“You can be replaced.” It was a catch-phrase of my college years. A joke, tossed out when someone was being difficult, amusingly irritating, or just teasing. It was a joke, until one day it wasn’t. A response from a friend one evening struck deep. In that moment, I felt that I had been replaced, and suddenly the joke wasn’t funny anymore.
It’s been nearly 20 years, the friendship has been long-since repaired, and yet, I still don’t use that phrase.
We call jealousy “the green-eyed monster” and portray it as a moral failing on the part of the one who exhibits it – equating jealousy with spite, vengeance, pettiness, and malice. Sure, jealousy can make us act in those ways, but to link jealousy with “badness” shows a lack of compassion, toward others and toward ourselves. The fact is, even the best, kindest, and most generous of us sometimes feels a hot flush when confronted by the apparent threat of someone we see as prettier, smarter, more talented, more loving, a closer friend, a dearer confidant, a better worker, etc.
I recognize my own response to jealousy – stop me if this sounds familiar. My arms and legs feel hot and heavy. My chest closes up. I feel a rush of anger and yes, hatred, toward the other person. That anger is immediately followed by an overwhelming wave of guilt and self-loathing. That’s when the voices start – again, let me know if you’ve heard these before.
“What kind of horrible person hates someone just for being a good friend?”
“Her house is prettier than yours; why can’t you get off your lazy ass and clean once in a while?”
“So, they hired him. Deal with it. You can’t do [fill in the blank professional task] anyway.”
“Well, of course they invited her and not you. Look how pathetic you are.”
And round and round the circle goes. Because the worse one feels about oneself, the more jealous one becomes of someone who might be “better” who might – and wait for it… Replace us.
Yep. Jealousy, that thing we label as a moral failing, is rooted in something pretty basic, I think. I know when I take out my jealousies and look them in the eye, I see one thing. Fear. I don’t really care if someone else has more money, talent, looks, brains, humor, or compassion than I do. I care that I am not enough. I am afraid that I can be replaced. Maybe I’m not unique after all. Maybe my uniqueness is a failing. Maybe that rejection really did say something about me. Maybe my kids really would rather have so-and-so as a mother. Maybe my husband really would be better off with another wife. Maybe the friendships that I see as close are really just sort of ‘meh’ to my friends.
Unfortunately the fears that drive jealousy are, like all fears, extraordinarily good at masquerading as something else. The fear of being replaceable shows up as:
- Indignation – “How dare that slut flirt with my husband/boyfriend/partner that way!”
- Derision – “Please! Doesn’t she really have anything better to do than bake all day? What, did she lay the freaking eggs herself, too? Must be nice.”
- Defensiveness – “He totally cherry-picked the research that backs up his point. I can reference just as many articles that validate my opinion, and there aren’t any quacks on my side.”
- Anger at innocent bystanders – “Will you quit making that racket right now! Your father and I are trying to have a peaceful conversation. You’re giving me a headache.”
Do you recognize any of these? I do. Fear of being “left out” (translation: superfluous, unwanted, replaceable) runs so deep for me that I don’t always see it until I’ve stepped in a giant, steaming pile of my own bitchiness and insecurity.
I’m getting better about recognizing the fears that drive some of my behaviors. That recognition isn’t always comfortable. It’s a lot easier to be angry, indignant, tense, and controlling than it is to openly acknowledge one’s own feelings of inadequacy. Some of the toughest conversations I’ve had in recent years have been the ones where I’ve found myself forced to make this apology (or something similar): “I’m sorry I’m being that way. I’m jealous, and I’m so scared of being left out. I’m afraid that you’ll realize how worthless I really am, and then I get all tense and weird, and then I hate myself even more.”
Yet, weirdly, on the rare occasions where I’ve had to strip off all of the masks, the result hasn’t been rejection but a deepening of the relationship.
The reality is that none of us can be replaced, but we can all be augmented, and we need to be. None of us can be everything to someone. We can’t fill every role in another person’s life or on the job. We each bring our own unique qualities to a relationship whether personal, familial, or professional. Even when relationships end, the driving force isn’t usually replacement; it’s adjustment. Something in that interaction no longer fit, or something else was needed. The presence of someone else in a relationship (business or personal) speaks only to the needs of the other person, or organization, in that moment in time.
When I began this post yesterday morning, it felt as though something was missing. A conversation with a friend gave me the missing piece. My friend pointed out that there is one circumstance under which we are all replaceable. When we hide our true selves, and present a “generic, bland face” to the world, then, yes, we do become replaceable and are likely to be replaced. Let’s face it – it’s a whole lot easier to replace those dishes you bought at Target or Ikea than the hand-thrown bowl you picked up at a craft fair. The bowl may have irregularities and may not be glossy, but it called to you for a reason, and that reason was its uniqueness.
Here’s my goal for the next time I feel a surge of jealousy: I plan to say to myself, “Yep, I’m scared. I feel threatened. But, I’m still me. I didn’t stop being the person I was five minutes ago. I’m going to take a deep breath and trust that I’m fulfilling the roles that are right for me.”
How do you cope with your jealousies? I’d like to know. We each bring something unique to the table. And no, you can not be replaced.