My grandpa always said, “Others wish you well, but not too well.” I wouldn’t describe my grandpa as a pessimist in the least; rather, he was a wise man who had experienced a lot in life—struggles, successes, tragedy, and joy alike. His wealth of experiences gave him a window into human tendencies. This adage of his expressed the reality of many friendships: we do sincerely hope to see our friends succeed, but often when that success reaches a certain point, envy inevitably starts to creep in. In female friendships, we often experience this dynamic and may find it difficult to fully celebrate each other’s successes because envy gets the best of us.
Envy vs. jealousy
We often use the terms envy and jealousy interchangeably, but the two have a slightly different meaning. Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, licensed counselor and author of several books on friendship, differentiates the two: “Unlike envy, which is just coveting something someone else has, jealousy includes the fear that you are losing something to someone when they get what you want.” Jealousy, then, is distinguished by a scarcity mindset; we feel what someone else has may limit what we’re able to get.
With our female friendships, it is usually envy (rather than jealousy) we experience when faced with a girlfriend’s happiness or successes. Except in cases such as co-workers or student peers competing for the same position or award, we rarely feel that a girlfriend’s joys or achievement may limit our own. However, that doesn’t stop us from wanting what she has. When a girlfriend gets a promotion, starts a new relationship, gets engaged, buys a house, or even gets pregnant, we may find that envy easily sneaks in. While we may feel happy for our friend, our envy may get in the way of experiencing true, unadulterated joy for her. This, in turn, can get in the way of the friendship itself.
It’s a “both/and”
The truth is we probably feel both happy for our fortunate friend and at the same time envious of her. This is a concept therapists refer to as a “dialectic”—we can simultaneously feel two seemingly opposing emotions. This is an unfamiliar concept to many of us in a culture that often struggles to recognize the complexity of human emotions. We usually categorize something as good or bad, happy or sad. However, the reality of the human experience is much more accurately depicted as “both/and”; we rarely feel exclusively one feeling at a time.
I point out this reality that many of us women feel both happy and slightly envious of our friends’ positive experiences to underscore the fact that we can feel genuine happiness for friends’ successes even if we feel some envy too. This emotional duality of happiness and envy makes us human, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
The impact of envy
Dr. Degges-White, author of both Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends Who Break Them and Friends Forever: How Girls and Women Forge Lasting Relationships, knows a thing or two about what makes and breaks female friendships. She wisely cautions that envy of others’ happiness and successes “holds us back from fully engaging in relationships with people for whom we may care deeply.” In my work as a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen cases like this. One woman nearly cut a friend out of her life due to envy of her friend’s success. Thankfully, this woman realized that her envy reflected more about her own insecurities than some flaw in her friend that merited ending the friendship.
Clearly, jealousy and envy can negatively color our friendships. These emotions can keep us from sharing in (and celebrating) a friend’s joy with her, and even lead us to distance ourselves physically or emotionally from her. Envy impacts us personally, too. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly cautioned, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and harboring envy of our friends’ happiness only leaves us feeling bitter, resentful, and certainly less content with and grateful for the good fortune in our own lives.
Turning envy into self-reflection
If we’re not worried about losing out on something to our friend (as in the case of jealousy), why do we still feel envy? Our friend’s successes don’t impede our own potential for happiness—if she gets engaged, that doesn’t inhibit me from getting engaged some day; her promotion has no effect on my work in another field—so why are we green with envy? It might be that seeing others succeed makes us feel insecure about ourselves. Or, more accurately, envy might start to creep in around topics we already feel insecure about. Seeing a friend get engaged might pull at our insecurity about not being in a relationship. Hearing about a friend’s promotion might make us feel insecure due to our less prestigious field of work, how much money we make, or our job title or status. Often, this can quickly turn into envy, as insecurity is a prime breeding ground for fear—fear that you will never have enough, fear that you will never accomplish your dreams, fear that you will never be in a relationship, fear that you aren’t enough.
There is a silver lining to envy and jealousy; precisely by illuminating our insecurities and fears they also can point to our own values—to things we deeply desire, but don’t yet have. Dr. Degges-White explains, “Jealousy can help you recognize the authentic value you place on something, whether a relationship or status.” When a girlfriend reaches a relationship milestone—gets a boyfriend, engaged, married, or becomes pregnant—the envy we feel may be a sign of our value to share our life with someone or start a family. Feeling envious of a friend who graduates from medical school or is successful in her work in sales might point to a longing that we have to work in a different career—maybe we want to do something more meaningful or we just feel that our talents aren’t being utilized in our current role.
Whatever the case may be, envy can be used as a precise starting point for self-reflection. When you feel envious or jealous, notice what the subject matter is. Is it about a friend’s relationship? Her family? Her job? Start to keep a mental record—or better yet, a journal—of situations in which you find yourself feeling envious. Maybe this points to an unacknowledged desire in you—perhaps a desire to do something wildly different than your current job or even your degree suggests.
Maybe your envy points to an insecurity or value you’re well aware of, such as to be in a relationship and have a family someday or to work in a different field. In this case, are there tangible steps you can take to get there or to set yourself up for success that you haven’t taken? Maybe you set up a networking call with someone in the field you desire to break into, or start taking online classes. If it’s something you have less control over, like being in a relationship, there are still things you can do. Maybe you can see a therapist to help recognize any past relationship patterns, to address unhealed wounds, or for personal growth for when that special someone does come along.
While envy can lead to poignant self-reflection, it’s not a fun place to start. The feeling keeps us from completely sharing in others’ joys, and robs us of our own gratitude, contentment, and personal joy. To start to curb your envy, it can help to keep a gratitude journal in which you document daily the things—simple or profound—you are thankful for. We all know by now that social media is generally a highlight reel rather than the reality of others’ lives. Nonetheless, if a daily onslaught of others’ successes and exciting life milestones is contributing to your envy, try limiting your social media use and reaching out for more in-person connections. The more you talk to friends in person rather than just witness their highs, the more likely you are to realize that everyone has struggles, no matter where they are in life. This will help you to see your friends as more human, and hopefully, allow you to fully share in their joys.