Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I am really jealous of my brother’s new girlfriend, literally the exact opposite of me. I’m hitting a rough patch just as her life is unfolding seamlessly. I saw her out with another guy and I made it sound like she was cheating on my brother. I usually don’t do stuff like this but it just felt good at the time for them to experience a hiccup, something that didn’t go their way.
Turns out he was her stepbrother, so my brother figured out that I essentially made up the story. As far as I can tell he never said anything to his girlfriend, but he avoids being alone with me. I really want to explain myself but I have no idea what to say. I know what I did was wrong but it was an impulse decision and I would like to know how long I can expect this to be awkward.
Dear Jealous: This has me thinking “Silence of the Lambs.”
Which tends not to be good.
But it’s not a lurid part, it’s just a memorable line: “We covet what we see.”
The world is enormous, teeming with billions of people, all dealing with all kinds of shortcomings and dysfunctions and devastations — but do we ever look at ourselves and think, “I’m hitting a rough patch, but I am so grateful I have a loving family and clean water and electricity”? Sometimes, sure — but more often, we see people right next to us and interpret their lives as basically the same as ours except better. So, instead of focusing on your many strengths and privileges and tapping into them to smooth out your rough patch, you lock onto your brother’s girlfriend and judge yourself lacking by comparison.
If you hadn’t met her to use for comparison, your eyes might well have rested on another life to covet, someone else to resent as a handy vessel for your general, harder-to-resolve anger at life.
One of the most effective ways to thwart this impulse (we all have it, I think) is just to know it’s there and call it by name. “I covet what I see.” And therefore: “It’s not this person or that person or her success or his big house, it’s me. I’m out of sorts and using others’ blessings as the focus of my distress because it’s easier than looking inward and fixing what I need to fix.”
When we do succumb to this ugly impulse, as you did, the only fix is to own it fully and in detail.
So, here’s what you say to your brother: “I am angry at myself and the world right now and I smeared your girlfriend to make myself feel better. I don’t expect you to forgive me. It’ll be hard to forgive myself. But I take full responsibility for what I did and I profoundly regret hurting you two.”
And if you seriously think your worst consequence for a “hiccup” (you kid, right?) is that the “awkward” phase isn’t passing quickly enough for you, then you have major work to do with your conscience. You did a self-indulgent, thoughtlessly cruel thing and must own up to that.
Doing so fully might take care of “rough patches” as well. It happens.
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