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The Upside Of Envy

How envious feelings from social media can lead to self-improvement.

Key points

  • Be honest about envious feelings. It's important to remember that envy is a normal human emotion. 
  • See envious feelings as an opportunity for personal growth. Examining who and what causes envy can lead to self-awareness.
  • Avoid or minimize social media when feeling bad. Self-esteem is determined by how well one measures up on social comparisons.

Increasingly in my practice, I hear things like,

I wish I had my best friend’s life! Her family always travels to amazing places, has the best clothing, and is a top student and athlete. Her pictures on Instagram and Facebook prove it!

I was constantly compared to my brother growing up. He was the smart son, the cool son, the cute son. I guess that’s why I feel so envious of him now. My brother doesn’t know it, but I stopped following him on Facebook because I would get so angry after seeing posts of his charmed life.

Seeing pictures of my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend on social media never takes me to a good place. I constantly compare myself to her in every way—looks, career, kids, finances, and friends. You name it, and I’ve compared it!

Do you frequently compare yourself to others on social media? If so, you’re not alone! According to psychologist Leon Festinger, known for his social comparison theory, people have an innate ability to evaluate their opinions and abilities. In fact, we gain important information about ourselves by doing so, like, “Am I a good person or a bad person?’ “Do people like me?’ or “Am I successful?”

We usually think nothing good comes from comparisons. Still, you might be surprised to learn that measuring ourselves against others can be helpful and even lead to emotional and personal development.

More specifically, comparisons let us know how good we are at a particular skill or talent—like running, math, or art-can lead to personal and emotional development by inspiring and motivating us to improve.

However, it’s important to be aware that unhealthy social media comparisons, known as upward comparisons, often cause feelings of destructive envy.

What Are Upward Comparisons?

Upward comparisons, whether based on our social media consumption or our real life, are made when we compare ourselves to people we believe are better than or superior to us. For instance, we might believe a virtual friend is more attractive or more financially successful than we are. Not surprisingly, upward comparisons can hurt our self-confidence by triggering deep-seated feelings of resentment, envy, and shame.

Being envious is normal: we all feel it from time to time. However, persistent envious feelings can negatively impact our mental health and wreak havoc on our relationships. So, the question is, how can examining our envious feelings help us? Below are four tips to help you find the positive side of envy.

  1. Be honest about your envious feelings. Most of us do not want to admit that we have envious feelings towards another person. However, it is important to remind ourselves that envy is a normal emotion. Write a list about what exactly it is you envy about a particular person.
  2. Interpret your envious feelings as an opportunity for personal growth. Examining who and what cause you to feel envious can lead to self-awareness. Remember, you would not feel as strongly about the person you envy if whatever weren’t also important to or a priority for you. Part of our self-esteem is determined by how well we measure up on our social comparisons. For example, if we meet our expectations and goals, we feel excited about life and good about ourselves. When we aren’t meeting our goals or facing adversity, such as going through a divorce or losing a job, we’re bound to feel depressed or even ashamed. And at these times, we’re also more likely to draw social comparisons.
  3. Avoid or minimize social media when feeling bad or facing adversity.
  4. Gain a realistic perspective of social media. It’s normal for us to showcase our achievements and the highlights of our lives. This is part of the human condition. But no matter how wonderful a person’s life might appear on social media, life has its down moments for everyone.