I can already hear the wise, non-judgmental answer coming from someone loving but removed from my everyday life — like, say, my grandmother: “You are your own worst enemy. You are doing fine, don’t think about it.” And there is a small, less animal part of my brain that agrees with her. I can say with great certainty that life is a stilted, emotional mess if lived entirely to measure up on the yardstick of “what my friends are doing,” but I somehow cannot remove myself from the constant comparisons. Even without realizing it, there is always a way to contextualize my successes, failures, and life choices within a kind of bell curve that only exists to me.
We all have these demons, these people and jobs and apartments that make us feel impotent and insufficient, the Facebooks or blogs we can’t stop perusing with an almost giddy feeling of rage/jealousy. (And to get this out of the way, if you’re one of those people who is going to say “I don’t care about what others are doing, I am only concerned with myself. You should just get off Facebook,” please go away. Go cure cancer or do something else that’s really useful with what is clearly your endlessly mature, problem-free life.)
Yes, I know that getting rid of some of the social media that allows the jealousies and the malignant curiosities to fester and be fed would probably be a constructive move — but I have trouble believing that social media is really a cause of the problem, and not just another symptom. I should not have to cut myself off from the benefits (keeping in touch with people I care about, but who are far away) in order to prevent myself from obsessing about what other people are doing. I should be able to fundamentally not care about those things.
And it’s not as though being happy is a cure-all for this disease of being preoccupied with the relative achievements and opinions of those around you. Happiness and success often augment the standards to which you hold yourself, or which you perceive others attain with ease. The higher you climb, the more competent and successful people you are surrounded by, the deeper the ocean of ways in which to self-doubt proves to go. In fact, I have often found myself eager to stay in a smaller pond, content with feeling comparatively well-ranked, rather than plunging into a much bigger pond in which I cannot stop staring at the teeth of every shark that passes.
How much money someone is making, who they are dating, what their apartment looks like, if they are professionally successful, if they have a lot of friends, if they get invited out places — none of these things have a direct bearing on our lives. Even people with whom we are in direct competition are going to succeed or fail of their own device, and all our brow-furrowing over it won’t change a thing. And yet, when we are surrounded by a vibrant tapestry of What Everyone Else Is Up To, it sometimes seems the only thing we can concentrate on. I know, on a purely intellectual level, that a person whose work I am not fond of being successful does not mean that I now have a smaller slice of the pie — but my heart still races in frustration and, yes, jealousy.
Of course, there are always people for whom we will be able to feel a more pure sort of happiness — close friends and family for whom we are always rooting, whose success does not feel a threat to our own. So perhaps it is more apt to say that the acquaintances, the more vague friends, are the ones whose status and progress can tend to plague us. There is certainly an ability within each of us to be empathetic, to love and encourage and be wholly content for others, but it is so hard in practice to extend to each person we cross. What good does hate-reading a blog, or finding out more about a person you’re jealous of actually do? Aside from some masochistic fulfillment of our need to feel inferior, not a whole lot.
But how do we stop? How do we remove the constant, ever-tightening units of measurement against which we are constantly observing our lives? Is there a way to fully comprehend the concept that what is right for us might not necessarily be right for someone else, and vice versa? Sure, these platitudes make for good inspirational coffee mugs, but how do we actually apply them in real life? If I had to guess, I would say that actively thinking of — hell, maybe even saying out loud to yourself from time to time — all of the good things that you have done/are surrounded by would be a start. Complimenting others comes so easily, and yet appreciating ourselves seems an act in vanity at best, schizophrenia at worst. But it has to be healthier overall to focus on the things that bring us joy, outside of the context of others’ opinions. It has to be a more useful activity than constant, unfiltered self-deprecation.
If nothing else, we can at least stop hate-reading on the internet. Why even give them the page views?