Dear Therapist:

Many years ago, we moved to what was then a quiet neighborhood. We were excited to live in a less developed part of town away from the hustle and bustle. Since then, a lot of other people have taken advantage of the large properties and built fancy houses here. While our neighbors are all wonderful people, the standard of living is very high, much different than when we moved in. We are starting to feel the pressure and as our kids are growing up, they are starting to notice that our small house and simpler lifestyle are very different then our neighbors. We...make a living but nothing compared to what others are doing. Though it doesn’t seem fair, we have reached the point where we are seriously considered moving as we are feeling more and more like we aren’t fitting in. Should we have the inner confidence to be our own people and not be...[affected]...by what is around us? If we can, is that something we can pass on to our children? Or, is that too much to expect and realistically when there is such a discrepancy between standard of living, we need to be practical and try and find someplace else?

 

Response:

Your questions are all based on one particular situation. However, I think that each question that you pose, and each point that you make, relates to a different aspect of the situation.

You mention that you are starting to “feel the pressure.” Does this mean that you feel pressured to actively increase your standard of living to conform to that of your neighbors? Or does this simply mean that you are emotionally comparing yourselves to your neighbors, and feel that you fall short?

If you are feeling compelled to make changes to your lifestyle based on your current surroundings, you need to ask yourselves whether this will ultimately make you happier. Typically it does not. Generally, the need to keep up with the Joneses comes from a negative place (not feeling good about ourselves) rather than a positive place (like actually enjoying the “advancements” and wanting them for healthy reasons).

Regardless of whether you are actually considering changes to your lifestyle, your feelings likely come from comparison of yourself to others. We all do this, and many of our decisions are—at least in part—based on this. However, when a major decision—or even constant significant thoughts and feelings—are based on this type of comparison, we are tapping into our inner insecurities.

You pointed to the fact that your kids notice that your lifestyle is not as extravagant as that of your neighbors. The question is whether this is a problem. Are your kids simply recognizing that they don’t have the same type of house, car, etc.? Or does this bother them? If it does bother them, is it that they want to enjoy certain possessions or experiences, or do they feel inadequate? If the latter is true, are they picking up this feeling from you?

No two kids are alike, and they won’t all respond similarly to the same situation. Often, however, they don’t react the way that adults do. Our adult thoughts and emotions are based on feelings, fears, and insecurities that were created in childhood and reinforced throughout our lives. To some degree, we developed insecurities based on what we observed in our parents. Your children are looking to you in order to figure out how to feel about this—and other—circumstances.

From one perspective, this can be a learning experience for your kids. At some point, they  will experience circumstances in which they will compare themselves to others. This can relate to money, possessions, looks, intelligence, various capabilities, and many other areas. Generally, we don’t want to completely shelter our children from situations that may test their ability to feel good about themselves. Rather, we want to teach them how to properly handle these situations.

However, teaching our children how to feel, think, and act should be predicated on our own ability to do so appropriately. Your children will likely see through any attempt to pretend that you are not bothered by the situation or feeling the pressure to conform. This can easily translate in their minds to your—and therefore their—sense of self-worth. If you can work through your own insecurities and truly feel good about yourselves regardless of your lifestyle, it will be much easier to show your children that one has nothing to do with the other.

Realistically, it can be very difficult for someone to separate their sense of self-worth from things on which Western society places emphasis in terms of its definition of success. However, true success in life has nothing to do with money, possessions, or lifestyle. Personal values, happiness, family, friends, and many other things relate much more strongly to success in life. If we can believe this—then feel it—the need to keep up with the Joneses can be left in the dust…where it belongs.

Perhaps you don’t feel that you can achieve this level of understanding and positive sense of self-worth as separate from your lifestyle and possessions. If this is the case, remaining in your current situation can become increasingly emotionally difficult. Regardless of your decision, be sure to help your children to discern the difference between who they are and what they have.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

  www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200