Laura has just been laid off from her job. While trying to muster the energy to update her LinkedIn profile, she spots an email alert from LinkedIn that says, “Congratulate Cathy Barnes on her promotion!” Cathy is a former colleague who had been at the same level as Laura when they worked together as junior managers a few years ago. “Clearly,” Laura thinks to herself, “Cathy has pulled way ahead of me professionally now. It looks like she’s landed her dream job while I’m barely staying afloat!”
Laura’s feelings of career envy are widespread, especially since social media makes it all too easy to see what your friends and coworkers are up to professionally and personally (or at least the parts of their lives that they want you to see). In a 2011 study, European researchers describe workplace envy a “response to another person who has success, skills, or qualities that we desire, and involves feeling a lack in comparison to that person.” And since that response is so common, those of us who inevitably find ourselves in positions similar to Laura’s need to know what to do with those emotions when we encounter them.
As it turns out, there are a few practical steps you can take to turn career envy to your advantage, making productive use of those negative feelings in order to boost your productivity and gain a sense of perspective.
1. Look for insight in social comparison
Everyone compares themselves to others, whether they consciously realize it or not. It’s often our means of gaining more self-awareness of our capabilities, successes, interests, and personality traits. So “social comparison” can actually be helpful, even if it doesn’t always leave you feeling great about yourself; these knee-jerk assessments help you determine where you think you stand relative to others.
When you catch yourself gripped by career jealousy, pause for a moment and think critically (but not unfairly) about your skills. You may spot clearer benchmarks to measure your progress, whether you’re trying to excel in academics, sports, or business. If you’re strategic about the information that you glean from social comparisons, you can use those insights to modify your approach to certain tasks–for instance, by increasing your training or redirecting your efforts in new directions–and hopefully improving your results in the process.
2. Question your assumptions about what you see
In the world of social media, where your contacts’ carefully curated posts make it look like no one ever has a bad day but you, it’s easy to wind up feeling bad about yourself. But if you take everything you see on LinkedIn or Instagram or Facebook at face value, you’re falling for a ruse. Think about it: People rarely post updates about their job losses, bad-hair days, or sullen teenage kids on social media unless they’re comedians trying to get a laugh. Yet they rush to share graduation photos and spread the word about exciting new jobs.
Sometimes it takes an active effort to remind yourself of this. When Laura read about Cathy’s perfect-sounding promotion, she might have stopped to ask herself a few key questions:
- How do I know for sure that my friend is happy in her new job?
- What sacrifices might she have had to make to reach that level?
- What assumptions might I be making about her situation?
This quick exercise can help widen your perspective and bring you back toward a more productive frame of mind. Now, instead of stewing in envy over your friend or colleague, you can widen the lens to consider what steps you can take to improve the parts of your own life where you feel most insecure.
3. Acknowledge your own successes
Your next step is to give yourself a boost of confidence by reminding yourself what you’re doing right. No matter how or why something doesn’t go the way you want–whether you get passed over for a promotion, miss out on a job offer–other things in your life are likely going well. One strategy for doing this is to write a quick list of the things you’re currently most proud of or grateful for in your life, which may help you realize that your overall situation is much better than you initially thought.
Writing for Psychology Today in 2015, Seth Meyers, PsyD, pointed out that “the more fulfilled you feel in various aspects of your life–romantic, social, professional, and hobbies–the less envy you will feel toward anyone.” And by zeroing in on your strengths and advantages, you can channel that boost of motivation more strategically, maximizing your true potential in areas where you’re already excelling. For example, Laura might try using Cathy’s promotion announcement as a chance to invite her to coffee and congratulate her, rekindling a networking relationship that could eventually lead to Laura to new job leads of her own.
And since Laura will hopefully have taken the time to reflect on what’s going well in her life, she’ll sound optimistic and confident about her career when she chats with Cathy, rather than morose or envious. She’ll also be able to share with Cathy where she seeks her strengths as a job seeker, which will help Cathy can keep a sharper ear out for opportunities to pass along.
Career envy isn’t exactly pleasant, but it can still give you a leg up. Take the time to reflect on the social comparisons you make. Use moments of FOMO and jealousy to question your assumptions, acknowledge your successes, and identify aspects of your life that you want to improve. By doing so, you can transform your most undignified and vulnerable moments into healthy new habits that drive a successful–and even enviable–career.
Susan Peppercorn is an executive transition coach and the founder of Positive Workplace Partners. She is also the author of Ditch Your Inner Critic at Work: Evidence-Based Strategies to Thrive in Your Career. Follow her on Twitter at @susanpeppercorn.