A few years ago, an aspiring actress friend of mine wrote a screenplay as a means to an end, with the ideal end being an acting career. That script did land her what some would call kindling for a career—but as a TV writer, not an actor. The old saying of one person’s trash being another person’s treasure couldn’t have been more apt in this case; writing for TV has long been my pie-in-the-sky goal, and because of this, I felt a lot of negativity when she seemed to easily fall into my dream as her consolation prize.
Through gritted teeth, I lied to her about how happy I was for her and privately sought to diminish her success any way I could as a means to self soothe. I told myself (and sometimes others) things I am not proud of, like, “She was only able to accomplish what I have not because her parents paid her expenses while she worked on that script full-time,” etcetera. (Gross, I know.)
In the years since my bout of egregious envy, I’ve more or less completely reconfigured my life to better resemble what I’d always internally visualized for it. So I figured I’d evolved beyond my substantive envy…until my closest friend more recently got something I desperately want—and the unsavory dark envious energy returned with a vengeance.
My friend is having a baby, and that’s something I’ve long wanted for myself. My desire surely doesn’t trump my friend’s worthiness for having a baby, and I know that, but that reality doesn’t stop me from feeling more worthy. Now I can barely return her calls, and I set plans with her only to inevitably break them because I play through how I will feel talking about her baby. In short, it’s not good. I believe that eventually the envy will pass, but I’m not sure our relationship will be intact by then. Especially given what sociologist Gordon Clanton, PhD, who literally wrote a book called Jealousy, tells me: that it’s only a matter of time before the object of my envy is made miserable right along with me.
“Jealousy is something that involves three people, and it always involves protecting a valued relationship. Envy, on the other hand, is the wish that someone else would fail because they’re doing better than you.” —sociologist Gordon Clanton, PhD
And, to be clear, he does mean envy and not jealousy. “Jealousy is something that involves three people, and it always involves protecting a valued relationship,” he says. “Envy, on the other hand, is the wish that someone else would fail because they’re doing better than you.” In other words, where jealousy can serve some good by way of prioritizing an important relationship…envy? Not so much.
And while I don’t feel super great about myself when Dr. Clanton reminds me that most major religious and ethical systems he’s aware of have rules against envy and that it’s even one of the seven deadly sins, this reality does help me remember how normal the experience is. Still, “normal” doesn’t necessarily add up to “productive.” And to that point, it bears mentioning that it’s not always possible to get the thing you’re envious of another having. “I have a friend who inherited $5 million,” says Dr. Clanton. “I could work really hard and still not catch up with that person.” This is sort of the case with my friend and her pregnancy, so in order to figure out how to save the relationship, I break from my sociological conversation around envy in favor of one that’s more action-oriented with friendship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness Shasta Nelson.
Right off the bat, Nelson cuts me some slack with her decidedly more nuanced and forgiving two-pronged definition of envy that’s inclusive of resenting and applauding varieties. “Resenting envy would say, ‘I don’t want her to have that, it’s not fair that she has that,’ whereas applauding envy is ‘I might still feel that feeling of envy, but I want her to still have it,’” she says. “The distinction is the recognition that I’m not trying to take it away from her, but that I just want it, too.”
Finally, some good news, as my envy is definitely of the applauding variety. And though my top goal is still to rid myself of it, Nelson assures me that I’m on the right track, according to the three steps to dealing with envy:
Since I’ve already acknowledged the emotion and given myself a break for it existing, it’s time for the next step: willingly expose myself to my envy trigger, aka commit to supporting my friend. Maybe this looks like throwing her a party or maybe it’s just being there for her along her journey to parenthood. It doesn’t sound easy, but I know I have to do it if I want to preserve our relationship.
The third step is by far the hardest: naming the envy out loud to my friend. I tell Nelson I don’t want to do this because I fear the result will be my friend not including me in any part of her life having to do with the baby (which, obviously, will be a large part of her life). So, Nelson suggests I open the conversation with precisely that thought: “I am hesitant to bring this up because I’m scared it’ll cause you to shut me out, but I want to be honest about what I’m feeling.” From there, I can launch into an explanation of my envy—that I don’t want to take anything from her for myself, but that what she has simply highlights to me what I don’t.
In practice, this vulnerability should help to relieve some shame from the situation while invoking empathy from the friend. Plus if I don’t do this, Nelson says I’m likely to become disagreeable in interactions with my friend. “I think if we don’t name the envy, it comes out often where we can make little passive-aggressive statements, [like] ‘must be nice’ or ‘well, we talked about that enough.’ And we can do a lot of damage just pushing the person down and devaluing their happiness.”
While I really do not want to have this conversation, Nelson reminds me that I’ll likely be on both sides of this situation many times moving forward in my friendships. As we get older, she says, there are myriad opportunities for envy to arise, so it’s ideal to learn how to open the lines of communication now. “This type of conversation helps the friendship feel safer for both of you, oddly enough,” Nelson says.
Plus, everything is relative: My friend may be grieving something I’m unaware of, and opening up to her about my feelings of envy may make her feel okay expressing negativity she’s feeling around something she has that I want. “The closer your journey is with each other, the more you see that nobody’s just gaining everything,” she says. “We’re all in the process at all times.”
While you may want to lean out of envy, some psychologists say you should actually lean into bad moods. Plus, now that you’ve learned how to rid yourself of the green-eyed monster, here are tips for ceasing to be an eye-roll-worthy know-it-all because, personal growth.