Sociability • Friendship
How to Handle an Envious Friend
Almost inevitably, somewhere along the path of our friendships, we are fated to stumble upon one of the most paradoxical yet universal of characters: the envious friend.
At one level, this person is kind, sympathises with us in our sorrows and believes that they want the best for us. Yet, despite such salutary affections, we may not be able to overlook some more troubling dynamics shimmering beneath the surface:
— When we invite them for dinner, they repeatedly ‘forget’ to say thank you.
— When we have a new partner, they don’t appear overly pleased.
— When we get a new job, they don’t ask us a single question about how its going.
The situation is as wounding as it is uncharted. How are we to cope? Can this be happening to us? A few ways forward suggest themselves.
1. Acceptance of the Problem
Firstly, we shouldn’t ever compound the matter by denying that it might exist or wonder for too long whether we’re imagining things. We’re not. Those silences, missing questions and strange looks mean exactly what we suspect they do. Of course there is envy! We shouldn’t expect any bond to be without at least an important degree of this ubiquitous feeling.
And the reasons are self-evident. We tend to be friends with people who share our aspirations and values and it is therefore highly likely that at some point along our journey together, either they will acquire something we very much want, or vice versa: it might be a partner, a profession, a qualification or a home. But it will be something for sure. We envy people for the same reason as we are friends with them: because we like the same sort of things.
We are unhelpfully inclined to be sentimental and therefore dishonest on this score: we deny that we could possibly harbour envy for someone we also like, which can lead us to unconvincing denials and cuts off opportunities for processing and growth. We need to learn to feel better about envy, in order not to have to twist our characters to avoid admitting to it.
We should, with reasonable good cheer, simply own up to our envy as we would to a sore knee or an ulcer. Children can be good guides in this area: an average four year old is comedically open about their ravenous jealousy. They don’t contort themselves into knots in the name of politeness. They wail immediately when their friend gets a better fire truck — or try to hit them over the head or gouge out their eyes. Parents tend to be so shocked by this, they force the child into fruitless denials. They inspire them to hide their envy from two people: the person they’re envious of. And, far worse, themselves. They implicitly teach their offspring a pernicious and untrue idea: that you cannot both be a nice person and envy your friend.
And therefore, tragically, in adult friendships, neither party is left able to call out the problem sensibly or deal with it maturely, leaving it to fester in embarrassment and shame instead.
2. Mutual Confession
This brings us to the second solution to envy in friendships: we should go in for mutual playful non-pejorative moments of confession. All good friends should — in an entirely good natured way — routinely discuss the presence of envy between them. The question shouldn’t be whether or not there is envy, just what sort of envy it might be this week.
Friends should, for example, over dinner each write on a sheet of paper: What I am envious of now… And laugh with great compassion at the results.
An important part of the reason why we don’t process envy as we might is that we imagine there to be only one solution to the emotion: that the person who has something that their friend lacks will have to hand to it over.
But of course, we can’t be expected to surrender our partner, our house or our position nearer the top of the company to make our old friend feel better.
However, that’s not remotely necessary because what the person who envies us really wants is not, in the end, our love life or accommodation or profession. What they want is reassurance.
They want to know that we still love them despite our new advantages. They crave to be told that though we have won the lottery, sold our shares or found a dazzling lover, we remain deeply attached to them and care for them as much as we ever did.
Unfortunately, owning up to our true longing (and hearing it appeased) is devilishly hard for a sequence of reasons we’re now in a position to appreciate: because the envious person can’t admit to what they’re feeling, because there aren’t generally any good occasions on which confessions can be made — and because we aren’t collectively schooled in the art of offering reassurance to others in the wake of our successes.
In a better world, we would take greater care. As a matter of course, every time something went well for us, we would be sure to add in ample reassurance that — despite our new status — we would continue to love and cherish those we had long loved.
We should stop worrying that there might be seams of envy entangled in our friendships; and focus our energies instead on a far more important goal: learning to handle envy with kindness, honesty, intelligence and laughter.