish because they fought with their partner the whole time, or that the party was full of cold, aloof people and they went home early hating it.
Social media seems to give us anxiety that we aren’t doing as well as others or living up to expectations that we put on ourselves. Twenty years ago all we had to worry about was what the next-door neighbor was up to, but now we can compare our lives with everyone we ever knew on our career ladder or sat next to at lunch when we were 10! On a good day, we can use this life envy to motivate ourselves — If they can do it, so can we! But on a bad day, we just feel anger, sadness, disappointment, and worst of all, bitterness. No one wants to admit to feeling jealousy. It is such a taboo subject — coveting what another has.
So how do we overcome our little green monster? Stepping away from social media is a start. The less we engage with what other people are doing, the less opportunities we’ll have to compare ourselves to them. Next up is to give ourselves some grace and know that it’s a completely natural emotion. It doesn’t make us a bad person, it makes us human.
And most importantly, we need to start focusing on ourselves instead of others. The root of the problem is more an issue with how we’re feeling about ourselves than those we envy. We all know that on good days when we are kicking butt at work, when our kids are being angels, when our cakes don’t have soggy bottoms, we think — Yay! Life is great. It is on the days when things aren’t going our way that we are more likely to feel the green mist descending.
So instead of thinking, Why aren’t my parents paying for my kids’ childcare — as many of my friends’ parents do, I am just grateful my parents are alive! Instead of being jealous of someone else’s career, I reflect on all that I have achieved — all by myself. Instead of coveting that bigger dishwasher, I am grateful I have a lovely house and live in an area where my kids are happy and love their school. By writing a daily gratuity list, I’ve learned to lose the envy and be content with what I already have. After all, no one’s life was ever made by getting that handbag, that car, or indeed that big dishwasher.
My mom used to always tell me to “row your own boat,” and I think about that little phrase all the time. It may not be the biggest or the best, but it is my boat, and I’m going to focus on it and be grateful for it — and who knows where the journey will take us. Sure beats feeling envious.More On