We were sitting around a table, talking about someone we all know, who is very successful in our field. Instinctively, I started in. “He’s incredibly full of himself,” I said. “And kind of a phony.” One of my colleagues, a great mimic, did a spot-on imitation of the way this fellow speaks. We laughed uproariously. The Greek chorus chimed in and piled on. A dig here. A jab there. In minutes, we had taken this competitor down to size, made mincemeat of him. We felt clever, bonded, and if truth be told, superior.
Except that when I left the room, something didn’t feel quite right, which was surprising. Over the years, I’ve had hundreds, maybe even thousands of these conversations, with scores of friends and colleagues. They’re so commonplace I rarely give them a second thought.
But on this day, I unexpectedly found myself wondering about the competitor we had trashed, and how he might have felt if he heard our exchange. At a minimum, he would have been stung, and so would I, if others said those things about me, as they surely have. Then I started thinking about whether I actually believed what I’d said. I realized I actually had a broader and more nuanced set of feelings about him, including admiration.
I put down this competitor so I could feel better about myself — raised myself up at his expense. To avoid feeling “less than,” I defended myself by moving to “more than.” I assumed a false position of power — not just this time, but on countless previous occasions — to ward off some experience of inadequacy. I covered up my feeling of weakness with a thin gloss of strength. Above all else, I was careless.
Envy, I’m abashed to say, lay at the heart of it. For more than two decades as a journalist, envy was a steady hum in my life that sometimes turned into a roar. No matter what I wrote — even a bestselling book — it never felt good enough and neither did I. The feeling is endemic among writers, as I suspect it is in many professions. “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,” Gore Vidal once famously remarked. Speaking of his fellow writers, the novelist Pete Dexter took it a step further: “Jealousy is the wrong word for what I usually feel. It’s closer to hoping they get hit by a car.”
Funny, yes, but also kind of horrifying, and toxic. When I finally left journalism, it was in large part to escape these feelings. But wherever you go, there they are. We’ve all felt them. Not smart enough, not accomplished enough, not thin enough, not rich enough, not admired enough. At the most primitive level, it’s the feeling that we’re still living in the savanna, fighting for our survival in a world of scarcity. If you get yours, then I won’t get mine. The war over food has evolved into one for self-worth. The problem is it’s a zero sum game you can’t win. Constantly compare yourself, and no matter how good you are, eventually you’re going to come up short.
The truth is I’ve had enough of not enough and I’ve also had enough of the smug superiority I’ve sometimes inadvertently assumed as a shield against feeling the opposite.
The first step has been to raise my awareness. That means noticing these feelings when they arise — both “not enough” and “better than,” which, after all, are just two sides of the same coin. It helps a lot, I’m finding, to simply observe my feelings, rather than getting lost in them, or compelled to share them.
Two questions strike me as helpful here. When you’re feeling “less than”, the question is, “What do I truly appreciate about myself?” Or, as the family therapist Terrence Real puts it more lyrically, “How do I hold myself in warm regard, despite my imperfections?” When you find yourself beginning to feel “better than,” the question is, “What do I truly appreciate in this other person?” Or as Real says, “How can I hold this person in warm regard, despite his/her imperfections?”
Sheryl Crow gets this just right in “Soak up the Sun”:
“It’s not having what you want
It’s wanting what you’ve got
I’m gonna tell everyone
To lighten up
I’m gonna tell ‘em that
I’ve got no one to blame
for every time I feel lame.”
In Buddhism, the Second Noble Truth is that all suffering is caused by craving. I’ve never interpreted that to mean we should let go of desire, which is quintessentially and inescapably human. Rather, we need to hold desire more gently, so we can acknowledge it, and conjure with it, and even enjoy it, without feeling consumed by it, or dependent on its being satisfied.