Building Others Up: Attacking Zero Sum Thinking at Its Source

a small child wearing a striped shirt is playing with building blocks
Image by Raúl Hernández González / CC BY

“Is it normal to get the hang of the compersion thing when it comes to romantic relationships? But struggle when it comes to your friends?” she says.

“By struggling when it comes to your friends you mean…?”

“I just look around and see all these good things happening to my friends, and I’ll catch myself feeling sick about it.”

“Why sick?” I say.

“I just wish it were me, you know.”

I nod.

“It’s this weird intersection, being polyamorous and an artist. It’s so much easier for me to be happy for others within a poly context than it is to, oh, say watch people 10 years younger than me land their dream gigs. While I’m sitting here stuck in a make-ends-meet kind of job. Some days it seems like my best compositions are the deafening symphonies of crickets that result whenever I post things to social media,” she says.

“I know what you mean,” I say.

Do you?” she asks.

I frown. “What do you mean, do I?”

“You’re Compersion Girl. The local matchmaker. You push people together like they’re dolls you’re setting up to play house. ‘Now kisssss.'”

I laugh. “True.”

“And I’ve never seen you anything but gracious about a friend’s success. Even if it’s something you wanted.”

“Oh that?” I say. “Well, that took a lot of practice.”

Zero Sum Thinking Isn’t Usually Limited to Just One Area

A zero sum game, simply stated, is one where if one person wins, another loses.

When I was new to polyamory, I was a very zero sum thinker when it came to sex and love. I believed that each person only had so much love to give, and if my partner gave some to others, there would be inevitably be less left for me. This predictably caused problems as I set forth to brave the wilds of ethical non-monogamy. And I quickly realized that if I didn’t work on this belief that I would be consumed by the challenges of my new situation.

So I took some time and did some deep introspection. Thought long and hard about where all of it came from. And the most striking realization I came to?

It really didn’t have as much to do with love and sex as I thought.

Instead, my entire life and relating with people seemed to be touched by these zero sum patterns. Every time a friend met with success, I was envious.

Trying My Hardest to Be Happy for Them and Take an Interest

At the time I opened my marriage, I was the heaviest I had ever been. And then a close friend of mine lost a significant amount of weight. This wasn’t even someone who even seemed to Have It All Together. They had never struck me as particularly disciplined or good at self-control.

And leading up to this, I had been echoing the sentiment that I heard many times from others: Weight loss was an endeavor basically doomed to failure. The idea was demoralizing in one sense. Self-defeating. But it let me off the hook in another. If it were impossible, I didn’t have to feel bad about not achieving it.

And yet, here my friend was. Trim. Fit. Beaming.

It would have been tempting at this point to be petty. Mutter under my breath. Push food on this friend in an attempt to undo their success (or worse, spike food with extra fat or sugar without telling them, something I’ve seen other people do).

And I’ll be honest. My kneejerk reaction wasn’t compersion. Or delight. I ranted privately in the corner for a little bit. Sulked.

But as I thought through my frustrations, I realized that this pattern of feelings wasn’t so different than the jealousy and envy I was feeling as a newly polyamorous person related to my partner’s other relationship. Feelings I was actively working through in that context.

So I tried something new with my newly cut friend.

I congratulated them on their success as sincerely as I could. Asked them about how they’d done it. If they had any tips.

And later, when I managed to get into better shape myself? We actually exercised together a few times.

I never asked them to become my accountability partner or anything like that. But we definitely traded recipes. Provided one another informal support. And if either of us saw a food saboteur in the other’s midst, we’d intervene.

Building Up Your Friends, Rather than Tearing Them Down

As Floss of the Proud to Be Kinky Podcast recently wrote at her blog:

Do we build our friends up or do we tear them down?

I think everyone’s instant reaction would be ‘of course I don’t tear my friends down’, probably with a certain level of outrage for it even being suggested. Which I get, I don’t want to think I ever do that either. However, do we always support people as fully as we can, especially if their endeavours may outshine our own?

We also have friends who run small businesses, write blogs, record podcasts and run fetish events. Promoting #ProudToBeKinky takes up a huge amount of my time, but where I can I promote and support my friends endeavours too. I do this because I believe in my friends, and I want them to succeed. I don’t sit there coming up with dastardly plans on how to outdo them, or how to muscle in on their success. I guarantee someone is sat reading this thinking ‘who would do that?’, people, that’s who. Sometimes I wonder if they realise they’re doing it.

… Some people seem to actively hope others will fail, or that some kind of unpleasant situation will befall them. Just in case that person’s success overshadows their own, or maybe out of envy that their own situation isn’t where they want it to be. I’ve seen people keep resources to themselves to hinder other people’s learning and I’ve witnessed people downplay other people’s good news, even when they’re the smallest of wins.

I’ve been on the receiving end of these things too, and I’ve sat there thinking to myself, ‘do they know their comment comes of as, ‘oh that, that’s nothing’’. Even though I delivered the news with a bouncy excitement, so clearly to me it was something. I’ve also had people think it’s their place to pass negative comments or twisted observations on my relationship, be it a past or a present one. In a moment when I wasn’t asking for input.

And she’s right. It’s a prevalent behavior, toxic not only to social relationships. But also self-defeating.

From Zero Sum to Abundance

I’m not saying it was easy to make that switch, from zero sum thinking over to a mental model of abundance.

For me, it was especially difficult to learn when it came to weight loss. And artistic endeavors.

But it was well worth the effort to build a base of personal security. Celebrate whenever possible in the success of others. And to learn everything I could from those I envied. Respectfully. Supportively. In a way that showed that I understood that they worked hard to succeed. That I was committed to helping them in return.

And when I met with success of my own (however modest)? To share the benefits with others.

*

My book is out!

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

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2 Comments

  1. What about the times when it is sum-zero? Like when a partner decides whom they’ll live with, or whom they’ll have children with, and they only want it to be one person, ever?

  2. That’s a great question. In my experience, people do tend to read things as zero sum far more often than they are in actuality.

    But sometimes? There are situations where if one person gets something, another person is denied the same thing. To go with a non-romantic example, if you and your friend apply for the same job, and they get it and you don’t, you can still be gracious if you remember it’s not the only job you will ever apply for.

    Or to look at a romantic example: Let’s say that certain things are not on the table in a relationship. It can help to reframe by focusing on things we CAN have with that person (and that might actually include things that are exclusive and not available to the other relationship, depending on logistics and everyone involved).

    It’s an interesting example that you raise. In the poly circles I run in (which are admittedly overwhelmingly populated by very long-term, compassionate, and kind poly folks) I have seen plenty of people move in additional partners where they already live — and those decisions in practice are less about attachment level and hierarchy and have more to do with pragmatic concerns like income, credit, schedules, and cleaning habits. I’ve also seen people state that they only would ever live with or have children with one partner and later go on to explore those things with multiple partners.

    But if something ends up being zero sum and staying there? Well, the fact of the matter is that things that are *truly* zero sum take grace in dealing with that disappointment and exercising what amounts to good sportsmanship (i.e., not being a “sore loser”). And that has to do with focusing on what you *are* getting and seizing other opportunities as they arise. And those are good skills to build up because life can be like that sometimes (beyond the realm of strictly romantic endeavors).

    Win some, lose some.

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