You see a coworker get a promotion, you watch a friend accept an award, your sister gets a raise, your friend lands a dream client. You want to be happy for them. You know you should celebrate their successes. But instead you feel jealousy brewing inside. A voice in your head says, “Why isn’t this me?”
Dr. A.J. Marsden, organizational psychologist and assistant professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, says it’s not unusual to feel envious of someone else’s success. “We have a fundamental need to know with a high degree of certainty our place within the world and its perceived hierarchies,” she says. When we see someone we perceive as on our “level” receive something that we hold of value–such as praise or a promotion–feelings of envy can surface. Often these envious feelings are followed by guilt. “We feel bad about ourselves because we think that someone else’s success equals our own failure,” says Marsden.
Envy can lead to depression, anxiety, and anger toward the successful person, causing tension and feelings of competition and rivalry as we begin to feel that the other person’s success is a threat to our own.
It’s unrealistic to expect you’ll never feel jealous, but it is possible to turn those feelings of jealousy into a positive opportunity for your own growth.
Envy can help you understand your goals
Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says feeling envy helps us to understand our own goals. “In very basic terms, feeling envy means, ‘I want that,'” says Shea. Acknowledging that you are jealous of someone else’s accomplishment informs you that it is something you would like to achieve, and you can start to work toward it. “Envy gives us information on what’s important to us,” says Shea.
Lean into success
Shea says we have a tendency to “lean out” of a relationship when we feel jealous of someone, but leaning into the relationship instead can have some growth benefits. “This individual accomplished something for a reason–be it superior skills, networking, or by being a more likeable person than you are–even though that’s tough to admit,” says Shea.
Marsden says envy can be a motivator, propelling you to achieve more. Study the individual that you envy. Look at what they’re doing and how they achieved their success, then ask what you need to do to move to the next level. “By reminding yourself that you are always a learner in the game of life, you can avoid feelings of competition with others and instead learn from them,” says Marsden.
Celebrate your own successes
Comparing ourselves to others can causing feelings of envy to emerge when we see someone achieving something that we desire. But we often don’t take the time to think about how far we’ve come ourselves. Taking some time to celebrate your own successes, reflecting upon how far you’ve come, and focusing on comparing your present self with your past self can help to tame feelings of envy toward others. “Sometimes we achieve things and fail to recognize it as we are so focused on what’s next, when we need to take some time to allow ourselves to feel proud and see how far we’ve come,” says Shea.