Envy is an affliction that stems from comparison. For me, it feels like a tight, pinched longing deep in my chest. It’s an emotion I encounter frequently, stemming from comparing myself to others. In life, it is natural to compare ourselves to others. I compare my speed to others when driving to ensure a good flow of traffic, my actions to others when learning a new skill from them, and my results to the picture in the cookbook when following a recipe. Comparison can give us a healthy benchmark for growth and self-improvement.
However, problems can arise when we compare ourselves to inaccurate or incomplete reflections of the world around us. Comparing our lives to our friends’ social media posts, celebrities, or other people’s success when we don’t have the full picture can lead us down a dark path. These unbalanced comparisons can twist healthy benchmarks into impossible standards, leading to feelings like inadequacy, failure, and envy. If this is something that you, like me, have experienced, then here are my three tips to transform envy back into healthy goals.
Change Your Outlook
From a young age, I knew that pursuing the path of the writer would not be easy. But what I hadn’t accounted for was the envy I would feel towards my friends’ successes. I knew pursuing a career as an author meant choosing the road less travelled, but there was a difference between knowing something and experiencing it.
From the outside looking in, my closest friends in the world seem to have it all. A married couple, they own their own home and both have established careers. They often travel internationally and recently enjoyed a beautiful wedding. At times, however, my envy of their lives and achievements has left me feeling resentful. Even though we’re all the same age, I feel that compared to them I am floundering – both in life and with jealousy.
Eventually, I’ve had to address the painful resentment and envy inside of me and question where it came from. Was my envy a mark of some perceived failure in comparison to my friends’ success?
And if I was ‘failing’, didn’t that mean I should give up? With introspection, I’ve realised that the fault was not with me but with the lens through which I compared our journeys.
Social media is often to blame for these glamorised perspectives. In many ways, it is a catalyst for envy that distorts the lives it projects. Through social media, I only saw the construction photos of my friends’ home, the smiling wedding snaps, and the travel updates because people rarely post their behind-the-scenes lows. My friends don’t share the costs of their mortgage, the toll of cancelling and re-planning their wedding three times during the pandemic, or the long hours they put into further education and work to afford their travels. For a long time, I suffered feelings of jealousy and shame until I realised I was only focusing on the best parts of my friends’ lives.
Likewise, I don’t share on social media the negatives of my journey, but nor do I share the positives. The only person who sees all those things… is me. Just as I only see my friends’ lives from the outside, so too do they only see the surface of mine, and stopping to understand their perspective can be eye-opening. To the outside observer, I’ve attained a doctorate, written multiple diverse manuscripts, pursued my dreams, and found an incredible, supportive spouse. When I put it like that, I can’t reasonably say that I am ‘failing’, and nor do I want to give up. I’ve put a lot of effort into the life I have achieved and I won’t let the successes of others discredit my own.
With this new perspective, I can comfortably say that my friends earned the successes they now enjoy, and I am happy for them. Though they may have travelled a more common path than me, to lust after their success while disregarding the effort it took to get there not only does them a disservice but also insults my own work, too.
So, when I say to put it into perspective, I mean it in more ways than one. The curated feed of social media only shows us the highlight reels of our peers’ lives. It does not outline the journey to success, nor does it show how many times a person has failed. Likewise, success does not discredit the work it took to get there, nor does it mean that if you have not yet reached your goals, you are not working hard. Our goals and the journeys to them each take shape at different speeds. Not only should we try to recognise the work others have undertaken, but recognise our own work too.
We must put social media into perspective with real life, and our journeys into perspective with the journeys of others.
Focus on Your Own Journey
Despite what the world and social media tries to tell us, age means nothing. I know it can feel like the only path in life is a strict set of steps involving school, higher education, career, marriage, and then children. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. You don’t have to go into a career that matches your studies, you don’t have to get married before you have children – in fact, you don’t even have to get married or have children at all if it’s not what you want.
It is our goals in life that determine our path. My friend and I are two totally different people with different sets of ambitions. Sure, there is overlap in our desire for travel and financial security, but when I recognised that comparing our journeys was a form of false equivalency, my envy melted away.
There are two relevant phrases that stick with me. One is the saying of comparing apples and oranges; both are fruit, yes, but their care requirements and cultivation are entirely different. To compare the growth of one to the other would be pointless. The other saying is that comparison is the thief of joy. To compare another’s success with our own journey robs us of our own achievements.
Taken together, these two quotes give us a pretty important lesson on how to deal with envy. We shouldn’t falsely compare differing journeys, as doing so not only makes an invalid comparison but also robs us of the joys of our own successes. Instead, we should turn our attention toward our own paths and recognise the achievements we have already made, both professionally and personally.
Set Healthy Boundaries
If we focus on our own journeys, what are we to do when our friends succeed? Celebrate, of course! If we want success in our own lives, then we should surround ourselves with people who succeed. While comparison can be a catalyst for envy, it can also serve as a source of inspiration and admiration. Instead of feeling as if you don’t measure up, try allowing your friends’ successes to spur you on to greater heights.
That being said, there will come times when uncertainty will creep in, and feelings of envy may even become a little too much to bear. There are days where you will smile for your friends’ success, days where you will politely fake it, and days where you won’t be able to smile at all. Those are the times that you will have to accept your feelings for the way that they are. Comparison is a natural part of life. This is where you will need to set healthy boundaries, like limiting your use of social media or taking some time to yourself to appreciate all the things that make your journey yours.
I still struggle with that deep, painful yearning in my chest, but it has become easier to bear with time and perspective. I look at how far I have come and the opportunities that have come my way – even those I was unsuccessful in – and marvel that I did that. The version of me from five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, is unrecognisable to the version of me now. There are times that I can’t recognise the person who had a go and persevered, who came out the other side of her hardships, and frankly, she awes me a little bit.
So the next time you’re struggling with feelings of envy, remember: put where you are now into perspective with where you’ve come from. Understand that social media is not a true reflection of life, and that no two journeys can be accurately compared. Take a break if you need to and then, when you’re ready, let comparison inspire instead of crush you. You might be surprised by the version of you at the heart of your feelings.