“This is a horrible things to say but I am just going to say it: ‘I am not happy for my friend and I know that makes me a terrible person!””
I have heard clients make this statement hundreds of times in my office. People sheepishly admit to feeling jealous when their friend attains a milestone. Our society tells us we should always be happy for others and if we feel anything besides jubilation over another’s success then we are horrible people who should never have any joy. Well, I am here to tell you that our society is WRONG. Not jumping for joy when a friend tells you some good news does not mean you are an awful monster, it just means you are human. While we now live in a modern technological age, not that long ago we were competing for resources in order to survive. We needed to do better than those around us so we and our genes would be stronger and we could win the race for survival of the fittest.
You might be thinking, “ok, but we don’t have to fight for the few chickens that made it through winter anymore.” And that’s true – we do have Seamless, Grub Hub and Uber Eats who do the “hunting” for us now.
However, the part of your brain that had that thought and which thinks logically is the frontal cortex—this structure helps us plan, analyze, integrate and make decisions. We also have a more primitive part of our brain called the amygdala or the feeling center of the brain. The amygdala was the first part of the brain to develop with the cortex developing later in evolution. So the amygdala is like a well worn pair of pajamas—we know it well, and it is where we land when we are in distress. It is our go-to. The cortex or rational brain is incredibly helpful, but it is not as comfortable as the amygdala; consider them your more practical pair of pants. All of this is to say that when we are in distress our emotional brain kicks in. (There are lots of reasons for that, which I will get to in future posts.)
So when we hear that, say, a friend is engaged, got the job they always wanted, is pregnant, got a promotion, or is in a new relationship, our emotional brain registers “Oh crap! That is less for me – I need to get that from them or I am in big trouble. I am so jealous he/she got to it first.” These are the feelings and experiences that clients describe to me as horrible and unimaginable. But the truth is they are just your emotional brain reacting naturally. Wouldn’t it be a relief if the next time we feel deep venomous jealousy we told ourselves, “Oh good, my brain is working as it should”?
Even if it is normal for your brain to want to wipe out the competition, we don’t want you to act on it and attack your friend during your next interaction. We want to help the rational part of your brain talk to the emotional part of your brain. We want to integrate the information. So how do we do that?
To illustrate, I will use an example from my experience. Some years ago my best friend was hosting a hugely successful fundraiser for an organization she started from her living room. She had worked tirelessly to build a two-person organization into a nationally recognized company with a million dollar budget. Right now you might be thinking , of course you felt envy for this huge success, but it gets worse. She runs a non-profit! All the money she was raising was going to help teenagers who have been marginalized and I was feeling envy? I was horrified by my reaction and thought I was the worst person to have such hateful feelings. I was about to go down the oh-so-familiar spiral of what a terrible person I am for having a negative feeling, but I decided to try something else. I had just finished reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach (a must-read) and her simple yet profound suggestion was to sit with your feelings no matter what they were. As a “good student” I followed her instructions and took a seat, closed my eyes, put my hand on my heart and said “you feel jealous. You feel deep, deep envy.” At first I wanted to vomit it felt so uncomfortable, but then within a few moments the nausea lifted. I just watched the experience and noticed that the power of the feeling lessened until I eventually did not feel so horrible. While my jealous feeling did not dissipate right away my disgusted reaction to the feeling lifted. I felt more compassionate to myself and also felt relieved to have given myself space to ride this feeling before I attended the fundraiser. Since that moment her organization has grown and become hugely successful. I can honestly say that I have not felt envy since the moment I sat with it and accepted it. It makes me a better friend and also makes my time spent at her events more enjoyable.
Having negative feelings about friends’ accomplishments makes you human, not horrible. If you have strong feelings, do not push them away but, rather, sit with them (with a hand on your heart) and let them move through you. You will be telling your emotional brain that there is nothing to be afraid of, and that there is enough to go around.