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What comparing your life to others' teaches you about yourself

Envy can lead to ‘death by social comparison’, where one is stuck in a downward spiral

Envy very often impacts not just the person feeling it, but also their interpersonal relationships and moods.
Envy very often impacts not just the person feeling it, but also their interpersonal relationships and moods. (iStockphoto)

A 38-year-old female client tells me: “I was having a lovely Sunday evening, a great day with friends over breakfast and then family for lunch, also an opportunity for a nap. It just seemed perfect. That’s when I went to my social media and started scrolling through stories, and, in less than a minute, I was feeling low, envious, thinking about how everyone else is having so much fun. I am bringing this in therapy because this happens so often and I can’t seem to enjoy life.”

Over the last five-eight years, there has been a significant increase in the number of clients reporting how the envy they experience is impacting their emotional well-being. In therapy sessions, envy is talked about often in relation to social media. Clients talk about the envy they experience not just in relation to the people they are close to, but also when they follow acquaintances or even influencers. Over the last few years, I have been hearing the word envy being mentioned more frequently,across areas. It’s no longer limited to career success, it’s also about lifestyle choices, travel, even the people one knows and hangs out with.

Envy very often impacts not just the client but also their interpersonal relationships and moods. According to the American Psychological Association, envy can be defined as “a negative emotion of discontent and resentment generated by desire for the possessions, attributes, qualities, or achievements of another (the target of the envy)”. What’s important is that it includes a component of resentment that is based on a perceived understanding of, or assumptions about, others’ lifestyle, fame and success. This reflects in moments where you could be following stories or posts of people you barely know and assume everything is going right for them. Yet you may be feeling envious without knowing anything about their personal journey before they achieved success.

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From a therapist’s lens, when people feel envious of others, there is a story that needs to be heard. Envy often points to what people may desire, what they want to work towards; it may even be related to their own personal conflicts in relation to goals they eventually want to work towards. It is related also to the beliefs people hold about the world, even ideas about fairness versus unfairness. Think of how you may be envious of someone who achieved fame so early in their career or how easily someone found love. Maybe try and explore what envy is trying to tell you.

What happens with envy is that people begin to feel like victims; they constantly feel they are less than others, they lose the ability to savour their own achievements. This leads to what I call death by social comparison, where you are stuck in a downward spiral. It can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; if it remains unattended, it can lead to bitterness, lingering anxiety, robbing people of the ability to appreciate life and be present.

If you have been experiencing envy too and wondering if the emotion has become more intense lately, a good first step would be to try and understand the situations in which envy shows up for you.

The second step would be to identify if there are specific times in the week when you feel this sense of envy. In my experience, it’s generally the weekend, when people have permission to relax, or the time, after work and at nights, when people are more likely to ruminate and think about themselves in relation to others. Learn to use social media in a way that allows you to engage rather than be passive; it’s also okay to take a break from social media if it feels too all-consuming, or when you are going through overwhelming emotions.

Lastly, envy may be telling you about your own self-esteem and the beliefs you hold about life and success, so ask yourself how you can work on them to create a more fulfilling and satisfying life for yourself.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.

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