We all feel envy from time to time, no matter how much we want to believe we’re above it. Envy is a complex cluster of feelings that stems from a very basic desire: You want what you believe someone else has.
According to Buunk et al. (2012), envy is a response to another person who has success, skills, or qualities that we desire, and it involves feeling a lack in comparison to that person. When envy is activated within a friendship, the friendship can experience significant tension and conflict. Friendship is built on notions of trust and mutual support, so competition—the bare essence of envy—seriously gnaws at the foundation of friendship. It's awfully difficult to relax and trust a friend if that friend doesn’t wish the best for you.
The vast majority of individuals will envy a friend at some point in their lives. Conducting research on envy is tricky, however, because researchers must rely on self-reporting, and how honest will a person be when he or she fills out a questionnaire or answers questions from a stranger?
Psychotherapists, on the other hand, hear from their clients every day about an array of envious feelings. In my clinical work, I have found that envy can be particularly powerful between close friends—and that seven issues trigger envy more than any others.
Take a look at the list of triggers below and ask yourself which resonate most with your own friendship history:
Money matters. It can contaminate a friendship if one friend brings in or has access to plenty of money, with extra to spare, while another lives day to day or paycheck to paycheck. A difference in financial stature affects friendships across the lifespan.
In communities or social circles where couples tend to earn a lot of money, social comparisons can be especially frequent and intense. In this financial strata, someone with less money is acutely aware of how much more money friends have.
2. Relationship Status
If finding a romantic partner is a priority for you, discrepant relationship statuses can trigger deep envious feelings if your closest friend is in a romantic relationship. I have had both men and women sit on the couch in my office and share their sadness and bitterness that a close friend “always has someone” while they do not.
The envious friend engages in frequent social comparison, which is a major self-esteem destroyer. The envious friend wonders—even obsesses—about the differences between them: Is it because he is better looking? Because he has a better job? Is it because she is more flirtatious? Is she more fun to be with?
3. Fertility and Children
Fertility can be an extremely provocative trigger for envy in friendships between women in their 20s and 30s—or even 40s, as more women are having children later than in the past. Imagine: Jessica gets pregnant while Anne has undergone two years of fertility treatments but still has not. Does Anne feel 100 percent happy for Jessica?
We love our friends, of course, but we love meeting our own needs more. What's more, we usually can only feel truly happy for someone else once we already feel happy for ourselves. In other words, Anne loves her friend and wants her friend to be pregnant; she just wants them both to be pregnant. Because misery gravitates toward company, if Anne can’t get pregnant, there is a tiny part of her (the envious part) that would feel comforted if her friend couldn’t, either.
4. Physical Attractiveness
This envy trigger is most at work during the early adult years, especially one’s 20s and, to a lesser degree, one's 30s, though attractiveness probably reaches its peak importance during the identity-seeking, self-conscious adolescent years. During these periods, men and women often place a larger emphasis on physical attractiveness than they will later in life.
Individuals with low self-esteem often magnify their shortcomings in this area and tend to envy attractive friends. The logic, according to such individuals, is that the friend perceived as more attractive is "so lucky" and likely has a much easier time attracting dates.
Attractiveness can also trigger envy in friendships in one’s 40s and beyond, especially in social circles in which appearance is highly valued and plastic surgery is routinely sought. In such cases, the envy can be about who's aging better or who's had better "work" done.
If you have never struggled with weight, you may not comprehend just how much being overweight can affect a person’s self-esteem. While some overweight men and women don’t let their weight affect them much, most overweight individuals I work with feel that it negatively impacts much of their daily lives.
For people who feel bad about their weight, having a close friend who is thin can trigger deep envy. Even among adults, an inner child's voice remains when you think about why you're overweight but your friend is thin: It’s not fair. We see examples of weight envy in everyday conversations, with the proliferation of the misogynistic expression "skinny bitch." (Let's all agree to not use that term from now on.)
6. Professional Success (especially in the same career)
Men and women don’t typically envy a friend’s professional success; they are more likely to envy that successful friend if he or she makes more money. Yet having a friend in the same profession who is more successful can trigger serious envy.
For example, two attorney friends can hit a roadblock when one is promoted to partner; two administrators can face competition issues if one is promoted to a manager or vice president; two teachers can experience tension if one gets public recognition or awards.
7. Social Media
A recent study found that social media can cause powerful feelings of envy. This makes sense, as individuals self-select photos of themselves at their happiest—frolicking at the beach with a lover or spouse; a group photo of grinning friends; or family shots which broadcast to the world, Yes, we have it all. The study found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression (Tandoc, Ferrucci, & Duffy, 2015).
Envy is and will always be a part of friendship—it is a simple fact of human nature. At root, envy is about competition as each individual navigates through life and tries to get his or her primary needs met.
Bottom line: The more fulfilled you feel in the various aspects of your life—romantic, social, professional, and hobbies—the less envy you will feel towards anyone. Those who feel envy intensely or frequently should consider talking to a mental health professional to sort out their feelings. Krizan and Johar (2012) found that individuals who were vulnerable to feeling envy had low self-esteem, and were often distraught, anxious, and depressed.
Feel free to check out my book, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter.
- Abraham P. Buunk, Rosario Zurriaga, Pilar González, Alejandro Castro-Solano. Competición intrasexual en el trabajo: diferencias sexuales en celos y envidia en el trabajo / Intra-sexual competition at work: Sex differences in jealousy and envy in the workplace. Revista de Psicología Social, 2012; 27 (1): 85 DOI: 10.1174/021347412798844015
- Edson C. Tandoc, Patrick Ferrucci, Margaret Duffy. Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing? Computers in Human Behavior, 2015; 43: 139 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.10.053
- Zlatan Krizan, Omesh Johar. Envy Divides the Two Faces of Narcissism. Journal of Personality, 2012; 80 (5): 1415 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00767.x