"I'm so sorry this isn't homemade," Irene fretted, as she unpacked a deli salad for her book club. "I've been so busy." Irene's friends Sarah and Lynn, early arrivers to that month's discussion, assured their hostess that takeout was fine. But Irene wasn't finished. "I'm such a loser," she said. "I haven't read the book. Work's been insane, and Todd is out of town, and the baby has a rash. I'm so tired."
The book club members were quick to offer comfort but felt slightly uncomfortable doing so. Sarah, in particular, couldn't shake a strange combination of annoyance and anxiety that stayed with her all evening. "Why does Irene apologize so much for her life?" she asked Lynn later. "She's got this great job, beautiful child, terrific husband—does she really not see that?"
"It's envy preemption," said Lynn. "She's talking about how terrible her advantages are before we have a chance to get jealous. People do it all the time." This was a proverbial lightbulb moment for Sarah. Having a name for Irene's behavior allowed her to see that her friend was only trying to make everyone in the book club seem equal. It wasn't ingratitude but part of a strange little dance in which people adjust their presentation of self to smooth over differences, minimize discomfort, and gain approval. Many of us—yes, perhaps even you—perform this Social Image Two-Step without even thinking about it. First, we're acutely aware of our social, financial, or physical blessings. Then, worried about other people's jealousy, we denigrate our own advantages.
Rather than leveling the social playing field so that everyone relaxes, envy preemption tends to leave people feeling the way Sarah did: unseen, uneasy, and vaguely unhappy. If you ever notice yourself engaging in a little envy preemption, or have had it done to you, it's time to sit this one out.