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Left unchecked, comparison can make you miserable. Seeing people be better at something than you are can feel like a vicious uprooting. But with the right tools, you can use your envy to uncover what you value.
Here’s how to take your envy, decode it and turn it into positive action:
Comparison can teach you what you value when you see yourself envying someone doing something you want, even if you haven’t consciously allowed yourself to want it.
Self-awareness can help you turn your feelings into something useful, so the next time envy rears its head, ask yourself:
The more specific your answers, the better you’ll be able to redirect your emotion into actions and strategies.
Comparison-induced envy can be a great motivator and guide. It can also make us bitter.
Psychologists distinguish between benign envy, when we admire someone and try to emulate them, and malicious envy, when we dislike the other person for having what we want. It’s the difference between “They have a penthouse apartment, and it’s cool how they got it” and “I hate that their home has panoramic views, and I want them to suffer.”
To be clear: Both are painful. Benign envy motivates us to work harder to improve, while malicious envy makes us nasty.
We often feel malicious envy when we perceive scarcity. But in many cases, another person’s ability to achieve something is evidence that it’s possible for us, too.
To shift your thinking from malicious to benign envy, try these phrases:
• “I’m inspired by _____. Maybe I can learn from them, or ask them to be my mentor.”
• “I haven’t done what they’ve done . . . yet.”
• “Every person is on their own journey. I’m grateful for mine.”
If you see a friend hitting a personal milestone, it’s easy to feel you’re far behind in life. But if you think of 10 or 20 of your acquaintances, chances are a bunch will be in the same boat as you – and might even be happily sailing along.
In an experiment, researchers asked people to assess their running abilities. They found that participants spontaneously compared themselves with the best runner they could think of and deemed themselves not so great. The researchers then prompted the participants to list the top 10 runners they knew personally. By reflecting on the seventh- or ninth-best runner they had rubbed shoulders with, people suddenly felt a lot better. Comparing themselves with a broader group diminished the enormous gulf between themselves and what they thought of as “good.”
Psychologists also find that broadening your perspective can be helpful when you experience what they call deprivation intolerance: when you don’t get what you want and that causes you to plunge into a pit of despair.
Thinking through a day-in-the-life can help you make better comparisons, for example by asking yourself:
Am I willing to give up the good things in my current life to have that?
You may not always be exactly where you want to be, but chances are you’re not where you used to be, either. Pausing to take stock of your accomplishments – and the skills you’ve developed as a result – can help you feel proud of your progress and untangle yourself from malicious envy.
A simple way to make this type of self-comparison a habit is to take a few minutes at the end of each month to reflect on these prompts:
Yes, comparing yourself with others is unavoidable, but by applying some of this advice, you can learn to use it to your advantage. Remember that you only see the tip of the iceberg, especially on social media – someone whose life seems perfect on Instagram may be dealing with struggles that you’re completely unaware of. One last good rule of thumb is to balance comparing up (looking at people who have more than you) with comparing down (looking at those who are worse off than you).
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