When it comes to the majority of the challenges we experience in our friendships, there is an interpersonal dynamic at play– a betrayal, a conflict, an argument, a concern. That’s why feeling envious of a friend can be a fairly unique situation.
The difference is that it’s entirely possible to feel sad, upset, disappointed, or even angry with a friend when they technically have not actually said or done anything hurtful or wrong. Of course, there are those who make things more difficult, by being boastful, competitive, or seemingly oblivious to our difficulties and dreams. But it’s also possible to struggle with envy when a friend has been nothing but kind, considerate, and supportive.
Feelings of envy can become particularly salient as we move through life. The older we get, the more likely our paths diverge from those of our friends, and the more aware we can be of the things we long for– a lasting relationship, a family, financial security, professional success, the ability to travel, a clean bill of health. Social media certainly does not make it any easier. Everyday, we are exposed to a carefully curated representation of our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives. It’s overwhelming positive and inescapable (not to mention unrealistic). It’s enough to make almost anyone feel twinges of envy from time to time.
The Problem With Envy
Although envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct, albeit related, emotional experiences. At it’s core, envy is a cluster of feelings, thoughts, or behaviours that come about when someone else, including a friend, has something (or someone) we desire. Jealousy, in contrast, occurs when we feel as though someone we are close to is interested or invested in another person.
When we feel envious or jealous, it’s not uncommon for other difficult emotions to creep up, including sadness, anger, resentment, anxiety, and shame. And while it’s perfectly normal to compare ourselves to our friend’s from time to time, getting caught up in social comparisons can take a serious toll on our happiness, self-esteem, and overall satisfaction with life. The more preoccupied we become with a friend’s success or good fortune, the easier it is to questions things like our self-worth or the fairness of the world we live in. When envy becomes more pervasive, it can make us act out in unexpected ways, like by distancing ourselves from friends or being passive aggressive. Not only can this create conflict, it takes away from the closeness we feel in even our most secure friendships.
Even though it can be uncomfortable (some might even say “ugly”), envy is an understandable, valid emotion. And it does not necessarily need to create problems in our friendships.
How to Cope with Friendship Envy
1. Practice self-compassion
Unfortunately, many of us tend to judge ourselves harshly for experiencing what is simply part of the normal range of human emotions. Being self-critical (e.g., by telling yourself you are a “bad” friend, or that you’re being overly sensitive or ungrateful) only makes the situation more difficult. It also creates room for other uncomfortable emotions, like anxiety and shame.
Instead of being hard on yourself, practice self-compassion for your feelings as well as whatever it is you are struggling with. Engaging in positive self-talk (What would you say to a friend who was struggling with envy?) or finding an affirmation or self-care routine might sound like band-aid solutions, but they can bolster your self-esteem and ability to cope with hardship. It’s also important to normalize your experiences. It’s perfectly understandable to feel upset when the thing you want so badly is in someone else’s hands, especially when that person is a friend and someone with whom you identify so closely. And conflicting emotions are difficult but common; Just because you are sad for yourself does not mean you aren’t able to feel happy for or proud of your friend. Allow yourself to fully experience, accept, and even embrace this range of emotions without judgment.
2. Use envy as motivation.
It might seem like there is little value in feeling envious, but it can be a powerful force for change. When we’re in tune with and willing to accept the discomfort it brings, envy can point us towards our values and goals and motivate us to take action. If you have mixed emotions about a friend’s new, exciting job, perhaps this is a sign that you should make that career change you’ve been contemplating? Envious of a friend’s relationship status or social skills? Use this as motivation to engage more fully in dating or making friends. When channeled in this way, envy is actually kind of adaptive‒ It’s a compass that can keep us on track, as long as we are willing to listen.
3. Interrupt envy with gratitude.
When we’re upset with our circumstances, it can make it all the more difficult to practice gratitude. The reality is, however, that these are the moments when we need it the most. Gratitude is not about ignoring what we desire, but rather choosing to focus on the things we do have that bring us value or joy. Focusing on your appreciation for knowing the value of a dollar or your work ethic when envious of a friend’s financial situation can make conversations much less triggering. Instead of feeling envious of a friend’s appearance, focus on the things you like about yourself or the fact that you have a body that allows you to exercise. It might seem simple but finding a sustainable way to practice gratitude (like The Five Minute Journal) can increase your satisfaction with life as well as your relationships.
It also helps to appreciate the moments when you feel that your friend is being sensitive to your situation or feelings. These can be easy to overlook when we’re struggling. Not only is this a good exercise in gratitude, it will help you to feel supported and connected, and stop feelings of envy from coming between you.
4. Use envy as an opportunity for connection.
We tend to keep feelings of envy a secret (especially from those we are envious of). Although discussing these experiences can be difficult (not to mention awkward), holding them in can make us feel increasingly distressed and disconnected. Sharing feelings of envy might be done in an effort to explain why you’ve been distant or even irritable. It can also be a way to propose small changes that might make things feel less triggering or upsetting (e.g., like avoiding certain topics or suggesting less expensive activities). Whatever the reason, when approached carefully being open can help you process your feelings of envy or resentment, find new ways to cope, and even bring you closer together.
That said, the decision about whether and how to discuss feelings of envy is personal and polarizing. For some it feels necessary, for others inappropriate. As much as possible, broach the conversation at a time when you can speak privately and won’t feel rushed. Refrain from blaming your friend and be open to their take on things. Hearing that someone is envious of us can feel particularly awkward or uncomfortable, regardless of whether it’s something we have control over. But saying something like: “I know I’ve been a little distant lately and I wanted you to know that it’s because I’ve been struggling with…..” or “I want you to know that I’m really happy for you. It’s just hard for me because…” can be the starting point for a meaningful conversation that will ultimately strengthen your friendship.
5. Create boundaries.
In some cases, it might be necessary to establish certain boundaries to protect yourself as well as your friendship. Are there topics, settings, or activities that invariably lead to feelings of envy? It’s perfectly appropriate to take some time for yourself or to focus your interactions on the things that bring you closer together, instead of those that drive you apart. Doing so might actually be the thing that saves your friendship. It also helps to remember that boundaries or limits like these can be fluid. With time, and the changes that life inevitably brings, you might surprise yourself at your willingness to connect over things that previously made you feel envious or resentful.
6. Shift your perspective.
When few things work, adjusting our perspective can be incredibly helpful, not to mention necessary. Part of the reason why envy can be so destructive is because of the unrealistic ideas we hold. That’s why it helps to aim for a more realistic understanding of and approach to envy itself. Online, and even in the context of our closest relationships, there is often very little discussion of life’s difficult and darker moments- break ups, fertility problems, illnesses, and mental health struggles. We tend to showcase and discuss the highlights of our lives, while omitting the low or even mundane points. Gently remind yourself that, although not always distributed evenly, everyone faces struggles and hardship. And there might be aspects of your own life that your friends envy greatly.
It also helps to see envy as an opportunity for growth, which can absolutely be a tough pill to swallow (especially when we feel as though the idea is being forced on us). However, doing so can open your eyes to silver linings, moments, and opportunities that might not have been as obvious initially, like the chance to learn more about yourself or to connect with your friend over something deeply personal and meaningful.
Miriam Kirmayer is a therapist and friendship researcher who works with the media to make information about well-being, psychology, and relationships available and relatable. Connect with Miriam on Facebook and Twitter or at MiriamKirmayer.com to learn more.