The Insidious Downside of Envy

The Insidious Downside of Envy

Even from across the playground I could tell she had been crying.  I mouthed, “what’s wrong?” She mouthed back, “I’ll tell you later.”

I waited patiently in the car as she said her goodbyes and organized her weekend plans with her friends.

When she finally got into the car with a deep sigh, new tears welled up.  I drove a little way and then pulled over next to a park so we could talk.

“It was Alexa again.  We were doing a project together and were disagreeing about what to do when she suddenly said, “It must be nice to be miss perfect all the time.” I had to leave to go to the bathroom because I knew I was going to cry.  When I pulled myself together and came back, I asked her why she would say something like that.  Can you believe she told me, “I meant it as a compliment!?”

But my daughter knew better.  Alexa had a track record.  

The prior week, at a sleepover with several girls, they had been playing Monopoly and Alexa was consistently targeting my daughter with her moves.  My daughter said, “Wow, you are really competitive against me in this game!”  Alexa had replied, “I’d like to beat you in at least something.”

And the week before that…

Alexa: “What did you get on the test?”
My daughter: “an A.”
Alexa: “Oh…”
My daughter: “Why, what did you get?”
Alexa: “Bad. A B+.”
My daughter: “That’s not bad!”
Alexa: “Yes it is.  It’s not as good as you.”

…A slow picking away.

Instead of a friend who would cheer her on, she had a friend who felt envious of her accomplishments.  It was draining.  

The scary and unexpected byproduct of this behavior was that it started to erode my daughter’s confidence.  She stopped being enthusiastic about her accomplishments around her friend.  She felt like she couldn’t share any exciting news because it would “impact” her friend negatively.  

Second guessing herself, and in order not to be perceived as bragging, she had told Alexa, regarding the test, “I got lucky.”

That’s when I got concerned.  

The words “I got lucky” reminded me immediately of Sheryl Sandberg’s Ted Talk when she explained that when you ask a man how they did a good job, he’ll reply, “Because I’m awesome!”  When you ask a woman she’ll say “someone helped her,” “she got lucky,” or that “she worked really hard.”

A job well done should be celebrated in ourselves, and it should be celebrated in others.  This is not bragging (as long as we aren’t touting accomplishments to rub in people’s faces).  This is satisfaction and pride in one’s work.

Sandberg challenges women to be proud of our accomplishments, and her #LeanInTogether campaign emphasizes that when women all support each other, more of us will feel comfortable sitting at the table.  Ironically, however, she claims it’s a myth that women don’t support each other in the workforce. 

Maybe it is.  

But if so, why do we say we “got lucky” in the first place?   

Thanks to the Alexa’s in this world, might we start to say, “someone helped me,” or “I worked really hard,” in 7th grade?  Maybe by the time we make it to the workforce, those statements get ingrained in our vocabulary.  Perhaps is right. The Alexas mellow out, gain more confidence and start to support other females in the workplace once they become women. 

However, the damage they inflicted as a youth would have already been done.

Tanya Menon, an associate professor of management and human resources at the Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University thinks that envy in the workplace is alive and well.  She says whether you envy or are envied, they both come with a psychological cost.

In a recent interview for, Menon says that it’s important to understand the different types of envy to manage your emotions and reactions.  Here is an excerpt with her definitions from that interview

Social comparison - Evaluating where we stand relative to others. For instance, you might evaluate yourself relative to a sales colleague who has sold more than you (upward comparison) versus one who has sold less (downward comparison). Upward comparisons are often psychologically painful, but they motivate us to do better. Downward comparisons can make us feel content with our own lot—but they don’t necessarily motivate us to improve.

Admiration—Observing a co-worker’s successes and feeling positively about them. Think role models here. A key thing that determines whether admiration is motivating is whether you believe that you could also attain the success of the person you’re admiring. So, I’m a tennis player and I really look up to Serena Williams. But because I’m not a Wimbledon contender, watching Serena doesn’t necessarily motivate me to improve my serve.

Competition - Situations where you’re fighting to win—think your weekly tennis partner or the salesperson you’re trying to beat for a bonus. And rivals are those competitors who are particularly significant in your life (e.g. Federer versus Nadal).

Jealousy - Losing what you already have—a valued person for instance—to a third party. So think triad: Your mother seems more affectionate to another sibling, or a romantic partner praises another person. At work, jealousy might emerge if a boss seems to favor a coworker, or if someone is “territorial.”

Envy - You resent what another person (or group) has. The German word Schadenfreude perfectly describes what envious people experience—they are happy when the other person suffers. The writer Helmut Schoeck famously described it this way: “The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself.” 

Menon goes on to say, “What makes envy especially tough on women is that we’ve been conditioned to suppress our competitive impulses. Also, athletic play in childhood allows children to practice getting comfortable with seeing winners and losers, and outcomes that aren’t necessarily egalitarian, and boys are traditionally exposed to more athletic play.”
My daughter needed to recognize that this girl was an envious frenemy, not a friend.  This way, she wouldn’t feel compelled to modify her behavior or suppress her competitive impulse.  Last month I had told her, “She seems like a fun person.  I can see why you like to hang out with her.  But you should know that real friends don’t say these types of things to each other.”

It wasn’t possible to dump this friend.  What’s difficult in 7th grade (as well as the office), is it’s hard to distance yourself from frenemies. If my daughter tried to cut herself off from this girl, she would risk cutting herself off from several other peers in the process.  Besides, she sees her every day. 

Now, one month later, my daughter is struggling to thread this tiny needle - to be likable and faithful but not easily pushed around, and at the same time, letting go of the stress that someone is going to knife her in the back because she occasionally has success.

She is also trying to surround herself more with other high achievers who are friendly competitors, whom she admires and who will challenge her.  Those that push her to grow and improve but also cheer her on. 

Menon says, “There is tremendous upside in being around excellent people who push you to be your best. And the funny thing is, it’s far easier being around these busy, focused, driven superstars than being around people who have few achievements, feel insecure, and resent you for your accomplishments!”

This will all take time, but perhaps someday in the future, my daughter will get interviewed for something she has accomplished.  Responding, “I’m awesome!” like men doesn’t suit her. But how about a simple, “Thank you,” with a confident smile instead? Let them infer the awesome!


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 Girls Leadership | Envy | Competition | Confidence | Self Esteem
 Girls Leadership | Envy | Competition | Confidence | Self Esteem
 Girls Leadership | Envy | Competition | Confidence | Self Esteem
 Girls Leadership | Envy | Competition | Confidence | Self Esteem