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.
Saying Goodbye to Envy Preemption
It seems odd, but observation—not praise, not blame, not complaint, not self-deprecation—is the behavior that allows other people to relax in your presence, forget your differences, and enjoy being with you. When you're managing envy preemption, you're not actually seeing any aspect of other people besides their reaction to you. The one question in your head is: "How am I doing? How am I doing? How am I doing?" Stepping clear of this narcissistic angst requires only that you change the question slightly, to "How are you doing?"
If you ask this as a ploy for attention (the way Joey did in the TV series Friends), it will fall flat. But if you mean it, it can transform awkward social posturing into real connection. The most socially gracious people I know share one character trait: intense, nonjudgmental curiosity.
I recently lost one of these beloved friends to cancer. When I visited her shortly before her death, I was nervous; I wasn't sure what one says to a dying person. My friend erased all that uneasiness the instant she saw me. Rather than discussing her medical condition, she threw open her arms and said, "What's been happening to you? Tell me everything!" To the very end of her life, she remained captivated by other people's stories—so much so that I don't believe she ever even thought to herself, How am I doing? Everything she said seemed to be some version of "Here's looking at you, kid."
Becoming the Compassionate Witness
Being a compassionate witness to others will help anyone you meet feel seen and understood. To access it, simply take your attention off yourself and focus it fully on the person before you—not as an act of self-abandoning martyrdom (that's just another form of envy preemption) but as an opportunity for you to see how interesting people are once you begin to pay close and careful attention to them. You'll find that almost every interaction becomes less upsetting and more enjoyable.
For example, if Sarah had been watching Irene as a compassionate witness rather than wanting to knock some sense into Irene's head or worry about her own place in the social universe (i.e., husbandless, childless, fancy toaster-less), she would have seen Irene's behavior the way Lynn did. "Oh, look. Irene seems so awfully worried that her good fortune will make us dislike her." The moment Lynn articulated this dynamic, Sarah felt much more generous toward Irene.
I myself am ridiculously intrigued by what people are really thinking about life, love, work, and highway speed traps. Try asking three people at a cocktail party if they have any phobias. If you're anything like me, you'll have a fascinating evening. Of course, you may not share my lust for psychological intensity. In that case, try a shortcut I've learned for getting into an observer's perspective: Ask people to tell you things about themselves that might be featured on your favorite TV shows. For example:
- If you like watching…the Food Network
Ask people…"What's the best (or worst) meal you ever ate?"
- If you like watching…Fear Factor
Ask people…"What's the scariest thing you've ever done?"
- If you like watching…The Crocodile Hunter
Ask people…"Have you ever been attacked by an animal?"