Can We Talk About Jealousy?

This post continues exploring a theme I first addressed in Wrestling with My Inner Mean Girl in Honor of #MeToo.

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A seemingly satisfied goose at England Acres Farm in Mt Airy, Md.

Several months ago The New York Times ran a style piece about a woman in her 20s who creates designer ice cubes. As I read the article, my mind lit up with envy. The subject, Leslie Kirchhoff, was being celebrated for capitalizing on something I recall doing as a child—suspending objects in ice.

But frozen water is not her only medium. The article relayed her first big break: “While studying abroad in Paris during her sophomore year at New York University, Ms. Kirchhoff learned how to D.J. at the hip nightclub Le Montana, which led to a regular Friday night gig at the Top of the Standard when she returned to New York.”

How exactly she managed to score D.J. lessons at a trendy French club wasn’t explained.

One of Kirchhoff’s other claims to fame is co-creating the buzz-worthy “Drunk Crustaceans” calendar, which features shellfish in twee settings, such as a shrimp lounging in a miniature bathtub with a tiny bottle of wine. And if that’s not enough, Kirchhoff is also a photographer, with credits that include Vogue.com.

In the photo that accompanied the NYT piece, Kirchhoff is revealed to be tall and slim with long blonde hair. She is the kind of woman Paper magazine photographs in designer clothes and dubs “The Coolest Girl in the Room.” To sum it up, I hate her.

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Metal flamingos at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

Jealousy is a common human emotion, but you don’t hear many people eager to unpack it. Copping to envy is like admitting that you’re insecure, and possibly vain and petty as well. Who wants to explore how crappy it feels to be covetous and resentful? Surprisingly, I do!

But why? Well, let’s face it, the world is often unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Most of us encounter numerous inequities, both big and small, throughout our lives. When this occurs, initially we might feel bad about ourselves—maybe we don’t deserve to have good things happen to us. This feeling is quite uncomfortable, so often we transfer the blame onto the person who has what we want.

Thus, envy hardens into animosity toward people we assume have an unearned leg up or are gaming the system. This line of thinking can affect how we treat others. Sensing you’ve been cheated can lead someone to think, say, and do foolish, spiteful things.

A closer examination could help prevent jealousy from degenerating into ill-advised words and actions, and I believe that’s an opportunity worth seizing. So, let’s dive deeper.

I sat down and drafted a lengthy list of things that make me jealous. Then I grouped the items on the list into three main categories, borrowing from the well-known Serenity Prayer for my framework. Every example below comes from my own messed-up (in other words, human) mind.

Things I cannot change:

 This first list comprises circumstances that are usually referred to as luck or fate.

  • Being born into wealth
  • Belonging to a family with connections to powerful people who can offer life-changing favors
  • Looking like a fashion model
  • Possessing the talent of a brilliant singer, dancer, painter, or other creative genius
  • Having siblings who can share the responsibilities involved in caring for aging parents

There is very little wiggle room in changing these circumstances, so getting peeved about them is a poor use of one’s mental energy. However, we humans like to be in control, so our lack of control here can be particularly annoying. When faced with the arbitrary nature of the universe, our minds can go to some unpleasant places.

For example: Upon reading about a woman who is beautiful, talented, and successful—a less charmed person (let’s say me) might wallow in the unfairness of the situation. Why wasn’t I blessed with such good fortune? This jealousy can lead to villainizing the woman to soothe my feelings of inferiority. Her parents are no doubt rich and well-connected—she probably doesn’t deserve her success at all. This tactic might make me feel better temporarily, but it does nothing for my long-term satisfaction.

The best remedy or antidote to the “things I cannot change” brand of envy is simple gratitude. For every quality you envy in a person who seems to have hit the birthright jackpot, think of something for which you can be grateful. I’ve been trying this, and it really can help. But sometimes it’s also best just to take quick note of someone’s prodigious gifts and then move on with your life.

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It would be silly to envy a beautiful flower; we simply appreciate it instead.

Things I can change:

The items in this second grouping feature characteristics that don’t come naturally to some of us but aren’t impossible to develop. 

