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5 ways to turn professional jealousy into inspiration to succeed

After leaving a 10-year career at Amazon, Andrea Leigh struggled with professional jealousy until she realized that it was cutting her off from opportunity and action. Here’s how to avoid the trap of negative self-talk.

5 ways to turn professional jealousy into inspiration to succeed
[Source illustration: archivector/iStock]
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We’ve all felt it. That twinge, that pit in the bottom of your stomach. That feeling that someone has something—a professional accomplishment, health, money, body, beauty, family, talent, or something else—that you so desperately want, maybe even need. Jealousy.

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Jealousy isn’t a learned feeling, either—it’s natural. You can probably remember feeling jealous even in early childhood. Maybe it was the person with the bright colorful backpack in elementary school or the star athlete in high school, or perhaps it was your colleague who just got their second promotion. It’s a feeling that you don’t outgrow or mature out of, but why you feel it and how may change.

Jealousy is generally considered a negative emotion. Talking about jealous feelings can feel shameful. The feeling is often associated with helplessness and powerlessness. And social media certainly isn’t helping us feel less jealous. Personally, I’ve recently come to terms with jealously and spoke about my experience feeling, and overcoming, it on the Swing Shift podcast.

The real reason we don’t talk about jealousy is this (hard truth alert): Understanding our jealousy requires us to identify and become deeply connected with our own core values and strengths. Said differently, we push our feelings of jealousy deep down, because the real work—connecting with ourselves—is hard. Maybe it’s easier to make friends with jealousy.

However, jealousy holds us back. It closes doors when we need every single door to be open.

Just after leaving my 10-year career at Amazon to stay home and care for my kids (a seven-year-old and five-year-old twins at the time), I met Lauren, another mother, on the school playground. Lauren had also recently left a high-powered career in tech and relocated to Seattle from the Bay Area. She was beautiful and sexy. Her children were perfect. She was witty and smart, and everyone always seemed to want to talk to her.

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Most importantly, Lauren seemed completely secure in her decision to leave the workforce.

I, on the other hand, was in an insecure phase of my life. I was struggling from the loss of an identity that was previously associated with my job and paycheck. I was enjoying my family, but I was crumbling under the pressure of staying home with three kids. My twins were still home all day, and I felt tired, out of shape, and harried.

I couldn’t put my finger on what, specifically, I was jealous of. But I knew I wanted to be more like Lauren. So, I did what any normal woman would do.

I completely avoided her.

I didn’t dislike her. She was a lovely woman. I just didn’t like how I felt when I was around her. So, I closed the door on her.

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This behavior is common. When faced with jealousy, we often avoid our deepest desires and fears. We cut ourselves off from opportunity and action and instead engage in a vicious negative self-talk cycle:

  • Jealousy and shame: Shame on me for feeling jealous.
  • Negative self-talk: Why can’t I be more confident and put together?
  • Low confidence and feeling overwhelmed: I’ll never be good enough.
  • Fear and paralysis: I can’t.

When Lauren and I finally did connect at a school event months later, we fell deep into conversation and discovered we had loads in common, both professionally and personally. I finally got the courage to ask her how she felt about her decision to leave the workforce. Tossing her lovely and smooth caramel-colored hair back, and with a mischievous gleam in her eye, she confided, “I check the job postings every day and question my decision to leave my career.” She too felt uncertain sometimes. Realizing that profoundly changed my perspective.

I was angry with myself for avoiding her. I had missed an opportunity not only to have a rich friendship but also to benefit professionally from an important person in the industry.

We are quick to feel jealous, and jealousy is certainly normal. However, instead of feeling shame and repressing our feelings of envy, we could instead ask ourselves the hard questions.

  • Is this something that I deeply desire, and is it consistent with my values and strengths?
  • Is it possible for me to work for this and achieve it?

If you’re comparing yourself against a marathon runner, and you don’t like to run, or your home to an interior designer’s work, yet you couldn’t care less about interior design, then you must let it go. If you do care deeply about it, and you are willing to work for it, that’s another story. Set your jealousy aside and ask questions so you can make a personalized plan.

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I realize this doesn’t apply exactly to every situation. Maybe you envy the friend with a house full of kids or the friend who lives alone. Or maybe you envy someone with better health or fewer responsibilities. However, there may be a way to get one step closer to what’s driving your envy.

Here are five steps to making jealousy work for you:

  1. Know and be grateful for yourself. Get intimate with your core values, strengths, and gifts. This is the hard part. Make lists, use an online tool, or take a workshop. Find ways to experience gratitude for yourself and what you bring to the table.
  2. Examine your feelings. Examine your feelings of jealousy. Is this something I care deeply about? Is it something I could work for or get closer to?
  3. Focus on your own journey. You are never behind on your own path.
  4. Be curious. If what someone else has is something you care deeply about, and you’re willing to work for it, ask questions to learn about their journey.
  5. Make or revisit your plan for your own personal journey.

Keep in mind (especially if your jealousy is the spawn of social media) that behind the scenes, it’s not all pretty pictures. As Steven Furtick famously tweeted, “One reason we struggle w/insecurity: we’re comparing our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Feelings of jealously and envy are only human, but they don’t have to be debilitating. In the end, it all boils down to how to face them and grow as an individual.


Andrea K. Leigh is the vice president of strategy at Ideoclick.

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