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Like a lot of people, I succumb occasionally — or not so occasionally — to bouts of seething, burning envy. I've heard people say that such feelings are worthless, counterproductive attacks on your own self-esteem. Standard advice almost always falls back on "Focus on being happy for others' successes!" and "Don't compare yourself to anyone!" For me, those thought-suppression tactics don't work and sometimes even lead to feelings of guilt ("Why am I such a bad person; I shouldn't feel this way") or bitterness, anger, or resentment.
We all have at least one friend who looks like she has it all — great job, cute baby, perfect Instagram feed. And to top it off, she's probably a super-nice person, too. I have one: She's an old friend who runs ultramarathons like it's no big deal (she even ran while she was pregnant with her first kid!) and takes the cutest photos of her family, all while managing a high-powered career. She makes it look easy.
But something about this envy works for me — and it could work for you, too. I often do my best when motivated by a high-achieving frenemy. From the first math class I ever aced to the most recent race I finished, my life is littered with achievements in part or in total motivated by a white-hot and barely concealed envy of someone close to me.
It is not a bad thing to make friends with your feelings of jealousy or envy. These are normal human emotions that are bound to come up in life, no matter how grateful we are. While the lived experience of envy feels bad (no one chooses to feel this unpleasant emotion), I take this feeling and make it work for me by turning it into motivation to work harder to achieve something I want – likely, something someone I know personally has and I don't. And, bonus: By taking action on the very feelings of envy that motivate me, my feelings of envy usually dissipate.
So how can you make envy work for you instead of against you? I have three tips that work for me:
Look at the emotion closely — what are you really envious of?
While scrolling through my social feeds the other day, I came across a photo of an old friend triumphantly crossing the finish line of an ultramarathon. Stopping in my tracks, I felt it: that sharp, unexpected pang that if left unchecked would have compelled me to click through the rest of her photos, eventually devolving into a self-hate spiral fueled by Cheetos and vitriol.
Now, this is where most people will tell you to simply stop – stop looking, stop comparing, just focus on yourself and meditate like an adult or some other far-too-mature for reality nonsense.
Instead, for me, it's more helpful to closely inspect those feelings. What was I really envious of? Do I really want to run an ultramarathon — hours of grueling training, achy knees, and all? Or do I just envy the feeling of triumph that accompanies a lofty goal completed, or the sheer physical exhilaration of endurance sports? Either way, by putting a finer point on what I'm looking for, I can come up with a plan to get what I want — either by training for an ultra or just doing some lunges in my living room. Either course of action is bound to make me feel better than wallowing in spite.
The first key step is to not immediately dismiss that pang. It happened for a reason, and it doesn't mean you're a bad or spiteful person. Maybe it's meaningless, or maybe it indicates a longing you haven't fully realized yet — but you'll never find out if you don't pause and take a closer look and allow yourself the space to fully explore your feelings without judgment.
It's possible that you envy the things this person has for a reason: because you think they're cool. If you have zero interest in master-level model-car building, you're unlikely to envy your friend's shelves of perfectly painted, fully articulated miniatures. But if you're harboring a secret love of philately, your first cousin's curated collection may send a stab of covetousness running through your core.
"That could be me": What you want is usually within your reach
The interesting thing that I find about envy is that the feeling almost always centers on someone who is close to or similar to me — someone, for lack of a better term, in my league. This usually means friends, coworkers, even family members. So while it's normal that I'd envy my old acquaintance's ability to squeeze in an ultramarathon while working full-time, raising a family and organizing monthly book club meetings, I'm pretty unlikely to feel even a slight twinge toward the professional runner Usain Bolt, the fastest person ever timed and a multiple world-record holder. What this means is that when you do find yourself feeling jealousy, it means that the thing you're jealous of is within your reach — as long as you can manage to keep your envy from turning malicious.
Focus on what you can control and take a step
"You do you" is so much easier said than done. If I'm not careful, I can easily slip down a real bummer of a negative-thinking rabbit hole:
She's got everything I don't: A six pack of abs, an Ivy League degree, a well-worn passport, really great boobs, whatever.
I might as well give up now, right?
Well, no: The only thing that will happen if you give up is that you'll fall even further — in your estimation — behind the object of your envy. And your estimation is, in the end, the only one that matters. Really.
When you find yourself feeling inadequate or consumed by jealousy, take a step back. Look at your feelings: Do you feel like a failure because tomorrow's itinerary doesn't include triumphantly displaying a finisher's medal at the Boston Marathon? Ask yourself if that's realistic — have you been training for a marathon? If yes — that's great! Take the next step: Register for a race that you can participate in soon. If not — if that medal seems too far out of your reach — try your best not to beat yourself up about it. Instead, break it down into smaller steps. Start with shorter runs, or walks, and work your way up. Put those dark emotions of envy, jealousy, and competition to work as motivators and agents of positive change.
After seeing my friend run that ultramarathon, I was reminded about how important running is to me. I may never run an ultramarathon, but once the envy-fog cleared from in front of my eyes, I started training for a plain ol' marathon at a more-reasonable distance of 26.2 miles (ultramarathons range from 50Ks all the way up to 100 miles), starting slow, with just a few miles per day in the beginning. Now, I've run six races and always have one or two to look forward to and train for on the calendar. And even if I never cross the finish line of a longer race, I will always feel much better about myself if I am running at least a little bit and, less likely to get green with envy over someone else's accomplishment.
The point is, choose a goal, and make it your own. You can do this — it will just take time. Like my friend up there in my first tip: She had to start somewhere, too. No one springs forth from the womb fully formed. So you want what she's got? Go get it. Write it down, even the bad stuff. Then sort it out — forgive yourself for the bad thoughts and pick out the useful thoughts and put them to work to help you achieve the goals YOU want. You might not run an ultramarathon, but you'll love yourself for learning to bake that Instagram-worthy cake or taking time away from your day job to learn how to braid the PERFECT fishtail French mermaid whatever.
And you know that friend of mine that ran the ultra? I've never run a race with her before. But I did run a race with another high-powered friend of mine recently — a beautiful, smart woman and the fastest runner I've ever met in real life. I lagged behind her the entire way, but she was kind and supportive for the whole grueling day, waiting for me at every turn with an encouraging word or a helping hand. And after the race, while we were changing? She looked over at me and blurted out: "OMG your abs. I wish I had your stomach!"