When I told my best friend I was happy for her because she was pregnant, it couldn’t have been further from the truth. The truth was that her announcement ruined my day, my week and my self-esteem. It added pressure to my already pressurized mid-30s brain and kept me awake at night with images of celebrating birthdays, alone and bitter, while everyone else basked in the warmth and love of their self-made families.
A few years later, when I was pregnant, I felt too guilty to announce it to my single friends. One night, as I finally plucked up the courage to pick up the phone and share the news, I said to my husband, “Watch, as I ruin someone’s day.”
He looked at me in utter confusion. “What are you talking about?” he said. “They’re your friends. They’ll be happy for you.”
“There’s no such thing as being happy for somebody else,” I shrugged, and he looked at me like I had just announced that I was a psychopathic flesh-eating robot.
I began asking around to see whether others believed it was possible to be completely happy for another person, and was surprised to find just how many responded in the affirmative. Is everyone deluding themselves—too afraid to admit the socially unacceptable truth—or is it really possible to be happy for someone else, even when their achievement strikes a blow at your own sense of self-worth?
From our first days in school, when we compare our progress against our friends, through every major milestone in life, we have no choice but to judge our successes based on that of our peers. And if our peers are faster, smarter and more popular, then we may experience feelings of inferiority. For example, if you get 98 percent on a test and everyone else gets 99 percent, then you might say that you did well. But you are more likely to kick yourself for coming in last.
If a friend’s news is a goal that you too are striving for, like getting a promotion or buying a house, then news of their success will just stir the pot of your own frustrations. How can you possibly be happy for someone whose actions have just made you feel like a failure? Isn’t a tiny part (or perhaps not so tiny, if you’re really honest) of you angry at that person for inflicting added pressure on you? For example, when all your friends are single, there’s no pressure to get married. But when, one by one, they start to pair off, well, guess what? Suddenly, you’ve gone from carefree and popular to stressed, alone on a Saturday night and feeling horribly inadequate. All this because of actions taken by people who call themselves your friends.
Of course, when someone hits their milestones and succeeds in life, they aren’t doing it to spite you. But it hurts nonetheless and it hurts because they did it and you didn’t.
So next time you say “I’m happy for you,” ask yourself, am I really? And if someone claims to be “happy for you,” be sensitive; don’t boast about your successes and don’t blame them if they would rather find new friends who don’t make them feel so bad about themselves. Chances are, when they’ve hit the milestone too, they’ll be back.
For example, when I had fertility problems, it seemed like everyone around me was multiplying. My circle of barren friends was narrowing and pretty soon I felt like I would be the only one left. I felt horribly inadequate and began to get heart arrhythmias whenever a friend called or emailed. I began to avoid all friends over 30 (which was, oh, everyone) just in case more baby news came my way. I considered moving to a deserted island. I didn’t even feel ready for my own baby, but I was beginning to feel like a failure. And all because of actions taken by my friends.
Of course we shouldn’t hold ourselves back just to please others, and we should always seek out our own happiness. I’m just saying that in so doing we will invariably create casualties. It’s a sad fact of life, but to quote Dale Carnegie, “If you want enemies, excel your friends, but if you want friends, let your friends excel you.”