They were a perfectly nice couple on the surface of things, and when I first befriended them they were happy to share advice and tell me about their lives. But as time went on I noticed that they liked to take digs at people who had something they didn’t. If a person we knew went on a fancy vacation, they snarked about it. They loved reminding people in their circle who had advanced academic degrees that there was more to life than being “book smart.” (Neither of them went to college.) If someone purchased a new vehicle or a new dress that was obviously expensive, they loved openly criticizing the wisdom of the purchase. They seemed to have a need to reassure themselves that no matter what someone else was or had, that somehow they were “better” than them. And that meant that they were perfectly happy to take swipes at their friends to make sure their need to feel superior was assuaged. Of course our friendship fizzled once they realized I wasn’t interested in playing the game with them, nor was I going to live my life trying to avoid their approbation.
They were the epitome of what I have come to call the “Yardstick People.” Yardstick People spend every moment in every situation carrying around an invisible internal yardstick, which they use to measure themselves against whoever happens to be around them, trying to determine how they stack up. And given that my former friends were a pretty average couple, they found that just as often as not, their measurements came up short. Someone was always buying something they couldn’t, getting a job they couldn’t, having an experience they couldn’t. And to protect their fragile egos from having to acknowledge that they weren’t “winning” their internal measuring competitions, they would have to find ways to make those people smaller in some way. Their social interactions were dominated by their feelings of inadequacy and resentment.
The truth is it wouldn’t have mattered if this couple were among the nation’s wealthiest, its best and brightest. The truth is only one person in the world gets to be “the best” at anything, and even they may not stay that way for long, nor are they the “best” at everything. No matter who you are, there is always going to be someone with more money, more smarts, who is better looking, has better possessions, more education, more friends, a better career, or anything else that you might value. Even if you get into the more intangible and “spiritual” aspects of life, there will always be someone who seems to have a more advanced magical practice, someone who comes from a “more recognized” tradition, someone who seems “more powerful” or “more enlightened.” Doesn’t matter how “big” you think you are on your yardstick, there will always be someone who you can’t measure up to. Always.
Yardstick people are toxic and exhausting, and I do my best these days to avoid them. I’m also a lot more conscious about not picking up the yardstick in my own life. The truth is that we as humans are all a little insecure socially. We all have moments where we doubt ourselves and question whether we measure up. We are all tempted at times in our life to pick up the yardstick. It’s actually a normal impulse.
But while it is inevitable that we will at some point be tempted to pick up the yardstick, and also inevitable that we will find someone against which we do not “measure up,” it is not inevitable that we must make ourselves miserable because of it. What we choose to do about how it feels to not measure up is in fact entirely in our control.
Resentment is defined as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury.” But I think Merriam-Webster doesn’t quite capture the full nature of resentment as a feeling. Resentment brews like Turkish coffee — hot and very intense and bound to get you all riled up. It is a toxic brew of entitlement, fear of loss, jealousy and blame.
A very common situation in which resentment arises, one that illustrates the dynamic of resentment well, is the case of the woman who is struggling to conceive a child, confronted with a happily pregnant friend. The woman who wants a baby but has so far been unable to get pregnant is filled with a desire for something that she believes she has a right to expect to have, and when it ends up being a struggle it is emotionally devastating. The pregnant friend has nothing to do with why the other woman cannot conceive. The woman who cannot conceive has no possible claim on the pregnant woman’s baby. But seeing the pregnant woman, and seeing her happy, seeing her have what she wants so very very badly is too much for the other woman emotionally. Even if she is a good friend, the woman who cannot conceive is going to feel resentful. And the pregnant woman against whom that resentment is directed certainly does not deserve it. Of all the many situations where resentment can arise, this is among the most tragic, because no one is right, and no one is wrong, and yet the toxicity of the feelings involved and the damage they can do is significant.
Most instances where resentment arises, however, are not so heartbreakingly sympathetic. They are usually just plain poisonous. The worker who looks at their coworker getting a promotion (one he did not apply for) and decides to assume that she got it because she was a “diversity hire.” The person who has never known a day of hunger who looks at someone paying for groceries with food stamps who also happens to be carrying an iPhone and then complains that people on welfare are “eating lobster on their tax dollars.” The driver of the king cab pickup truck who deliberately parks in front of the electric vehicle charging stations because he wants to stick it to the rich people driving Teslas.
In each of these cases, that toxic brew of entitlement, threat of loss, blame, and jealousy can lead to not just bad feelings but bad actions. The feelings are strong and the belief that one’s sense of anger is justified because they “deserve better” permits them to act on that resentment. Suddenly, harming the object of your resentment feels like delivering justice as opposed to what it actually is — an assault on an innocent bystander. This is part of what distinguishes toxic resentment from actual righteous anger. When you have been actively and deliberately wronged by someone, what you’re feeling is not resentment. That’s straight up anger, which has its own issues attached to it. But anger can be harnessed constructively. Resentment usually can’t. The weird transitive aspect of resentment, where your ire and ill will settles on someone who really has little to do with why you’re not getting what you think you deserve means resentment is almost always misdirected in its hostility.
