Exchanging Self and Other
A Buddhist technique to combat jealousy, envy, and insecurity.
Posted Oct 17, 2020
It's hard not to compare yourself with others. Many situations in life encourage, or even force us into direct comparisons with others. This can lead to a lot of different kinds of negative feelings. Things like jealousy, contempt, envy, worry, smugness, and insecurity seem to inevitably follow.
Exchanging Self and Other is a Buddhist technique to combat these negative feelings and develop compassion and understanding towards those around us. It aims to break the subtle self-centered orientation that underlies these responses.
The technique is associated with the 8th-Century Indian Buddhist Shantideva, particularly his famous work, The Way of the Bodhisattva. It was later developed in the Tibetan tradition, particularly in texts centered on Mind Training (or Lojong in Tibetan). Though it's traditionally done in the context of other Buddhist practices and beliefs, it can help transform negative attitudes on its own too.
How do you do it?
Since this is an imaginative technique, it’s best done in a place where you can focus and won’t be disturbed or distracted. Once you’re calm and able to focus, you start by thinking of someone who is beneath you in some respect. It might be someone who is poorer, less successful, less well-known, physically weaker, or less intelligent than you are. Whatever respect you choose to focus on, it should be a quality that you feel proud of, one that makes you feel satisfied for having. If you’re most proud of being well-off, then pick someone you know who is struggling financially. If being well-regarded professionally makes you content, then pick someone who is unknown or even a laughingstock in your profession. You can even pick moral or spiritual advancement if that is something that’s important to you.
It’s important not to simply have the thought “Some people are worse than me” but to actually try to imagine vividly a particular person and their life. An abstract thought won’t do the trick; you need to mentally conjure up the image of a person with their own thoughts and feelings. As long as there are not complicating factors, it helps to pick an actual person in your life, someone you know and have interactions with.
Now you step into their shoes and look at yourself through their eyes. Remember, this is a real person. Someone with parents, someone with a favorite food, someone who yawns. Try to see yourself as they see you. Relating to yourself from this new, lower vantage point, let feelings of envy and jealousy come over you. You try and try and try but never get anywhere. Meanwhile, they have so much money. They are so well-known. They are so intelligent. But you just can’t compete and it feels awful; you feel helpless and discouraged. Sit with these feelings for a while and let them soak in.
Next you pick someone who is more or less your equal, someone with similar gifts, achievements, or skills as you. Now you imagine yourself from their point of view. Seeing yourself as a rival, let competitive feelings arise: you want to win, to come out on top. You want to show everyone their faults and keep yours hidden. Feel how awful it is when they get the awards, the congratulations, the applause. Feel the frustration and anger when they get the recognition and the benefits that you want. Feel the anxiety and the insecurity that comes along with this competition; what if they really are better than you? Along with this, feel the burning drive to work as hard as you can to make sure that won’t happen, the fear at the prospect of embarrassment if you fail. Again, give yourself some time to let these feelings sink in fully.
Finally, you pick someone who is way ahead of you. Whatever skill you’ve chosen, they’re the best. Whatever goods you’ve picked, they have the most. Now adopt the position of this person and gaze down at yourself. You would normally not even concern yourself with a person like that; they’re simply not worth your attention. Looking down on them now, feel the mix of pity and contempt. They’re so much worse than you, it’s hard to imagine that they’re even trying. But they are trying and that’s even sadder. You see them stumble over, what are to you very minor obstacles. You see them celebrate modest victories, victories that you wouldn’t even aim at anymore. Still, these feelings alienate you from most people. You feel alone and sometimes worried that your decline will start at any minute. Sure you’ve done extremely well in the past, but now people expect it. The stress to live up to the image other people have of you, and that you increasingly have of yourself, is intense. You’re never fully at ease. Spend some time to fully appreciate these feelings.
How does it work?
The central aim of this exercise is a simple one: to make you more compassionate. Imaginatively adopting these different points of view forces you to stop and take other people’s experiences seriously. Rather than simply accepting your own take on situations, you start to see more clearly that other people see the same situation very differently. This isn’t so you will accept their views as authoritative, but so that you will notice that things look and feel very different from a different vantage point.
By adopting these other points of view, you start to see that other people are, in an important way, just like you. They too want to be happy, they worry about loss, and face pressures both internal and external. On this fundamental level, you are the same. You’re like different boats on a choppy and dangerous sea, just trying to make it through the storm unscathed. Feelings of jealousy, envy, and insecurity aren’t yours alone. They can be felt by others too—and towards you no less!
You see how much it sucks when those above you don’t give you any help or encouragement, how their arrogance makes things worse for you. You see how the pressure of success makes even tiny insecurities a source of constant worry. As you do this over time, you start to remember this in your daily life, realizing how harmful these attitudes are to people just like you.
There are, of course, limits to how well you can understand someone else’s point of view. Especially in cases of serious trauma or discrimination, simply imagining it won’t give you a complete picture. But often it’s better than nothing and making a sincere effort to see things from someone else’s shoes can go a long way to generating compassion for the difficulties they face. Still, it’s important to be aware of your own imaginative limits.
You’ll also notice that if you pick a different basis of comparison, say cleverness rather than wealth, you’ll pick different people too. This can be a good reminder that there are a wide range of values in the world and attitudes like insecurity, arrogance, or envy often operate by focusing on a single tiny sliver of value, to the exclusion of all others. We often feel intense pride or worthlessness because of one small aspect of life, as if professional reputation or the size of your bank account was the only thing of value in the world.
Most fundamentally, these imaginative exercises are supposed to change our habitual ways of relating to people. We often relate to people in terms of our own goals and desires. Think of how we relate to people in other cars when driving or when making our way through a large crowd. We know, intellectually, that they are people too, but somehow, we just don’t feel it that way in the moment. In that moment, they’re just slowing us down, preventing us from getting where we want to go.
Our habitual responses run deep and aren’t easily changed, certainly not by a couple of minutes of imagination. When feelings of envy or anxiety start to come over you, there might not be time or space to imagine the various roles and go through the entire exercise. But if you’ve done it regularly, you can in that moment recall what you’ve imagined. You can remember briefly how others feel these emotions too and this can help rob these negative emotions of their power.
This post was adapted from Seeing Clearly: A Buddhist Guide to Life.
Thubten Jinpa. (2011). Essential Mind Training. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Shantideva. Padmakara Translation Group. (2006). The Way of the Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.