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Zero-Sum Thinking

Updated: May 29, 2020

This isn’t just a polyamory thing. This is a Life Thing. Zero-sum Thinking is the idea that if someone else has something, there’s less of it in the world for you. Avoiding it is advocated by many people as the key to avoiding jealousy, or to make compersion come one step easier than it usually would for you - not feeling like there’s a limited pie of a resource that someone is cutting slices out of, but instead recognizing that, for example, love is something that can’t be quantified like that; or that there isn’t a limited amount of weight loss or professional success to be had in the world - getting to “if my friend can do it, I can do it too!” rather than settling into “Oh no, my friend is ten years younger than me and got my dream job, I’ve missed my chance!”

The struggle here is that sometimes, there are limited quantities of something, and there are missed chances. In polyamory, love is infinite but time is not, and wiggling your way into someone’s calendar can feel like a horrible game indicating your role in their life. In a profession where you get to know your national and international colleagues, one of them getting a keynote at a conference does mean you didn’t, or a coveted job that opens every ten years at a particular location does mean your search for a position you’ll love instead of like (or that lasts longer than a couple years of grant money, in academia) continues.

So the realistic goal, then, becomes identifying when zero-sum thinking doesn’t apply, and adjusting our behavior. Most people I know are polite enough to be able to say congratulations, no matter how much some news had burned them (and most people I know, if they realize news will hurt their friend or close acquaintance, won’t try to use them as their “person to rejoice with”). But that doesn’t answer the goal of figuring out which of these subjects are actually zero-sum, and which are, but are open to change. In polyamory, openly checking in with your partner and saying (from one side) “Hey, I’m not getting as much time as I need for our relationship, is there something else that we could do together during the week/month?” or (from the other) “The amount of time you and other partner(s) are asking me for means I’m not taking enough self-care time, and I don’t want to be burnt out during our time together. Could we adjust frequency or type of time spent together?” is the only way to get an answer on time, even if it isn’t an answer everyone would prefer. When that’s the case, when there really isn’t room for change from one person’s perception, someone’s feelings are going to get hurt - because one party or the other will need to set a boundary and the other will have to respect it and when needs don’t line up, there are generally hurt feelings until people adjust. Sometimes, though, despite time being a zero-sum item, no one’s feelings are hurt at all - they just didn’t know what you needed until you said it.

So, that is to say, time is zero-sum but love isn’t, friendship isn’t, success isn’t (even if a given job posting is), and keeping that in our back pockets to tell our brains when they get caught in envious spirals can be helpful. The technique you use to remind yourself of that will vary by what works for you - some people keep gratitude journals to help them increase their overall security so fewer spirals start, and to give them something to look at to stop them; some people just make “love isn’t zero-sum. Friendship isn’t zero-sum. Success isn’t zero-sum” into a mantra to recite; some people do reframing exercises on paper or in their head to get “I’ll never have that because they do” twisted back around into the truthful “they’ve done it and so can I”; and I, personally, envious and not as gentle with myself as I’d like to be, tell myself that FOMO is a bad look, plaster on a smile if I’ve heard news that starts the spiral in public, and if I’m feeling it at home, get out my literal self-care item FOMO box. It’s got a journal and pretty colored pens and bath products, and a list of movies that make me feel better, and a list of movies that distract me by giving me a real reason to cry, and sometimes other things but it sort of depends what I’m into at the moment (the flightiness is real).

I think anyone who tells you that they’ve fully escaped zero-sum thinking, and never have a wibble of “they get that and I don’t?,” just like anyone who claims they never feel any jealousy and are the compersion master, is lying to you. But I think we all do a little better with brain things when we have names for them, and knowing that what you’re scared of is a normal, human, societally built thing that we’re all grappling with some days (and some of us more than others) and it doesn’t make us more evolved or better, just more practiced at some skills, to show it to people less unless we try to.

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