“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This!
Sometimes I feel bad about myself when I see people on Instagram achieving success. I’m a performer and scrolling through other performers’ bigger shows and write-ups and hangouts makes me feel awful. To clarify: I’m genuinely happy when success happens to my true friends. It’s the gray, in-between type friends who give me that jealous feeling.
It’s like a tightening of heat in my chest. Which leads to ridiculous thoughts, like I’m a failure with no friends. Or I’m never going to “make it.” I start to ask myself what are they doing differently that I’m not doing. I want to just be comfortable with myself and not compare my achievements to others’, but it feels like no matter how hard I try, I cannot.
In the past, these were people who I thought I wanted to be friends with, but that’s not really true. I would realize they were snobs and find ways to cope: I unfollowed them, threw my phone into my couch, tried on clothes, texted a friend. Moving on isn’t necessarily a problem. But this feeling always comes back. How do I make it go away forever?
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Dear Forever Jealous,
When I was in high school, I developed a nasty habit. Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t interested in trying cigarettes or drugs or sipping small amounts of alcohol stolen from unguarded liquor cabinets in the early afternoon. I was interested in other people’s lives—specifically their class schedules. My school was large and I had friends in various social circles, and getting placed in a random class meant the difference between bonding or not bonding with people who I thought were the funniest and the most interesting and the most exciting.
There were plenty of smart, funny, interesting people in all of my classes, but I was forever intrigued by the classes I hadn’t been placed in. I had this mythology in my mind that somehow, some way, if I had just been placed in a different algebra class, if I was in the right lunch period, I would be happier, more successful. If only I had been given that luckier schedule with the right classmates and the right opportunities, my life would take on a new kind of shine. Its blemishes would fade away. I wouldn’t have to grapple with all the angst of my teenage life.
I imagined that my unlived life would offer me nothing but permanent bliss. And the fantasy worked in reverse, too—because all that shine cast a dull, gray light on the life I was actually living.
I’m sorry that you’re struggling with these persistent feelings of jealousy. There is a painful sting to feeling like you don’t quite measure up, like your goals will always be just out of reach. I understand your impulse to say, “What have they got that I don’t?” And it makes sense to me that you’d crave closer friendships with performers whose lives appear to resemble what you want for your own. But I wonder if you aren’t sucking the light out of your own life when you cast these not-so-close friends as superstars and then, when that fails, as disappointing snobs?
It’s possible the people who trigger you are in fact snobs. Maybe they learned that performers catch more light when they seem a little out of reach and maybe you, having a tender heart, are sensitive to that feeling of exclusion. But on social media, everyone performs. We perform friendship. We perform happiness. We perform vacations and weddings and new jobs. We may share a piece of our truth in these performances, but they can never tell the whole story. So in all likelihood, the moments you are glimpsing aren’t necessarily truths about their happiness. You are envious of the lives they perform—the lives they’d like everyone to believe they have.
You say you are genuinely happy when your real friends have success. This makes me think you are someone who values intimacy and connection, who knows the difference between superficial grinning for the ‘gram, and the authentic warmth of a phone call or a text that shares your joy and support. It also makes me think you have a hard time not being a part of things. Not every success can be your success. There will always be other life paths, other classrooms, other people. Maybe one day you will have tremendous success and even be a star, but there will always have to be room for other people’s light. And I don’t think you’ll be happy until you stop seeing that light as a threat to you.
Jealousy isn’t about what we have or do not have, or even what we can attain. It is the persistent false belief that others’ lives have been handed to them. It’s telling yourself, “I can’t have what I want until someone else hands it to me,” when the truth is your life is yours to make.
It’s true that some people get a head start in areas of wealth, or opportunity, or even love and support. But there is no person in your Instagram feed who doesn’t have to show up and do the work of living their life. And no matter how many successes they appear to have, no actor aces every audition, no comedian lands every joke, no singer writes only hit songs. In between all of the successes is work, work, and more work.
And so, the next time you are tempted to throw your phone into the couch, or try on clothes to lift your mood, I wonder if instead of looking at what others have, you can start to envision the life you’d like for yourself. Not the one you Instagram, but the one you live. What is it about performing that makes you feel like you’ve got to keep doing it? Is it the feeling of having all eyes on you? Or is it the electricity of human connection? What kind of work do you need to do to keep that electricity flowing? How do you get back to the business of lighting up your own life?
Thinking of all the ways your life could have fallen into place differently is a waste of the life you’ve been given. Do not imagine that your path is dimmer or less valuable. Instead, give it your fullest respect and attention. And please, do not snub your own life. It deserves your time, your work, and your light.