Courtesy of RiverheadJulie Klam, SELF magazine
You're all for your friends losing weight, meeting an awesome guy, earning a mega salary and snagging a house on the beach. As long as she doesn't do it before you do.
My first real job was at a talent agency. I sat with the other assistants in a row of cubicles. Beside me was a funny gay guy I'll call Jay, an older lady who had gone back to work when her kids graduated, and a woman I'll call Veronique, whose sole purpose in life, I believed, was to make me feel like a loser. We were all close, mostly because we were together 12 hours a day, trying to get by on our crappy salaries and eating ramen noodles at our desks for lunch. Except for Veronique, who lived with her boyfriend, The King of Wall Street. Veronique could afford sushi, Oh, and she couldn't keep weight on.
Her mother happened to be a model. Her father was a physicist. Sadly (for me), she looked like a model and had the brains of a physicist. Why, oh why, I wondered, couldn't she have ended up with brains of a model and the looks of a physicist?
Don't get me wrong. I liked Veronique. She was nice enough, and to the outside world, we looked as if we were pretty good friends. But whenever we did anything together, I had the feeling she would rather have been with anyone else. Or maybe she sensed that I felt inferior to her. Whatever the reason, we didn't completely click, and I couldn't help keeping an eye out for screwups on her part. Once, I noticed she was holding her knife and fork wrong-like an ape! "Oh, that's the European way-she went to school in Paris, so she picked up that habit," Jay told me, when I giddily pointed out her faux pas. "Europeans keep their fork in the opposite hand."
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"Ah, that's why her accent is so impeccable," I replied, with a barely suppressed eye roll.
Beside her inborn sophistication, she was killing it at work. In theory, we all wanted to be full-fledged agents. Truthfully, I didn't know what I wanted-except for Veronique not to get promoted before I did. But the girl had connections. All her friends were models and actresses, natch, and when she brought in prospective clients to meet the agents, I'd hear applause spilling from their offices. The one time I brought in someone, I was told he "really needed a decent haircut."
Then, one morning, I learned that a famous young actor had left his big agency and was signing with Veronique. She was no longer an assistant. She was a bona fide agent. In some ways, her promotion was a relief: It would be better of she was in an office with a a door that shut. "I'm really happy for her," Jay said. "She worked hard."
"How can you say that?" I asked, horrified. "Everything was handed to her."
"Some things were, but please don't tell me you're getting into the entertainment business because you believe in fairness."
He was absolutely right, of course. I realized that my issue with Veronique was that she had confidence and I didn't. She felt entitled to things, and she got them. I'm sure she had her own insecurities, but she didn't share them with everyone, whereas I trafficked in self-deprecation.
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In our 20s, most of us are caught up in longing-for the coolest jeans, a great job, a boyfriend, a place to live that doesn't come with a roommate. Which makes it hard to realize that everyone else is longing right along with us. It was only after I got fired-I was so busy hoping Veronique would do a face plant that I wasn't doing my job properly-that I started to feel a bit guilty: Not only was I coveting this so-called friend's success but I was actively rooting for her to fall flat. Was I a horrible person? The thought bugged my enough that I consulted a psychotherapist friend about the whole schadenfreude thing. "Why do I sometimes hope that people I know-and sometimes even like-will have a setback, especially if they happen to be thinner than I am?" I asked.
"That's just being competitive, and it's not a crime," she explained. "It could have more to do with a need for survival."
I liked that explanation. I wasn't horrible; I was a healthy, normal competitor!
Of course, there's a difference between wanting what a friend has and wanting a friend not to have it-the latter desire, I think, feels more shameful. It's also one thing to want a colleague to bomb in the dog-eat-dog workplace-that's relatively understandable. It doesn't feel quite as natural to wish a true friend ill in the race to a goal like getting engaged or pregnant. Yet there's something about engagements and pregnancies that brings up competitive feelings, especially with friends you've known forever, through high school, first jobs, bad breakups and boyfriends. When they're flashing a sparkler-bam!-you feel left behind.
When my closest friend, Jancee, got engaged before I did, I was crushed: I'd been hoping for a ring for much longer than she had. Thankfully, by that time, a few years post-Veronique, I was able to stanch any hating on my part. It helped to know that Jancee was aware of how I felt so she didn't throw the news in my face. Instead, she said she wouldn't feel right until I was engaged, too. I'm not sure I believed her, but it was a sweet thing to say.
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I recalled Jancee's empathetic reaction when, a few years later, a friend of mine who'd been trying to get pregnant for years disappeared when I announced I was expecting. After I had the baby, instead of asking my friend to come over and see my new daughter, I suggested we meet for lunch, the way we always had. She say down, a huge smile on her face, and said "How's the baby?" and her eyes filled with tears. Instead of being glad that I had something she didn't,I told her I'd gotten rid of the baby because she was too much trouble. My friend burst into simultaneous tears and laughter. "Thank you," she said. I told her that no baby was going to bring down our friendship. As she talked about the awfulness of IVF, I listened and did not feel the need to tell her how adorable my child's toes were. Then we discussed world events, about which I knew nothing. "Beyonce and Jay-Z gof married? When?!"
Eventually, that friend had beautiful twins of her own, and one day we took a walk, pushing her double stroller. She told me she would never forget the day we'd met for lunch, as we always had, and that she appreciated my not making her feel as if my having a baby was something at which I'd succeeded and she'd failed.
But I can't take too much credit for my good behavior. The reason I could be gracious is that I'd spent the better part of my 20s wondering why other people made money and dated guys who took them on vacation to islands. Now that I had the life I wanted, why would I need to make anyone still working toward her desires feel bad? These days, it's easier to acknowledge when I want what someone else has, then try for it, instead of being snarky. And when I see the Best Actress winners thanking Veronique at the Oscars, it doesn't even bother me. I can't say I'm happy for her, exactly. Maybe if you give me another 20 years.
Excerpted from Friendkeeping. Copyright 2012 by Julie Klam. Published by Riverhead, October 25, 2012.
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Courtesy of RiverheadJulie Klam, SELF magazine