By Susan Peppercorn
Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.
Laura just got passed over for a new role. While trying to muster the energy to update her LinkedIn profile, she received an email alert from LinkedIn that said, “Congratulate Cathy Barnes on her promotion!” Cathy is in the same leadership development program as Laura and they started at the same time a few years ago. Cathy seems to be making progress that Laura isn’t – despite Laura’s best efforts. “Clearly,” Laura thinks to herself, “Cathy has pulled way ahead of me professionally now—it looks like she has landed her dream job while I’m barely staying afloat!”
What should Laura, or any of us, do when confronted with feelings of envy and jealousy toward friends, colleagues, and people we consider peers? What can you do to help participants deal with these feelings productively?
Below are four strategies that will help your development program participants make productive use of envy by letting it motivate them toward becoming their best selves, rather than succumbing to jealously and despair -and potentially harming your program:
Recognize that comparison can bring insight. Comparing ourselves to others is something that everyone does to gain more self-awareness into our capabilities, successes, interests, and personality. So social comparisons—and the resulting social assessment that helps you determine where you think you stand relative to others—are perfectly normal.
These comparisons also facilitate your desire to perform better by providing benchmarks to measure your progress, whether you’re trying to excel in academics, sports, business, or even your love life. You intuitively refer to these measurements to determine if you’re doing something better or worse than others. If you’re strategic about the information that you glean from social comparisons, then you can use those insights to modify your approach to a task or discipline—such as by increasing your training or redirecting your efforts in new directions—thereby potentially improving your results.
Question your assumptions about what you see.
Question your assumptions to help separate fantasy from reality. For example, when Laura read about Cathy’s perfect-sounding promotion, she could have grounded herself by considering the following questions:
- How do I know for sure that my friend is happy in her new job?
- What sacrifices might she have to make to reach that level?
- What assumptions might I be making about her situation?
By asking yourself questions like these when you sense the green-eyed monster is threatening to emerge, it can help widen your perspective and bring you back to what you can do to improve the parts of your own life in which you feel insecure.
Acknowledge your own successes. One thing you can do to hijack your attention away from areas in which you’re afraid you’re falling short—and worrying about what others are doing—is to focus on what you’re doing right. No matter what the situation is when something doesn’t go the way you want—whether you get passed over for a promotion, outbid on the condo of your dreams, or [fill in the blank], other things in your life are likely going well.
Yet unfortunately, it’s human nature that our brains are biologically predisposed to gravitate toward the negative. While this may feel discouraging, there’s no need to let this basic reality derail you. You do have the power to direct your own thoughts, intentionally bringing your attention back to what is working in your life rather than what isn’t. A strategy for doing so is to write out a list of what you are proud of or grateful for in your life currently, which just may help you realize that your overall situation is much better than you initially thought.
Channel envy toward self-improvement. As Seth Meyers, PsyD, writes in Psychology Today: “The more fulfilled you feel in various aspects of your life—romantic, social, professional, and hobbies—the less envy you will feel towards anyone.” This suggests a solution for envy: using it to motivate you to become the best “you” you can be in whatever arena you feel that you’re not maximizing your true potential.
Use envy as a clarion call to spur you toward self-improvement. In Laura’s example above, she might try using Cathy’s promotion announcement as an opportunity to invite her to coffee and congratulate her, thus rekindling a networking relationship that could eventually lead to Laura achieving a similar promotion. Alternatively, Laura might view Cathy’s professional success as an indicator that Laura herself needs to step up her game, aiming higher in the jobs she applies for post-layoff, or perhaps gaining additional training in areas that will help her advance more quickly.
According to Richard Smith, author of The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, envy can motivate you to work harder to achieve your goals. But reaching this successful outcome requires a willingness to accept your unpleasant emotions and be willing to manage them rather than have them automatically control you.
So remind your leadership development program participants to use moments of envy as an opportunity to question their assumptions, acknowledge their successes, and target specific aspects of improvement. By doing so, they can transform their most undignified and vulnerable moments into healthy new habits that can ultimately improve their career and your program.
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