  • The ability to relax and not stress over the small stuff, like housework, bills, deadlines
  • An inclination to rely on the big stuff turning out okay—not worrying about getting cancer, dying early, or going broke
  • Exuding genuine personal confidence
  • Being in good physical shape
  • Actively developing new skills, learning new things, and chasing life goals

I try to be delighted that there is so much to accomplish here—room for progress is good, otherwise we stagnate. The trick is not to dwell on how much improvement is needed, and instead jump in and get to work.

We may whine to ourselves that some of these things seem hard. When you’ve spent most of your life worrying, like I have, about dying in a car crash or losing my house or saying something stupid, it’s hard to imagine going through your days without such creeping dread. But you can control your thoughts and actions. You can become what you envy.

Here’s a simple example: My husband is way more chill than I am about things like yardwork and the cleanliness of our house. My feelings about this are a combination of frustration that I end up doing most of the work (which is my choice, after all) and envy transformed into anger. So, I decided to try learning from him. I’m reconditioning myself so that I do fewer chores that might make me resentful; instead I read, write, or take a nap—things that make me happy. I will never be as relaxed as he is, but I’m starting to see positive results in my attitude.

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Trying to chill in my kayak on Lake Linganore, Md. Those eyelids still look a little tense.

Things I may not want to change:

This last category contains items we only think we want. 

  • Ambition that results in big promotions and a rising career
  • Frequent travel to faraway places
  • Leading a wild life without concern for adverse consequences
  • Being super positive and cheerful all the time
  • Never second-guessing yourself or struggling to make decisions

The same feelings of resentment bubble up when you see someone exhibiting these desirable traits or behaviors. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, it becomes clear that you simply aren’t one of those people.

This is great news! You are off the hook from not being more driven or perky or decisive, and you can stop resenting those who are like that.

One more example: I have friends who make it a priority to travel twice a year—every freaking year—to exotic locations. I always get a twinge of jealousy when I see their photos on Facebook. But a couple years ago I began reminding myself that travel is not a priority of mine. I could save up the money and set aside some vacation time and travel more if I really wanted to, but I have other preferences that mean more to me. Now I just say to myself, that’s so great that my friends figured out how much they love to travel and are making it happen.

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When I do travel, I usually end up missing home, because why wouldn’t I?

If envy haunts you, make your own list. Once you place each jealousy trigger into one of the three categories, you’ll realize that there’s only one group that should have an impact on you—the things you can change. Now you have a manageable list for self-development.

When jealousy starts invading your brain anyway, reject the usual script and try out a new internal dialogue. Here’s how I might react differently to that same article about the luxury ice cube creator:

Smile upon other people’s good fortune: This woman studied abroad in Paris, and not only could she get into a hip club, but someone taught her how to D.J. while she was there! Now she’s getting rich making ice cubes! How awesome is that?!

Identify their effort: According to the article, Kirchhoff “spent four years developing her own ice-making method and turned it into a business.” Good for her for having the dedication and the belief in her vision to put in the time and energy.

Remember your dreams and your skills:  Ice cubes aren’t really my thing. I want to reach people through my writing. I’m not half bad at it, and I will only get better if I make it a higher priority.

Find inspiration: What an amazing world we live in—if people will buy designer ice, surely there is an audience for my writing. I just need to find my niche.

Commit to immediate and ongoing action: I’m going to spend two hours writing tonight instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media. And I will make room in my schedule for regular writing in the morning.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being jealous now and then and confessing to it as a way to expel the shame. If we don’t let it rule us, we can learn from envy and use it to propel us forward.

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I am grateful for many things, especially red velvet ice cream in a chocolate-dipped cone.
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Resistance is Futile: Embracing the Parent Within

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Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

Recently a friend shared a clip on Facebook about the secret to living longer. In the TED Talks video, Susan Pinker claims that social integration is the top factor associated with a long life. She describes this practice as “how much you interact with people as you move through your day . . . not just the people you’re really close to who mean a lot to you, but do you talk to the guy who everyday makes you your coffee, do you talk to the postman, do you talk to the woman who walks by your house everyday with her dog…?”

My first thought was, OMG my mom is going to live forever. You see, my mother talks to strangers. All the time. Sometimes this practice is charming, and sometimes it’s not.

Whenever we go to one of our favorite pizza places, mom stops the manager as we are leaving to compliment their hard-working wait staff. Sweet, right?

