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Feb 21, 2023

Who are these Joneses and why do we try so hard to be like them??  What exactly are we jonesing for? (Keeping up with the Joneses is an idiom that refers to comparing yourself to those around you in order to determine your social status.)

How does this mentality affect us? Before I address how to manage these feelings, I want to acknowledge that it makes sense that you feel this way because a very real problem exists. It’s not all in your head. Our society has a real issue when it comes to consumerism and the emphasis on materialism and status and yes, this is a serious problem in the Jewish community; and no, it's not just in (insert the neighborhood you love to hate on) community. It is EVERYWHERE.

When we are trying to match the people around us, we may end up doing things we don’t want to do or spending money we don’t want to spend or don’t have to spend. We know that many Americans today are living well beyond their means; many are faced with crushing debt and even more are living paycheck to paycheck. People spend frivolously and are not planning properly for retirement, end of life matters or trying to ensure that they (and their children) have financial security in the event of an illness or untimely death. What’s equally upsetting is that our kids are not growing up with a healthy sense of money either.

Granted some of this lack of financial planning is a result of it being really expensive to be an orthodox Jew. How can you save or invest when the cost of living in a Jewish community is so high? Kosher food is expensive, yeshiva tuition is off the charts high and climbing, shul memberships are costly, the Jewish calendar has a lot of holidays that can be a real financial burden even if they are done simply. That’s not even factoring in the regular costs of living like car payments, insurance, student loans, child care etc. Even some objectively high paying jobs don’t seem to be able to cut it for the average Jewish family anymore. In some ways, it would seem the Jewish community is perpetuating this rat race for more money by making the cost of living so unbelievably high and not taking any steps to fix these issues.

That being said, we have to do some honest reflecting as individuals and as a community. During the height of covid a common sentiment was how nice it was to return to simple celebrations with smaller venues and more intimate guest lists. Lavish Pesach (passover) programs were traded in for traditional seders at home (maybe catered and waitered but still much less extravagant) that felt more “in the spirit” of the holiday. However, it did not take long for the grand parties and programs to return and, it seems, they may be even bigger and pricier than before.

Social media and “influencers” (their title literally means that their job is to sway you to think, feel and buy a certain way) are definitely feeding in to this obsession with “things” and the feeling that we are lacking or that we always need to have more. Matchmakers charging tens of thousands of dollars to match young women with the “top” guy. Paying exorbitant amounts of money for wigs and matchmakers (another topic I can't wait to tackle, this one makes my blood boil). Why do we accept this? Social pressure as well as our own narratives around what it means to have or not have influence our feelings around money, status and lifestyle as well.

Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk (Gary Vee) said it best when he said “Too many people drive cars to impress people they hate”. Too many people go in to debt or stay in jobs they hate just to impress people they don’t even like. Too many people live in homes with rooms they will never use. They may feel pressure to prove to themselves or someone else that they are successful, appease their parents, feel powerful, or get “respect”. There are too many people getting caught up in buying things they don’t need in attempts to fill emotional voids that can’t be filled with “stuff”. They are missing out on their kids’ lives being chained to their desks just so that they can maintain this lifestyle they think is so important but, ironically, they are mostly absent from.

I should clarify that I am not saying that anyone who has money is miserable or living in a showy way. The problem isn’t with the money. Rather, the issue is our attitudes around what it says about your value if you have money, our behaviors in the constant pursuit of status and all the things that people imagine come with wealth and status. These things are hurting us as on an individual and communal level. I know many of you know full well that having money doesn’t guarantee social acceptance, a happy marriage or well-adjusted children. Money can make for pretty outsides but that doesn’t mean what is inside matches and yet we are still seeing so many people struggle with this pursuit of social capitol that is often tied up in the size of their bank account.

Trying to maintain or attain social status through material things or by trying to be someone you are not is can be a losing battle. The people you are looking at and thinking they have it all, definitely have their own struggles, hardships and insecurities. Using material things to make us feel better is only temporary because the needle is always moving. You will just need more and more in order to keep up.

How do I top the last vacation? The last party? How do I get in to that crowd? Have that person at my function?