A lot of people like to blame Donald Trump for this rise in resentment in American culture. The truth is that it’s been brewing for a lot longer. Ronald Reagan stoked it when he campaigned on the mythical notion of “welfare queens” in 1980. The history of backlash against working women and against the gains made by marginalized people of all kinds is steeped in white male resentment.
The fact is, many of us hold resentment in our lives everyday, and just like the politically provoked resentment we see on a societal level, our little personal resentment dramas poison our relationships, and end with us doing and saying horrible things to people in our orbit. Every time you look at someone’s good fortune and instead of being happy for them, you indulge the part of you that says, “why can’t I have that?” or “Who are they to get that when I’m so much more worthy?” you are wallowing in resentment. And if you love watching one of your friends take a hit in an area of their lives that you’ve always secretly envied them for, yup, that’s resentment too. And it’s not a good look.
I’m the first person to recognize that we don’t always get to control which feelings arise when in our lives. But what marks the difference between a grown-ass person and a toddler is not whether you have certain feelings, but what you choose to do with them when they show up and knock on the door of your consciousness. When resentment knocks on the door, you do not have to let it into the house. But that’s exactly what a lot of people do — they let the resentment waft in, let it put its feet up on the couch, and then start feeding it snacks.
And where resentment has taken up residence, you’ll find yourself undermining your relationships. You’ll stop being empathetic and compassionate and start looking for ways to “get over” on the object of your resentment. You’ll start taking pleasure in their pain, and start looking for ways to take digs at them. And all the while, you’ll tell yourself that this person “deserves it,” that they “brought it on themselves” because how dare they be happy when you’re not? How dare they avail themselves of the goodness of their lives when you do not have the same as them? It’s not fair. You’ll pull out your yardstick to make sure that whatever happiness, good fortune or fruits of their labors they may be rocking, that yours is always just a little bit more than theirs.
And that’s all it takes. Now you’re there — you’re one of the Yardstick People. Welcome to the exhausting hamster wheel where nothing will ever be enough. Because no matter what it is you’re yardsticking on, someone will always have more of it than you.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When resentment knocks on your door, you can say,”Oh, hi dude! Yeah, I see you. I feel you, bro, but I don’t have time to hang with you today. I got other stuff to do.” And then you shut the door, and remind yourself that success and love and happiness are not pie. It is not in limited supply. Nearly every time someone around us is successful, it is NOT coming at your expense. I can count the number of times I have ever been in direct, head to head, zero-sum competition with someone for something over the last half a century (outside of a game) on one hand. And while sure, I have faced obstacles in my life, and some of them came in human form, you don’t get past the boulder in the road by focusing on the boulder, you focus on finding the path where the boulder isn’t.
Removing the poison of resentment from your life isn’t that hard if you accept the principle that if you don’t have something you want, the best thing to do is focus on making a plan to get it, rather than seething at someone else who has it. That other person doesn’t have the ultimate power to give you what you want or deprive you of it, so fixating on them accomplishes nothing. It just makes you miserable and kills your relationships.
What’s more, you lose the powerful, positive energy that comes from taking joy in others’ happiness and successes. We usually think of deploying empathy in our relationships when a person is upset or needing consolation, but deploying empathy during times when someone is happy or has obtained a great success lets you share in that uplifting feeling. It lets you genuinely celebrate with that person, who will appreciate that just as deeply as they do your commiseration when they are down. The positive energy that’s generated from celebration is in fact quite powerful, and can be harnessed as part of your own efforts to get what you want out of your life.
Have you ever wondered how it is that certain circles of friends seem to have a glow of success around them? Yes, sometimes that can all be a put on for Instagram, but often the love, the connection and the sense that everyone is supporting each others’ dreams becomes tangible. Because the members of the group are focused on building each other up, instead of measuring themselves against each other, the positive, expansive energy that gets applied to their lives multiplies, and it reflects back on them. It expands possibilities and results for everyone it touches. They are happier, and have more of the things they want, without the specter of resentment undercutting their ability to access joy or the quality of their friendship.
In the end, beating the influence of resentment is as simple as realizing that your attitude can often dictate what your experience will be. Will you choose to see the people around you as competitors and even adversaries? Or will you allow them to be your inspiration to reach even higher and share more happiness? In the words of the great Nipsey Hussle, “If you look at the people in your circle and don’t get inspired, you don’t have a circle, you have a cage.”