Then there’s the time we were on a road trip and stopped to use a public restroom. A woman close to my mother’s age was brushing her hair, and as she stepped away from the mirror, my mom said, “You look beautiful.” The woman laughed at the unexpected compliment and said thank you.

If the scene had ended there, it would have been a nice moment between two 70-something women. But as the other woman turned to exit, my mom added, “Now you’re supposed to say the same to me.” Ugh.

Most of us start out adult life confident that we will never turn into our mother or father. Most of us—possibly all of us—are proven wrong eventually. If you are vehemently disagreeing with me right now, let that resistance go.

Maybe you won’t actually become one or both of your parents. But one day you will hear that goofy expression of your dad’s come out of your mouth. Or you will catch yourself doing that thing with the paper towels that your mom always does.

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Me and Mom on my 11th birthday.

I was close with my mom when I was growing up, a closeness that sometimes felt more like a straightjacket than a hug. There was no dad or significant other to act as a buffer, and her emotional state was loosely knitted together. I loved her, but I was eager to wriggle out of the grasp she had on my life. As soon as I graduated college, I moved a thousand miles away in an effort to build an identity separate from her.

From most angles, it appears that I’ve succeeded. Our lives have been quite different, and our personalities even more so. When my mother first moved in with me and my husband seven years ago, I became assured that I was thoroughly unlike her.

Mom arrived in our state with a driver’s license and Social Security card that had different last names on them. It took us at least five trips to the department of motor vehicles, plus a trip to the Social Security office, before she finally got her new driver’s license. About a month later, mom informed me that she had lost this license. The birth certificate we had to order online was also missing the next time we needed it.

I, on the other hand, work hard to stay organized and feel itchy at the thought of not being able to find something.

Not long ago, my mother was out with a friend shopping and, on impulse, she purchased a mattress and box spring. She did not need them, nor did she have the money for them. She opened a credit card at the store, even though she knew that she wasn’t supposed to apply for any new credit cards. It took me endless calls and tweets to get the order canceled.

Meanwhile, I grow sweaty upon making major purchases and avoid going into debt at all costs.

My mom has been banned from watching football with my husband because she mostly reads magazines and then looks up and asks what just happened—repeatedly.

She talks over doctors and nurses as if she knows what they are going to say. She doesn’t really listen to them, which is why I always go along to take notes.

My mother also has a “creative memory.” In one such case, she has a completely different recollection of the days after my grandmother died—a memory of what might have been rather than what actually happened.

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Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

Despite all these differences (and there are many more, I promise you), my husband can attest that I do share a few traits with my mother—like our tendency to tell long stories full of unnecessary details, our inclination to overreact to minor frustrations, and our penchant for commenting on how poorly certain celebrities are aging.

And I hear her in the passive-aggressive way I talk to my stepson sometimes. Suddenly I am transported back to my own childhood, hearing my mom’s frustration with me hidden behind a manipulative question or a sarcastic comment.

However, as the days and years go by, I realize how important it is to focus on the positive, to be grateful for the attributes that I don’t mind sharing with my mom: her love of music and dancing, her fondness for laughter, and her genuine interest in people of all kinds.

Whether we like it or not, aspects of our parents’ personalities—good, bad, and complicated—are bound to show up in our own. Maybe it was always meant to be, that an echo of those who raised us would ultimately reverberate in our own bones.

Perhaps this recognition is an invitation to forgive and accept our mothers and fathers as fellow human beings. Rather than be embarrassed or in denial about the qualities we have in common with our parents, we can choose to see this as an opportunity to embrace them in all their tender messiness. And to love ourselves at the same time.

One day the two of us were walking out of a sandwich shop, and my mother stopped at the table of a young woman who was sitting alone. During lunch mom had noticed that this woman looked sad. So, she went over and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said something encouraging to her. I don’t know what my mother said because I was getting the heck out of there.

In the car, I was about to tell her what a terrible idea it was to physically touch a stranger these days, to presume to intrude on their personal space and pain. But I bit my tongue and said nothing. My mother meant well. And she did something not many people would do—she reached out to someone even though it would have been far easier to just walk by. It won’t be the end of the world if one day I find myself doing the same. Minus the touching, of course.

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Me and Mom at Christmas 2016.