In a podcast episode with Brene Brown, organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein talked about the popular comparison phrase “the grass is greener on the other side”. He says that due to the physics of how grass grows when we look over at our neighbor’s’ grass, it actually looks greener even if it is exactly the same as ours.  It is easy to look at someone’s life and think they have it all but you really don’t know anyone’s financial situation, family dynamic or relationship status.

One of our basic needs as humans is love and belonging. Humans are a social species that crave interaction with others. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous theory of the hierarchy of needs he lists love and belonging as the third level after physiological needs (food, drink, sleep) and safety. Friendship, intimacy, family and love is essential to our survival. Social connections are highly correlated with better physical and mental health while feeling isolated has been shown to have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Part of how we make connections is by seeking out sameness or familiarity. This is because, as I often say here, our brains like predictability and consistency. This is why we look for communities that have people who are culturally like us, schools that share our values, partners who have familiar behaviors and patterns (for better or worse). Feeling “different” or “other” and like we don’t belong can have a profound impact on our mental health. 

There is a difference between belonging and fitting in. The opposite of belonging is fitting in. Fitting in is assessing a group of people and changing who you are. True belonging never asks us to change who we are, it demands that we be who we are. If we “fit in” because of how we have changed ourselves that’s not belonging. That is betraying yourself for other people and that’s not sustainable. If you have internalized the belief that you do not "belong" because you or your family have a different financial or social status than those around you, I would urge you to consider that while you may feel like you don’t fit in maybe you do actually still belong.

Humans have an innate need to compare themselves to people. A lot of the time it is not even conscious. They will look at other people’s accomplishments and behaviors as a way to gauge their own. This makes sense as we see that people in our community generally want to start dating around the same age, have certain family sizes etc. This is part of the social comparison phenomenon. Downward comparison is when we compare ourselves to someone who is worse off than us and upward comparison is looking at what someone else is accomplishing and using that to feeling motivated to achieve your own goals. Upward and downward comparison both have the potential for good and bad. The goal shouldn’t be to stop comparing because we know there can be benefits to this but the goal should be to try to manage the negative emotions that come with comparing.

I find it most helpful to focus on the following things in order to stay out of that negative comparison space:

Get clear on your values: What do you want your life to look like? Is having more money and status necessary for that? What motivates your spending? Is that in line with your values? Budgeting and making good financial decisions are two really great ways to help mitigate some of the shame you may feel when you aren’t living like everyone else. “We are being responsible and thinking bigger picture for our family” can be a comforting and confidence boosting mindset.

Consider your friend group: I know this one might be hard to hear but if you have friends that are living way above what you can do, it might be time to shift who you spend time with. If you can’t afford the vacations they go on or the dinners they go to, rather than feeling bad and less than, instead spend more time with friends who can do the things you can. Whether it’s a fun staycation or a low key get away, find your people.

Know your triggers: If you know that you feel insecure about your parenting, appearance, house or relationship then sometimes it becomes a necessary act of self-care to take space. If you follow a social media account that makes you feel bad about your life, pay attention to that. You might be better off muting or unfollowing. If it’s someone in real life, you can take space as well.

Focus on building your sense of self-worth: Name that inner critic. Pay attention to what it tells you and then let go of limiting beliefs (like I need more money to have happy kids or to be worthy of being liked). Create new, supportive thoughts so you can free yourself from that thinking. Think about the value you can add to your community that money can’t buy. Think about how you can teach your kids an appreciation for what they have regardless of what others have. Sometimes it’s easier to internalize a message that we really want our kids to receive.

Know what you bring to the table: Think about what you add to work, your family, your friendships, your community, the greater world. Yes, there will always be someone smarter, funnier, wealthier, more well-spoken, more popular than you but that doesn’t have to feel threatening to you. With practice you can get to a place where you appreciate those qualities in others and feel admiration and respect rather than using it as fuel to add to your envy filled self-hate fire.

For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend Atlas of the Heart and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I also recommend the podcast The Orthodox Conundrum episode #99: The Orthodox community’s obsession with materialism: A conversation with Rabbi Jeremy Weider



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