When Friends and Neighbors Are More Successful Than You

The American novelist Gore Vidal once remarked “it is not enough to succeed, others must fail,” a brilliant observation that explains so much about human behavior. Of course, when you are the one who has failed, the thought that you make successful people feel even better is unbearable!

Success and Failure

First, what do you mean by “more successful than you?” Successful in what way? Your neighbor or cousin may be richer, but that doesn’t mean he is happy. Those who shout the loudest about their success are often hiding some inner fear or weakness. For example, plenty of individuals who were bullied and rejected at school, or felt unloved and unwanted by their parents, try to compensate by making lots of money or attaining positions of power. They never forget what it was like to be the short, ugly kid, ridiculed and beaten, and are determined that one day the world will pay. So they make their money, or achieve some kind of status, and then do what they can to rub other people’s noses in it. But such behavior does nothing to remove that inner emptiness and pain – if anything it makes it worse.

Remember, almost no one has it all. Maybe they love their job but suspect their partner is cheating on them. Or maybe their partner is beautiful and loving, but their job is miserable and badly paid. Then again, your neighbor may have a bigger house, plenty of money, a beautiful and loving partner, but discover that his daughter is self-harming, or that his son is addicted to drugs. Ask someone who has lived and worked among the super-rich and they will certainly have horror stories to tell about addiction, infidelity, and general dysfunction (the British psychiatrist Oliver James offers some excellent examples of such dysfunction among the rich and successful in his book Affluenza).

Unfortunately, social media, which many now use constantly, creates a distorted and exaggerated view of other people’s lives. No one ever puts up photographs of themselves arguing with their partner over bills, worrying about their mortgage repayments, or suspecting one another of infidelity. Just look at the vacation photos, for instance: all sun tans and smiles, not a single image of bad hotel food or flight delays.

The Fragility of Success

When the average man says he feels inadequate and complains that everyone is more successful than him, he usually means that they have more money and a bigger house. But pause to consider if this is something really worth envying. Be in no doubt, money and possessions bring problems of their own. Wealthy people live in constant fear of someone taking it away. If they were originally poor but made lots of money through business, they grow used to a certain standard of living and dread returning to their previous life. Those who have never known anything but wealth, on the other hand, quite rightly fear they’d be unable to cope with life as an ordinary worker.

To be rich is to live in a state of constant fear. What if some far-left government were to be installed and take away all that money in taxation? People who run their own business, even the very successful, know that no matter how brilliant you may be, events are not always under your control: accountants cheat you, suppliers go bust, new technologies disrupt your industry, or there is a sudden collapse in demand.

Personal problems also tend to be magnified when big money is involved. For example, a rich businessman may detest his daughter’s husband and suspect that he married into the family in hopes of inheriting their money. But what can he do? She loves this man, and now her father must live with the knowledge that the business he worked so hard to build will be inherited by someone he loathes. Or the children of wealthy parents may watch in horror as their ageing father leaves the family home to his beautiful new wife, someone they believe to be a fraud.

As for those who enjoy a successful family life, even this has its darker side. Bernard Shaw once remarked that there are two tragedies in life: the first is to fail to obtain the things you desire, the second is to succeed. You need only glance through the local newspaper to know how suddenly and tragically a life can end. Even the happiest and most successful family unit cannot last forever – and the members know this.

Understand Your Resentment

If you resent the success of others, this is something you really need to address. Not only is it unedifying, but successful people quickly sense bitterness and jealousy – and the worst of them will rub your nose in it.

For example, your friend develops a grudge against a neighbor. The neighbor is rich and successful, and yet most people find him pleasant and good-humored, not arrogant and boastful like your friend claims. Your friend cannot believe others feel this way and assures them that he is an arrogant show-off. Of course, the truth is that your friend’s jealousy is so obvious, and so unpleasant, the rich neighbor cannot resist antagonizing him with tales of luxury vacations and expensive hotels. When people resent the success of others, they usually find this difficult to hide, and it tends to come out in ugly, sarcastic remarks and passive-aggressive behavior.

You must understand why their success bothers you. That way, you can do something about it. If you are preoccupied by their success, it is probably because they make you feel small in some way. Self-esteem partly depends on how we compare to others, or, to be more precise, how we feel we compare to others. When they appear more successful, our self-esteem drops. The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, for example, came to believe that most people, even those who appear confident, struggle with a sense of inferiority (“to be a human being means to feel oneself inferior,” as he put it). In some, however, this feeling is exaggerated, and they are desperate to prove themselves. The individual then “overcompensates” by adopting absurd and unrealistic goals, which he or she inevitably fails to achieve, thus making them even more bitter and resentful.

Comparisons Are Odious

The most obvious solution is the most simple: stop comparing yourself to others. Many people spend their lives locked into a sort of ‘ego game,’ each trying to outdo the other in a perpetual cold war, though hidden behind fake smiles. Others simply refuse to play. They wish friends and neighbors well, but remain largely indifferent to their success or failure. It is worth adding that this isn’t always sincere of course. Some pretend not to care, which creates problems of its own (and in any case, people are very good at spotting a fake).

Forge your own path instead. You are not in this world to try and keep up with your neighbors and friends but to develop your own latent talents, to grow and to fulfil your own nature. Embrace whatever is odd, eccentric or different in you. No strutting and boasting millionaire ever tries to impress a hippy! This is not because he respects the hippy but because he knows the hippy doesn’t care – that his lifestyle is so different, and so much his own, that there is no point even trying.

Consider the most successful people you know. Now divide them into those you respect and those you do not. The success of those you like and admire does not diminish you; being jealous of them, however, and secretly hoping their business or marriage fails, does. As for those you do not respect, why would you care? If you do not respect them, allowing their success to hurt or humiliate you gives them power. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, never forget this.

If you practise mindfulness, you could also use this. Through mindfulness, people learn to monitor their thoughts, to stand back and observe them as one observes a screaming, shouting child. In general, people are swept along by such thoughts, as helpless as the passengers on a rollercoaster. With practise, you can catch your mind as it begins comparing your life to a successful neighbor or friend. Instead of allowing this to happen, you learn to say “ah, there I go again.”

What Do You Mean by Success?

It may sound a little mawkish, but the most important success is that of character. Everyone ought to have their own principles and code of honor, which they compromise for no one. So long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and say “I have lived up to my principles, and I am an honorable person” the success or failure of others should mean little.

In any case, resenting other people’s success implies that you wish to be someone else. And the purpose of life is not to achieve what others have achieved but to be the best you can be – to explore your own character and bring to perfection the skills and abilities latent within you. A life of imitation would be no life at all. And people who are highly conscious of other’s success tend either to resent them and wish them ill, which is an ugly and dishonorable way to live, or they try to copy them, which is mere self-betrayal.

The success of others is only an issue if you choose to make it one. In any case, many successful people take little pride in the fact, while others are barely conscious of it, or do not even consider themselves to be successful. And as for those who do take pride in their success, and do like to rub it in, nothing will annoy them more than your polite indifference!

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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