Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
The grass is always greener on the other side, right?
Well at least that’s what they say, whoever “they” are. And of course, the meaning behind this old saying is that once you get over to that supposedly greener side, assuming you do, you will find that things aren’t any better over there, either.
But when it’s you who’s looking over the other side of the fence and the people on that side seem to be having a whole lot more fun, it’s hard not to wonder about that greener grass and feel a little envious of the people who are enjoying it.
I often talk to my clients about how they feel when they see how other people seem to be living. They tell me stories about sitting down to a meal and having to adhere to a special diet while others order whatever they want from the menu. Or being in a group where everybody is running around while they can hardly walk due to fatigue or pain. They even talk about being in a group where everyone else is happy and they are feeling stuck in sadness or anxiety.
Sure, my clients tell me they accept where they are in life. They have learned to live with their chronic condition, including the ways in which their condition makes them feel different from other people. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
As children, we all learn how important it can feel to be like everybody else. Being different in some way can leave you feeling like an outsider. We want to be normal! Yes, as adults we learn that you don’t have to always follow the crowd. However, when you’re surrounded by people who seem able to participate fully and you can’t, those old feelings can creep in. They’re doing, eating, feeling … why can’t I be like everybody else? Or at least that guy over there!
Nobody likes to admit to feeling envious of other people. We see how other people live, how life seems to come so easily to them when life often feels like a struggle for us. I feel that way sometimes. Do you?
It’s only human to wish you could put yourself into somebody else’s shoes. You ask yourself, “I wonder what it would be like …?” Along with, “Why them and not me?” And these questions might also lead you back to another question: “Why me?”
All of these questions are unanswerable. But we ask them anyway. We’re human.
Avoid the trap
Envy can lead you into a trap that brings negativity into your life. You fall into this trap when you allow yourself to get caught up in what everybody else is doing and enjoying and what you’re not. And it’s a trap because if you turn everybody around you into a yardstick to decide how you measure up, or not, you’ll always find a way to come up short. It’s a lose-lose proposition. As another saying goes, compare and despair.
So while it’s only human to feel envy for other people, you don’t have to get caught in that trap.
Here’s what you can do
Redefine what it means to be part of the group. There are more ways than one to feel connected with the people around you. Shared memories. Words of kindness and support. Just spending time together. In other words, what really matters! Don’t get caught up in the trees and forget about the forest.
Take a "zen" approach. Nobody knows why some people seem to have more than others, whether it’s looks, health, money, or any of the things you may be seeing in others and using as a basis for comparing your life to theirs. They just do. But here’s something to think about: We are each on our own path in life. A path that is unique to each one of us. And while our paths intersect with those of other people, our path is still ours. So, own your path, make the best of it, see where it takes you. Life is an adventure!
Consider your own gifts. While you’re looking around at what someone else has, don’t forget to take an inventory of what you have. What are your gifts? Wisdom? Kindness? Compassion? A sense of humor? Not to mention all the interests and skills you’ve picked up over the years. If you focus only on what you don’t have, you risk losing sight of everything you bring to the table. And guess what? The people who care about you have all kinds of reasons why you’re important to them.
Appreciate the gifts of other people. Get beyond those feelings of envy with an attitude of appreciation. Pay attention to what you enjoy in other people, what you respect them for, what you admire about them. Open up to the joy that we bring to each other’s lives!
Remember that no one has a perfect life. One of the reasons we envy others is that we assume they can’t possibly be struggling like we are. In our minds, we create stories about what their lives must be like and how easy their lives are, at least in comparison to our own. But keep in mind that we don’t really know what’s going on inside of someone else’s head or home. Everybody is struggling with something, whether it’s obvious to us or not.
Attitude of gratitude. Start each and every day by focusing on something you are grateful for. Something big, something small, something in your control, or out of your control. Start the day with an attitude of gratitude and you’ll have that much less energy for envying others. You’ve got too many good things in your own life. Use gratitude to spring free of the envy trap!
Envy is human. It’s also a trap. But that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck there. Change the way you think and change the way you feel.