At some point in our lives, we have had to contend with feelings of jealousy. Feeling envy towards a thing someone else has (such as a possession, achievement, or experience) that we feel we lack in our own lives. We hear a lot about jealousy in relationships (especially romantic ones) or regarding status symbols (like a house, car, or job). Jealousy often leads to other negative feelings like bitterness, resentment, shame, or anger, and can often be a consuming force in people’s minds.
But what if I told you there is a counterpoint to jealousy? A word to describe when you feel happy or excited about someone else’s happiness. That feeling you get when someone else’s positive experience gives you a positive feeling as well.
This feeling is known as compersion. It’s a word that I imagine will become more and more widespread, because it’s a feeling that I believe we all need to embrace in every aspect of our lives.
The word has its origins in the polyamory community, where people are dealing with non-traditional relationship situations that appear (on the outside) to be a perfect breeding ground for jealousy and negative emotions. While learning about and practicing this concept has definitely helped me in my interpersonal life in that respect, I’ve realized it has implications for so many other aspects of human interaction. And that’s what brought me to embracing compersion when it comes to health and wellness.
One of my biggest struggles in my fitness journey is the fact that I actually genuinely enjoy many of the foods and drinks that I am currently choosing to limit in my diet. I have a massive sweet tooth, I find starchy baked goods to be heavenly, and pizza is literally my favorite food of all time.
I chose to move away from eating these foods because they didn’t fit the specific goals I had for myself, but I’m still a human being participating in society, so of course they are still everywhere around me. Now, I’m at the point where on my own, I don’t really miss those things on a day to day basis, and I’m quite satisfied with all the delicious and interesting rainbow food I’m eating. But as a traveller, speaker, conference-goer, and general social person, I’m constantly around other people indulging in the very things I’m trying to avoid.
At first, it was extremely hard to be around. After all, I wanted those things too! Being the only person eating a salad when everyone else is eating pizza, or choosing not to eat dessert while everyone else is enjoying something rich and chocolatey and covered in ice cream, or trying to resist mindlessly eating the easily available popcorn/chips/candy on the tables at events was a challenge.
I was absurdly jealous.
I knew logically that I had made a choice, and that I was happy with the results of that choice, but in those moments when I was smelling the food I wasn’t eating, seeing the delight on my friends’ faces, I felt resentment. My inner voice whined about how unfair it was that everyone else got to have fun and I didn’t. That my life was a series of numbers and limits and macros and calories and nutrients, and everyone else got to be free. I deeply coveted the things I perceived that I was lacking. And as a result, I was miserable at the very events I was supposed to be enjoying.
I felt frustrated and stuck. I knew that I wanted my dietary choices to be a permanent part of my life, and that eating a varied diet that limited starches, sugars, and grains made me feel (and look) my best. How could I stop feeling like the joy was getting sucked out of my life without giving up on my goals?
It was at one of these events where I finally had my lightbulb moment. We were sitting together after dinner, and everyone (except me) was enjoying some gourmet cupcakes that were brought to the table for dessert. Curious about the flavors, I started asking my tablemates questions, and as they started describing what they were eating, I chimed back in with excited, nostalgic responses about creme filling, caramel, baking methods, and flavor combinations. The resulting conversation was so upbeat and joyful, and as it went on I noticed I was enjoying their enjoyment rather than resenting it.
This, I realized, was the key to being happy: by celebrating our different choices and the pleasure we derive from them in our own ways.
Similar to embracing gratitude in order to overcome anxiety in my personal life, embracing compersion in order to overcome feelings of jealousy, envy, or being left out has been transformative.
Just like in relationships (where the concept was born), compersion is not a foolproof protection against all covetous or bitter feelings. Jealousy is a natural and unavoidable feeling, the same way we feel anger, sadness, frustration, and guilt. We cannot eliminate negative feelings, and they are necessary tools in our lives. But by making it a habit to react with compersion to the pleasure our friends, family, and colleagues get from their choices, we can lead a happier life and feel a greater amount of satisfaction in our own choices.
A side story: I talked about this concept as a lightning talk on the last night of BeachPress this past week, and several people came up to me afterwards to thank me for giving them the words and tools to deal with this challenging situation. And it made me so delighted to hear everyone “practicing compersion” with each other afterwards by asking engaging questions and giving adorable compliments to each other about what they were doing. I’d love to hear your stories about trying this out in your own life, and the challenges or rewards that result!