In the age of social media, few of us are immune to feelings of jealousy. A five-minute Instagram scroll will give you a glimpse into your colleague’s perfect beach vacation as you slave away at your desk, your college roommate’s wedding plans (you’re still single and swiping on Tinder regularly, by the way), and your childhood best friend’s foray into entrepreneurship, which seems to be going better than even she could have imagined.
First things first: Social media gives us the curated highlight reel of what’s going on in our friends and acquaintances' lives, not the full picture. But if you’re feeling intense pangs of jealousy or envy even knowing this, it may be worthwhile to dig into why this is happening in the first place.
Jealousy and envy are hardly characteristics we embrace as a society. Theodore Roosevelt’s quote “comparison is the thief of joy” has barely lost steam in the many decades since he’s said it, which is kind of a shame, because feelings of envy can actually be beneficial, even if they’re uncomfortable. “Often, feelings of envy can help us take a hard look at what we want our own path to look like as it stands on its own, rather than solely in comparison to others,” says Amy Cirbus, a New York-based Talkspace therapist. “And on a deeper level, envy can reflect fear. Fear that we won't achieve or have what we're working towards.Someone else has achieved it, and yet you're still working. Will you ever get there?”
In other words, envy can act as a bit of a wakeup call. If you’re working a mind-numbingly boring 9 to 5 job and feel envy when you see or hear about your friend’s self-employment, it may be worth it to examine whether that’s something you want for yourself, and how to get it.
While envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably and can feel similar, they’re actually very different. “Envy is when we see attributes of another person and want those for ourselves,” explains Cirbus. “It’s about coveting something we see in someone else. Jealousy is when we feel that something we have may be taken away by someone else. It’s about wanting something versus feeling the threat of something being taken.”
For that reason, jealousy can’t inspire change as easily as envy, because it’s a lot more fear-based. But if you suspect that what you’re feeling is envy, work on recognizing it when it pops up. “The immediate reaction can feel like anger, irritation or dislike,” says Cirbus. “Often we’re annoyed with someone without quite knowing why. Once we can own and identify our feeling as envy, a reflection of our self, then we can start to work a path through it.”
The work can be identifying what it is we want, and what we’re doing to achieve it. “It's a process to understand why we're feeling envy and knowing the difference between wanting what someone else has and taking accountability for working to get what we truly want,” Cirbus says. “It's much easier to celebrate someone else's accomplishments when we can identify our goals and desires and authentically value them and own our work on them.”
It might be just a little awkward to tell a friend, family member, or colleague that you’re feeling envious of them. But if you’re up to the challenge, Cirbus says it can be a great bonding experience, especially if you already have a solid relationship with them. “It can help you move through the feelings and let go of a struggle that you’re experiencing through a skewed perspective. Sharing can give that person a chance to reveal their experience of themselves rather than your one-dimensional version. It can be helpful to sort out and see where your lens intersects with their reality.”
Just be careful of using your vulnerability as social currency. “This can be dangerous territory,” Cirbus says. “It’s a vulnerability that we should both want to reflect on and honor as our own personal growth work, careful of what we share and who we share it with.” Long story short, if you’re experiencing feelings of envy, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, embrace those feelings—they might just help you get where you want to go faster.