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How to Get Over Status Anxiety

Envy can overpower us if we let it. Here's how to turn it into something positive and productive.

Find the Ideal Niche

Your reference group may determine whom you will envy, but you can determine your reference group. If you're sick of being the poorest person on the block, pick up and move to a more modest neighborhood, says economist Robert H. Frank. While we can't altogether suppress status awareness, we can largely control whom we will inevitably compare ourselves to; we have great latitude in our choice of friends, neighbors and coworkers.

Finding the right pond is often a process of trial and error, says graduate student and researcher Sarah Hill. If you do well in a particular realm, and thus gain status, positive reinforcement propels you to stick with that domain. "If a woman is really good at jumping show horses and it provides her praise and even gets her access to a different mating pool, she's going to compete in that arena," Hill says. Yes, she will feel envious of rivals, but the feeling will motivate her to become better at a sport that defines her, and her self-esteem will grow accordingly.

Be the Star in a Subculture

Even if you can't switch jobs or relocate towns, you can change reference groups by seeking out a thriving subculture. America is not one big hierarchy, argues New York Times columnist David Brooks, but rather a collection of independent silos, each of which fancies itself an epicenter. Antiglobalization activists, X Games fanatics and atonal jazz aficionados form communities or virtual enclaves where distinguishing oneself isn't too difficult. And no matter where you stand in the internal pecking order, your values and sense of belonging are constantly reinforced by the group.

Communication between such silos is limited, so what seems like a devastating fall down the status ladder to you may be an indiscernible hiccup to those outside of your reference group: A Hollywood deal maker sweats if he loses his place on Premiere's "Power List" (a rank that's insignificant to outsiders); a research psychologist delights in having a personality test (one few people will ever see) named after him.

Float in a Big Pond or Flourish in a Puddle?

Would you prefer the life of a country lawyer with a tattered shingle on your door bearing a name that everyone in the community recognizes or that of an anonymous associate at a blue-chip law firm? There is a cost to switching reference groups, Frank warns. Compare the top quarterback in a minor football league to a benchwarmer with the Dallas Cowboys, for instance. The Dallas Cowboy will have more, ahem, "reproductive access," as Hill puts it. He will get extra "goodies," such as great party invitations, in exchange for occupying a low position within a culturally valued organization.

But a small setting can allow someone to flourish. Frank recalls a man who, as a teenager, lacked motivation and eventually failed out of his prestigious boarding school. When he was then forced to transfer to a small town public school, he was able to perform relatively well—and went on to an excellent college. A pond jump changed his life's course.

Choose Your Competitive Realms Wisely

You may frequently feel envious of more successful co-workers, but don't forget your thick network of family and friends, one far more supportive, perhaps, than that of your colleagues. "You need to draw upon success in other domains to buffer against envy felt in one domain," says psychology professor Peter Salovey. When you can't stop comparing yourself negatively to others in one realm, run through some life scenarios in which you come out on top. If you have very few dimensions on which you measure yourself (the size of your bank account or the number on the scale), you risk exposing yourself to a dangerously intense dose of envy if you fall short in an area that is all-important to your sense of self-worth. Figure out what's really important to you and mentally withdraw from competitions that aren't close to your heart.

Let Envy Motivate, Not Paralyze

Envy is often accompanied by shame: We are ashamed by every ebb of status (not to mention ashamed to be in a socially unacceptable state of hostility toward someone more fortunate). "People often avoid taking risks because of the shame associated with losing social status," says clinical psychologist Nando Pelusi. But our reaction to a negative social comparison is often way out of proportion with reality. One small threat to our rank—such as discovering that a colleague makes more money than we do—can shift our self-image. "You must learn to reframe the shameful event and to be concerned about it but not rate your entire being on some positional difference," he says. "You can curb the self-destructive element but keep the motivating desire."

Trust That You'll Mellow With Age

The compulsion to compare one's self with others abates over time. While she hasn't yet studied it per se, Sarah Hill strongly suspects that women's tendency to envy their peers' looks wanes significantly once they pass their reproductive prime. "My mother, who is in her 60s, says her friendships with women are much more solid now," Hill says. "When she was younger, she was crazy with envy toward her girlfriends."

The older you get, the less future-oriented you are, rendering envy a less helpful barometer. Take a cue from the elderly, who are generally more focused on the present moment and on enhancing existing relationships.

Curb the Comparisons

Envy is a toxic emotion, says former Zen Buddhist monk Josh Baran, because whatever the yardstick—money or appearance or reputation—someone will always outdo you. "When Ted Turner's worth dropped to a billion dollars," Baran says, "he wanted to kill himself."

"To find your own measure of success is the real goal," says acclaimed writer and publisher James Atlas, who chronicled his long-term status anxiety in My Life in the Middle Ages. "Comparison is the great obstacle to happiness."

High Status Does Not Equal Happiness

The key to dampening status envy, Josh Baran says, is to critique its underlying narrative. You can't banish envious thoughts, but you can challenge their premises. If you think "If I were ten pounds thinner like her, I would be happy," consider whether that statement is really true. And consider its opposite: "What if I were the weight I am and happy?"

The pang of envy toward your friend's figure may be sharp, and yet chances are you're wrong about how happy your ideal weight would make you. We are notoriously bad at judging what will give us long-term satisfaction versus just short-term pleasure.