When a close friend shares glowing personal or professional news—like snagging a coveted promotion, entering a new relationship or becoming blissfully engaged, or finally paying off a large student loan—it can be a lot to take in. You might want to celebrate with your friend, but secretly feel envious of their good tidings. It can be especially tough to put on a happy face if you’re feeling lonely, overlooked, or insecure about parts of your own life.
Even though you might feel ashamed of these feelings in the moment, feeling conflicted after hearing your friend’s good news is very normal. “It’s perfectly appropriate to experience both happiness and envy, pride, and worry about our own future or goals,” Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert, told VICE.
Celebrating a friend’s success requires us to embrace feelings of vulnerability, she said. “Taking care of ourselves—including our need for comfort, validation, and encouragement—is what ultimately allows us to more fully show up for our friends,” Kirmayer said. Being vulnerable and sharing your struggles and challenges is a crucial component of healthy friendships, although it can feel risky to let your guard down and share how you really feel.
To be clear: being unable to muster up enthusiasm for, say, a friend’s engagement photos or amazing new apartment doesn’t make you a terrible person. As psychologist Uche Ukuku put it: ”It makes you human.”
Still, it’s understandable if you want to avoid having a negative reaction to a friend’s positive personal or professional news. If you’re trying to process why your pals’ accomplishments are making you feel so gloomy, here are some possible reasons.
You assume success is a finite resource.
Your underlying feelings might be something like: If my friend experiences something good, that means there are less good things available for me. That line of thinking is flat-out not true. Ayanna Abrams, a psychologist, told VICE it’s important to keep in mind that another person's success has no bearing on our own.
It’s normal to have our lives unfold in different ways, on different timelines. Of course it might feel jarring when one friend reaches a milestone event before you do, but it’s incredibly common, especially among friends who are in similar life or professional stages.
You feel entitled to what your friend has.
A person’s identity tends to be intertwined with the people they have the strongest ties to. “When we get closer to people, we begin to include them within our sense of self, so that their joy feels like our joy and their pain feels like our pain,” Marisa G. Franco, psychologist and friendship expert, told VICE.
Usually this is a good thing, because you feel on the same wavelength as your friends. However, you might also (incorrectly) believe that because your friend got their dream job during a time of widespread unemployment, or has 20,000 Instagram followers and a bunch of brand deals, that you should be able to enjoy the same achievements too.
“Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time coveting what others have as if we are entitled to have those things, and in reality, we are not guaranteed any of the best parts of life,” Abrams said. “And that can be a hard pill to swallow.”
You’re using self-imposed deadlines as a measure of success.
It’s important we each cultivate our own values, plans, and desires, but Kirmayer said we should be cautious of tethering those goals to an arbitrary deadline largely outside of our control. That thinking can look like:
“I plan to be married by 25
I want to have children by 30
I must have a promotion by 35”
If a friend celebrates this kind of milestone at the age you were hoping to attain it, you might feel angry or resentful. “The more rigid we are with timelines, the more easily we get caught up in social comparisons and a scarcity mindset,” Kirmayer said.
This disparity can make discussions about a friend’s success particularly uncomfortable, she said, “as we are more likely to focus on how we are measuring up, and to feel as though this says something about our own capacity for success.”
You’re downplaying your own efforts.
It’s easy to become so focused on your friend’s life that you gloss over your own recent wins at work and at home.
The more we overlook, minimize, or disqualify our own accomplishments, “the more hearing of a friend’s success can lead to feelings of jealousy, envy, frustration, or worry, all of which can make it more difficult to be supportive and present,” Kirmayer said.
Abrams recommended taking notes on what you’ve accomplished each day, along with regularly reflecting on what you like about yourself and what spaces or people help you to feel your best. Hopefully seeing this inventory will give you a clearer (and more positive) picture of your own life. “Remembering what you do have leaves less time spent thinking about what you don’t have,” she said.
To move forward, be honest with yourself (and maybe your friend).
Work on accepting you’re on a different path than those around you, and not comparing your life to anyone else's. Abrams suggests practicing this shift in thinking whenever you notice feelings of envy bubbling up. Say it out loud if it’ll help: We are all on our own journey. A friend’s success in one realm has no bearing on your chances of succeeding in a similar area.
If you think coming clean about your jealousy toward your friend will help, it’s not a bad idea to do so. “Suppressing our thoughts and feelings is not only bad for our emotional health, but it can also lead our jealous thoughts to pop up even more strongly,” Franco said.
She recommended saying something warm and vulnerable like, "I love you so much, and I want to be happy for you, but I'm just struggling at the moment because my professional life isn't going so well."
Once you’ve shared this, your friend might even clue you in to some behind-the-scenes realness to let you know that their happy news isn’t as rosy as you might assume. Maybe your friend is thrilled about their engagement but is experiencing friction with their future in-laws. Or the friend who got the cool new job is finding that the work culture is kind of toxic.
If you’re still feeling a sting, consider speaking with a professional to process your feelings. The right therapist can help you learn how to tolerate your distress better, Abrams said, “so that you can be the supportive friend that you want to be.”
Follow Anna Goldfarb on Twitter.