My psychoanalyst had an ashtray in her office that said: “Things come in mixed packages.” I haven’t seen that ashtray in 40 years, but I still think about the wisdom of it. There are two important elements to the message. First, we are all both good and bad with strengths and weaknesses. So the point is: accept yourself. Second, when we feel jealous of someone, it is helpful to remember that there are probably things in that person’s life that we would not want. Someone may be very rich, but is unhappily married; someone may have a happy marriage, but has a child with problems; someone may be more successful in their career, but has health issues, etc. The two elements of the message are related because if we cannot accept that we are a mixed package we are more prone to be jealous.
My patient John cannot accept that he is a mixed package. This makes it difficult for him to feel good about himself. He also cannot accept that other people are mixed packages which makes it difficult for him to sustain a relationship with a business or romantic partner. There is always a woman who is more beautiful; knows more about politics; or has a wider social circle than his girlfriend. Similarly, there is always a business person who is a better speaker; more financially savvy; or a better manager than his partner. We have developed a phrase to describe this phenomenon: cherry picking. When John sees a woman more beautiful than his girlfriend, he does not think about whether this woman will understand him as well as she does or whether she will share his sense of humor. He compares people on the basis of one trait rather than as a mixed package. No one can pass the cherry picking test.
John’s inability to accept himself as a mixed package makes him jealous of other people. If a friend has a famous girlfriend; if someone has a more beautiful house; if someone is richer than he is, he feels depressed. Whenever he visits his friend Bob in Chicago, he comes home feeling bad about himself because Bob has children and he does not. He conveniently forgets that Bob had an affair that broke up his marriage and he does not live with his children full time and they are angry at him for hurting their mother. When he visits Tom in Boston, he comes home hating his house because Tom’s townhouse is bigger. Each of his friends has something that he is missing and that makes him depressed.
In the end, we have to accept the mixture of good and bad in ourselves in order to see it in other people. Those we love have weaknesses and frailties that frustrate and disappoint us; and those we idealize and envy have weaknesses and frailties that we may not know about. So simple and yet so difficult. It was right there on the ashtray in my analyst’s office when I started treatment. But it took many years to actually feel it. The fantasy that we can be perfect and/or that we can find someone to love us who is perfect dies hard. It’s a struggle.