I am a man in my early 40s, a college graduate with three young kids and generally speaking have no money worries. Having worked in finance since I left university, I recently changed career by moving into a more generalist role with the civil service. I left finance because I wasn’t willing to commit to the long hours my employer demanded. I have more time with the family and am even studying again, so all should be fine now. Except it isn’t.
I find I am beset by poisonous comparisons. I constantly compare myself to my friends, my relations, siblings and people I have previously worked and studied with. An old and dear friend has recently gained a prestigious promotion and instead of being happy for him I am quite jealous. I cannot even read a biography without comparing my position to the subjects. It’s frankly very foolish and petty of me.
Intellectually I know I have nothing to be ashamed of. But in my gut I don’t feel this. I find myself wondering what is wrong with me, that I’m not at the same position in life as some of my peers. How can I stop wasting my time on stupid comparisons?
Eleanor says: Sometimes when we step away from a particular set of values, it takes a while to stop measuring ourselves by them. We know we don’t agree with those values; we know why we chose to walk away; but still we default to them in how we criticise ourselves and what we desire or covet. It happens in all kinds of exits: we decide we want to leave a relationship, a culture or a job, but months later find we’re still seeing ourselves through its eyes.
I wonder whether that might be what’s going on for you. You’ve made a big life change by moving away from a career that gave you financial stability and a clear identity, and though you know why you chose to walk away, that doesn’t guarantee it has quite walked away from you. Expectations about what’s worth wanting set up deep root systems inside our minds; we don’t get to weed them out overnight.
It may be that this envy, this feeling of losing-by-comparison, is a reflexive scolding from the part of you still habituated to those norms. After all, envy isn’t just wanting what other people have; it’s feeling that there’s something shameful about the fact we don’t already have it – as though that lack reveals some deeper truth about us that we’d rather not face.
Happily, there are some ways we can shrink the space between leaving a set of values and no longer measuring ourselves by them.
One is to try to covet what you have now, instead of what the self-critical voice tells you to want. You say you feel preoccupied by others’ promotions and prestige. But how would those people see you? Many of the people in the positions you envy – who spend their days in glass corner offices and their nights in long meetings – can’t bear seeing pictures of their contemporaries on holidays with the kids or running around with the dog, because for them, those are the things worth envying. Many people wish they had the time with their families that you do now – or even just the ability to say out loud how much they’d value it.
So consciously set aside some time to look at your life like an envious outsider peeping in – look, this man has the autonomy to make decisions; the bravery to leave a well-paying job; the self-possession to pursue new skills; no money worries! Ask what else people would say of you while thinking “I wish I were more like that”. Actively taking time to value what we have can retrain the part of us that criticises what we lack.
And remember that you can build your own opportunities to feel proud and purposeful. Careers hand us a sort of “snakes and ladders” version of what to want next and how to get to it, but you can make your own.
In the meantime, try not to be unkind to yourself by calling this “petty” or “foolish”. Envy can cling to all kinds of things, from jobs to spouses to hair or humour. The one thing all forms of envy have in common is they trace what we feel embarrassed about. In time, as your values catch up to your decisions, you won’t measure yourself like that any more.
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