Success is a matter of perspective…

A few weeks ago a blog post went up: “Failure #2: Not being Anne Lueneburger”. Looking at the title, I giggled. Was that a joke? I soon realized its author, my friend Tricia, was being serious.

Reading on, I was perplexed that someone so accomplished, who has such a full life, would think she might be falling short. And I admired her courage of sharing her vulnerability so openly. Tricia is one of the most likeable, interesting and smart women I have met. Together with her husband Stan, she is raising three young daughters in rural Canada. She captures their life off the beaten path in her blog: Experimentingaswegrow.

My mood changed. Surprise was replaced by feeling flattered. Really, she thought I was interesting? That I was successful? Admiration feels good. But a feeling of discomfort soon followed. I recognized the voice Tricia shared as one that had created similar narratives in my own head: thinking that I have/am less [fill in the blank] than someone else. Most of us have moments of being tough on ourselves.

Psychology labels the emotion that results from unfavorable social comparison as envy. This emotion that so many of us feel, if not addressed, can lead to bouts of anxiety, feeling deprived and depressed.

The biology of “envy”

Envy lights up the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex part of our brain. Envy in humans intensifies especially with people who we perceive to be similar to us, such as age, job experience, or values. Not surprisingly, when we look at 360-degree feedback results, our peers tend to be our toughest critics, more than our boss or our direct reports.

Coming up short in social comparisons essentially conflicts with our need to maintain a positive self-image. The result is a two-fold emotional pain: self-social (disappointment in ourselves) and social exclusion (feeling inadequate as we look at others). The more we think the other person outshines us, the greater the pain. A sad reality is that when the coveted person gets unlucky, key reward nodes in our brains get activated. Envy goes, Schadenfreude comes.

How do we get out of this thinking trap?

Whether we resent our colleague’s ability to articulate confidently in front of the Board or a friend’s financial independence, envy is a mood hoover. But we can zap its power supply: feeling inferior.

Step 1: Start with compassion: If a friend at work gets passed over for promotion, you would feel for them. What then is wrong with some self-compassion when you are experiencing a tough stretch? Offer phrases that you might say to them to yourself: “No wonder you feel stressed/bored/frustrated when you look at [person x] who is the boss’s favorite. But they have been here twice the time you have, so allow yourself to be patient.” While we do not have a lot of control in life, we do have control over how kind we are to ourselves.

Step 2: Understand where your negative self-judgment stems from: Negative self-judgment precedes feelings of envy. Where does your tough inner critic come from? Possibly another person exemplifies what your parents envied or admired. For example, if your parents idealized a college education or financial success, you might be craving this in your own life. Looking at your ideal self and giving it a reality test is important. Maybe it is time for an overhaul when it comes to the standards you are measuring yourself against. What really matters to you?

Step 3 Count your blessings: As Buddha said, “the way to happiness is actually quite simple: the secret is to learn to want what you have and not to want what you don’t have.” Writing a gratitude journal is a powerful intervention that leads us back into a positive spiral.

Step 4: Wish the other person well: “May you be successful in your next role”. This can be hard. But it is the ultimate road to envy-less bliss: celebrating another person’s success.

And if everything else fails, why not run the thought experiment of how you would feel about exchanging your life 1:1 with that of the person you think has something you want. Cherry picking does not work, you gotta eat the whole cake.

I guess in the case of Tricia and me that would mean a bit of along the lines of the US reality TV show of Trading Places. Are we ready Tricia? I for one feel intimidated by the thought of stepping into your shoes, even for a week. Not sure I would be able to measure up.