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How to Deal with Extreme Envy

5 minute read

My husband and I met and married while we were reporters at the Charlotte Observer. We always had different beats—I went from covering community news to covering small business, while he graduated from covering crime to economic development—and it was fun to have a partner who understood, intimately, my work and aspirations.

But I’d be lying if I told you that, on parallel career paths, neither of us ever felt envious of the other. For example, my front page bylines were sporadic, while he landed a coveted A1 spot several days a week. I won a national award one year; he won statewide awards a couple of years in row. I had better hours; he made more money.

Envy is a near-universal emotion, experts say, and it’s natural to feel something when a loved one or peer achieves something that elevates their status compared to yours. Like when your work buddy nabs the promotion you wanted. Or when your best friend has a lavish wedding to Mr. Right, while you’re still swiping left on Mr. Wrong.

And “these emotions aren’t all bad,” says Piercarlo Valdesolo, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Claremont McKenna College who has studied the impact of envy and jealousy on individuals’ self-esteem. “Envy can be motivating.”

But left unchecked, it can grow from a nagging frustration into a relationship death knell. Here are two experts’ tips for how to reconcile the warring emotions—whether in the workplace or in your personal life—and come out better on the other side:

1. Change your comparison framework

At the root of envy is the belief that someone else’s success is a referendum on yours. But consider the differences between you and your friend or loved one. What’s different about your skillsets? Your priorities?

“You’re showing yourself that it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Valdesolo says. “It kind of puts you in a situation where their successes and their status don’t really apply to you, don’t have implications for what you could be capable of.”

I’ve often had to remind myself that my husband and I approach journalism differently. While I’m in it for the people—in-person interviews, storytelling—my husband is more breaking-news minded; he loves the speed and thrives on tight deadlines. We used to laugh that, in the time it took me to do one phone interview, he’d already done three.

Read more: How to Find Your Passion

So, naturally, a hard-news junkie is going to end up on the front page more often. But a news organization also needs journalists like me.

2. Don’t create distance

Resist the urge to isolate yourself from an otherwise-functional relationship, Valdesolo says.

“There are lots of other positive emotional states and feelings that result from a strong relationship,” he says. “And to chip away at that because of envy? I would not recommend it.”

Creating distance also short-circuits a potential learning opportunity, says Lois Frankel, a longtime executive coach for Fortune 500 companies and author of the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers.

“If you get a promotion I don’t get,” Frankel says, “I need to say to myself, ‘Why didn’t I get it? What do I have to learn from this? What do I have to do differently to get the things that I want?’”

3. Own up to your feelings—out loud

Frankel recalls when her brother built a home. It was beautiful, architecturally stunning. So she told him: “I’m not usually a jealous person, but I sure am jealous of that house.”

Admitting that helped her come to terms with her feelings, while also making her brother feel good. And talking about the house also reminded Frankel why it was OK for her not to have a home as nice as her brother’s: She knew how hard he’d worked for it and what he had given up in the process—sacrifices she wasn’t willing to make herself.

“Putting it out there defuses it,” Frankel says. “It’s when things stay hidden and harbored that they tend to grow and fester like mold.”

4. Find your competitive advantage—and ask for help

It’s the hardest conclusion to come to but also one of the most effective antidotes to envy: Sometimes the other person really is more deserving of that success or better suited for that role, Valdesolo says.

But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Consider your best qualities and features, he says. What is being underutilized? What you could you capitalize on more?

And then muster up the confidence to ask the person you’re envious of for help.

It’s OK to admit that, though you’re happy for their success, you wish you could share in it. But follow up that statement with an earnest question: “Tell me, what did you do that I didn’t do? What do I need to do to be the next person on the promotion list or to be seen as someone who’s eligible?”

“The clearer you are about what you want, internally and externally,” Frankel says, “the more likely you are to get it.”

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