Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
I live in a neighborhood/community where there is a big emphasis on money. It is a young neighborhood where people are just starting work, and some are making serious money and throwing it around. So there has recently become this pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.” I have a salaried job and al pi derech hateva I am not going to become a millionaire any time soon. This was always ok with me, and I didn’t want more financially in my life. I baruch Hashem have many brachos and all the important things; friends, family, marriage are going well. I always thought this would be enough for me, but recently I just can’t quash the feelings of jealousy, resentment, and frustration that I have. I find myself spending money I don’t have on things I don’t need. What is most frustrating is that I always thought I didn’t believe in this, that it didn’t matter to me. I try to fight it, but it isn’t working. My sechel isn’t winning and I find myself becoming more discouraged. Can you please offer some encouragement and advice to me and others like me trying to be ok with our financial status?
What you are discussing has become an epidemic. Once considered to be almost a caricature, “keeping up with the Joneses” has crept into the lives of many of us. The obvious culprit is the fact that many Jews have had the good fortune to do rather well financially. This appears to naturally lead to more lavish lifestyles, in turn causing those who have less to feel jealous. However, this is only a very surface-level explanation.
Although wealth appears to “naturally” lead to a lavish lifestyle, this was not always true. In fact, this is not true today for all who are wealthy. Many very wealthy people choose to lead relatively modest lives, despite their ability to easily afford a more extravagant one. If all the wealthy people led the life that you can afford, how much would their larger bank accounts bother you? If you would still be bothered by this, why? If not (or if you would be significantly less bothered), what is it about their lifestyle that makes you feel the need to emulate it?
Although increased wealth in our community certainly reinforces this vicious cycle, it is not the wealth itself that initially caused the problem. On a slightly deeper level, our close-knit communities often consist of people on all levels of socioeconomic status. For the larger society, there are often separate communities for the super-rich, the merely wealthy, middle-income families, lower income, and impoverished ones. Within our communities, however, it is not uncommon for people of very different strata to attend the same schools, shuls, and other community functions.
This also, however, is not the underlying cause for jealousy and the need to keep up with others. Social media and our show-it-all society play a role, but they too only reinforce an issue that has deeper sources. If, at one point, you were happy with “all the important things; friends, family, marriage,” what changed?
What is it that causes a person to be jealous of someone else’s possessions? What is it that leads people to dedicate their lives to amassing increasingly more money? I would think that people would naturally be more inclined to focus on the things that make them happy, rather than on making money. The only answer appears to be that money is what makes some people happy. The question is why. You can’t have a conversation with money; it’s not much good during family time; and it doesn’t tell you how nice you look. Typically, it’s not the money itself—or the things that it can buy—that make us happy. It’s what having these things tell us about ourselves. The rub is that this doesn’t actually make us happy either.
Although on some level we may feel that being wealthy will make us feel good about ourselves (therefore making us happy), this never happens. This is the reason that wealthy people are often driven to become rich, then to become uber rich, and on and on. At each step, they think that the next step will finally lead to true happiness, only to repeat the process once they reach that point. (This holds true for things like power and control as well.)
It is only the truly happy who are able not to feel emotionally pressured to continue amassing wealth. So, how do we begin to reject the false promises of wealth? The first step is to recognize that our ultimate goal is to feel good about ourselves. The next step is to acknowledge that the reason that we think we need wealth and its trappings is that we think this is what will lead to happiness.
So, what will actually lead to happiness? Simply put, liking ourselves is all that is necessary to be happy and content with what we have. “But I do like myself,” you might say. Realize, however, that the way that we like ourselves is very different from the way in which we like others. This leads to confused feelings about many thigs in life.
When you feel jealous of someone else, are you judging him favorably, or are you simply judging yourself negatively? Likely, your feelings toward him (i.e., whether you like him, and how much) haven’t changed in the slightest based on his possessions. In other words, your jealously is really about how you feel toward yourself because you do not have what he does. If so, obtaining that item will not make you feel any better about yourself. Therefore, all you will have done is feed the monster—and raise the bar. The more deeply mired you are in this vicious cycle, the harder it is to see it for what it is.
We base our feelings about others on what we feel about them generally. In order to feel something about ourselves, however, we tend to analyze and overanalyze many aspects and factors, constantly looking for specific reasons to feel something (about which to like ourselves or dislike ourselves). Therefore, our feelings toward ourselves are based on very specific things, barring us from simply liking who we generally are.
The other basic difference between our feelings toward ourselves and those toward others lies in the fact that we view others as based on intrinsic qualities that we believe they have (like caring, interesting, funny, etc.). This is part of the reason that we can easily judge others instinctively. When we base our feelings toward others on intrinsic qualities, there is no need to analyze specific actions, abilities, or accomplishments. The way that we feel toward ourselves, however is generally based on specific external “qualities.” Since we focus on our capabilities, accomplishments, social graces, and other external factors (which would not materially affect our feelings toward others), we often get mired in a constant and ongoing effort to define ourselves—in order to feel positively toward ourselves.
On a basic—and immediate—level, learning to acknowledge when your thoughts and reactions are based on emotion rather than logic can help you to begin challenging both the emotions and these thoughts and reactions. On a deeper level, understanding the basis for your sense of self and working on increasing your level of intrinsically-based self-esteem will help you to react in a better way. It will also help you in many other areas, both emotionally and socially.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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