Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

When You Can't Be Happy For a Friend

Envy is one of the deadly sins because it's common and normal.

Although envy is normal, we tend to deny it. A better approach is to confess.  

Richard Smith, an expert on envy who teaches psychology at the University of Kentucky, recalls a psychotherapist saying, ‘No patient has ever told me that they have a problem with envy, even though I see it in them. It’s basically saying, ‘I’m inferior, and I’m hostile.’’

But we compare ourselves to others all the time, research suggests. When we decide that we’re inferior or lack some desirable trait or circumstance—be it beauty, intelligence, spare cash, or an apparently happy marriage—it's normal to feel hostile and focus on our perceived rival’s faults and lacks.

Hence the gossipy workplace. Co-workers may simply not realize that they're envious of a rising star.

Envy is both more likely, and tougher, among close friends and family, or people in related fields and close quarters. If your sister is a more talented writer, you see how her talent enhances her life over time. If you believe you have as much talent, but she’s doing better, you feel worse.

This kind of persistent envy is rough on her and others in your shared world. As one mother says of her two daughters, “Nancy is—and has always been—so envious of Mary. It’s been painful for us all.”

Online, envy is fed not by intimacy, but ignorance. “Face-braggers” omit the less glowing details. The same applies to bloggers, with their apparently charmed lives and productivity. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become entirely un-envious,” says one knitting blogger. I know it’s a façade—that their homes get messy, and they fight with their husbands.”

Some people are so afraid of being envied that they hold themselves back. As Nina, a 45-year-old entrepreneur recalls, “As a girl, I knew I was pretty and was afraid that other girls would be envious of me. So, I didn’t try to look my best.” Tara, a 50-year-old writer, recalls when a book agent called her, saying her first novel was “brilliant.” “My first emotion was fear. I thought, ‘I’m going to lose all my friends.’”

Silence or dismissal when you report successes may indeed be a sign of dark envy in others. You might keep your distance if you tend to feel deflated and defeated after conversations–online or off.

But once you recognize envy, it may lose its sting. A friend who is envious can still be a good friend. The solution may be to crow less, applaud your friend more, pay more attention to her or find other topics and arenas where you don’t compete.

To quiet your envy, Solomon Schimmel, a professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College in Boston, suggests thinking about what you have that your friend doesn’t. Recall the price she paid for her success and your own choices. Finally, remind yourself that your envy hurts and doesn’t give you what you’re missing.

With your closest connections, confess. Maria, a 30-year-old TV producer, was annoyed when a childhood friend–a gay man–seemed to be boasting too much about his boyfriend’s new apartment. “We grew up together and have similar jobs, so inevitably we compete,” she says. Maria and her own mate weren’t yet ready for an apartment purchase.

When she talked to her friend about her envy, “He said he would feel the same way. I think part of me did feel excited about him. When I got that off my chest, all of me got a chance to be happy.”

Online or off, minimizing the pain of envy requires self-acceptance. Leslie, a 50-year-old scientist who regrets not having children, often feels envious of mothers. Her boyfriend gave her this remedy, which works for her: Ask yourself, “If I could be that other person instead of myself, who would I pick?”

“Deep down I want to survive and be myself,” she says. 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

more...

Subscribe to Open Gently

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?