Why is it that whenever you feel most joyful, someone around you is always ready, maybe even eager, to puncture your balloon? Whether you’ve just landed a big customer, started a wonderful new relationship, or gotten a new job, there are always those who will point out the pitfalls in whatever is making you happy. How should you respond when you’re feeling happy–or even seeking happiness–and someone else tells you you’re wrong?
Here are some effective things you can say (or just say to yourself). Some are inspired by Andrea F. Polard’s column on the Psychology Today website.
1. Be sympathetic (because envy is human nature).
If someone else doesn’t like that you’re happy, it could well be because your detractor is unhappy himself or herself. As Polard points out, misery seeks company. “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,” the author Gore Vidal famously said, and many of us would recognize that near-universal sentiment. So if those close to you are feeling unsatisfied with their work, bank accounts, relationships, or any other aspects of their lives, your delight might feel like an affront and the urge to pull you back down to earth may be irresistible.
Once you recognize envy for what it is, it becomes much easier to bear. It’s a compliment, if you think about it. Listen patiently to whatever doom and gloom your detractor is predicting for you. Ask how his or her own life or work is going. A little sympathy and encouragement can go a long way toward easing feelings of envy. Think how much you’ll appreciate the same when–inevitably–you’re feeling envious yourself someday.
2. Listen and don’t answer (because they may be projecting their own feelings onto you).
I’ll never forget my last evening at the company where I worked for three years before going out on my own. I was saying goodbye to all the friends I’d made when a woman I barely knew pulled me aside. “You know,” she said confidentially, “You’ll run out of work.” And she proceeded to tell me about her own experience as a solopreneur. She had one great customer who gave her tons of work. Then one day it dried up, and she found herself in financial hardship.
More than 30 years later, I still remember the conversation vividly because I can’t think of anything less appropriate to say to me at that moment. I had already given notice, worked my last day on the job, and was actually carrying a box of my possessions because I was leaving forever and starting work as a self-employed person the following day. I just listened and nodded. And filed away the important lesson which was: Never become completely dependent on a single customer. I never have, even though there were certainly times when it would have made life simpler.
3. Remember that making yourself happy is good (no matter what anyone says).
In Nicole Hardy’s memoir Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin, she describes a conversation in her family-centric Mormon community. She’s just told a woman she barely knows that she took a diving vacation on her own, and the woman sniffs, “I guess I just don’t like myself that much.” Hardy politely doesn’t respond, but I thought “Gee, I’m so sorry to hear that,” might have been an appropriate comeback.
Some people will tell you, directly or indirectly, that seeking out your own happiness is a selfish thing to do. Now, I agree that seeking your own happiness at the cost of someone else’s unhappiness is wrong. But if you’re not hurting anyone, then it’s not only your right, it’s your duty to do what you can to make yourself happy, just as it is to put the oxygen mask on yourself in an airplane so that you can then help your child. When I’m feeling happy, I’m a better partner, a better friend, and a more productive worker, so being as happy as I can be helps me do more for others. I bet it works the same for you.
Think of it this way: It’s patriotic. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, and one of these is the pursuit of happiness. So go ahead–you’re entitled.
4. Get some space (because sometimes that’s the only solution).
If someone is insistently negative and determined to make you feel that way too, your best approach may be to put some distance between yourself and that person. If you’re at a party, excuse yourself and walk away. If it’s a friend, perhaps you need to back away from the friendship a little, if only temporarily. If it’s someone close to you, then say something before you withdraw. Tell your family member or friend that all the negativity is hurting you, and your relationship. If they care about you, there’s a chance they’ll at least try to stop bringing you down.
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