Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where we sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about the life you want.
I’m stuck, and I can’t help but feel like I’ll be this way forever.
I don’t really have much to complain about. I have a fine job, good friends, and enough free time to do things that I enjoy. I’m renting my own place (with roommates, but that’s a given), and I have a good relationship with my family. But even with all that, I feel like I’m bogged down in the status quo, and I can’t do anything to get out.
I look at some of my friends who have careers they love, or own a house, or are getting married and having kids, and it just seems like it’s easier for them to get out and get what they really want. I’m not even sure that I want the same things they have, but I know that, if what I’ve got is all there is, I’m not happy. But I don’t even know how to start changing things in a way that would help, and anyway, who am I to be dissatisfied with my fine job and my adequate free time and my crowded apartment when so many other people have so much less? I just feel spoiled and unhappy all at once, and I don’t know how to fix it.
Any advice for me?
Full But Not Satisfied
If someone invents a way for us to enjoy the company of others without comparing ourselves to them, they’ll be the richest person who has ever lived. Eat your heart out, Mansa Musa.
I don’t mean to trivialize what you’re feeling here; in fact, just the opposite. This sense of relative dissatisfaction is so deeply, essentially human that it may be the most universal emotion after pain, hunger, and arousal. There’s even evidence that, if your neighbor wins the lottery, you’re more likely to go bankrupt trying to keep up with them. Obviously, that’s not a logical response, but if you still think people always act logically, boy do I have some bad news.
So, first, try to stop feeling ashamed of wanting to be on an even playing field with your peers. You’re a social animal, and your only point of reference in the vast, spinning cosmos is the other animals in your little monkey-sphere. That’s a fact, but it’s not one that defines you in any meaningful way.
Second, it might be helpful for you to talk to those same friends that you’re quietly envying about what it is that they wish they had, or what they’re dissatisfied with in their own lives. This can go a couple of ways, but I think any result will be helpful: it’s possible that it could work out that they yearn for the freedom and flexibility of your free-wheeling, field-playing apartment lifestyle, bringing you new appreciation for the life you’re living! Or it could be that they’re utterly content, but you realize that their pastoral existence of lawn mowing and spit-up swabbing sounds like hell, allowing you to feel smugly superior in the face of their irreversible mistakes. Either way, getting a better look at what shade the grass really is on the other side can’t hurt.
More importantly, that step can help you get to my third piece of advice, which is taking the time to identify what it is you’re actually missing, once you silence the part of your caveman brain that just wants to compare clubs (as it were) with the closest fellow neanderthal. What are you actually pining for here? Are you looking for stability? Adventure? Success? Validation? Love? What is it that would actually make your life into something you’re proud of? What’s keeping you from feeling that way about the life you have now?
This sounds all well and good, but it’s not an easy question to answer. In my experience, it took realizing that “the plan” I’d spent years conforming my life to was actually a terrible fit for me; once I threw away the empty baggage of the idea of who I was supposed to be, it was easier to feel who I actually was. Putting it this way makes it sound like I attained nirvana, but it was actually a lot of ugly crying into the phone to my mom and lying on the floor eating an entire sleeve of Oreos and drinking wine while Parks & Recreation played continuously for eight to twelve hours (yes, Netflix, I am still watching, stop judging me). What I’m saying is, it’s hard work, and it sucks to do it, but it’s a process you have to go through if you’ve spent a lot of time trying to fit into a container that was never built for you in the first place.
Once you’ve gone through that, it’s a lot easier to see where you’re going and how to get there. It’s not that everything falls into place; it’s never that simple. It’s just that it’s a lot easier to plot your course when you can see the stars.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.