Wishing Well for Your Friends
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Wishing Well for Your Friends

How to convert your green-eyed tendencies into celebrating a pal's successes.

Happy for Her?

Envy: it's considered such a big sin that it makes the Top 10 ("Thou shalt not covet..."), as well as the seven deadlies. Still, psychologically speaking, wanting what thy neighbor has is -- up to a point -- part of being human. So how can you keep envy from killing a friendship? Better yet, how can you convert envy into true happiness for both of you?

First, it's important to realize that even though it can be uncomfortable or unpleasant to envy a friend, it's understandable. After all, "We keep track of our own progress by comparing ourselves to the people closest around us, starting when we're kids. 'She stayed up late, why can't I?'" says Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist in Valley Stream, New York, and author of Master Your Fears: How to Triumph over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). Same goes for our enemies who, more often than not, get on our bad sides by getting what we want (or getting in our way).

Since it's common for friends to share similar goals, it's natural to feel, sometimes, that we're competing for them. If you're not interested in medical school, let's say, when your friend gets in you can be just plain happy for her. But we're not always so lucky. "I'd been toiling as an obscure author for years," says Amanda, 40, of Falls Church, Virginia. "Then a journalist friend got offered a book deal out of the blue and made a mint for something that wasn't even her idea. I could hardly bring myself to buy the book, which is something I'm delighted to do for my other obscure friends!"

What We Want

Why do we get so prickly? Because the things we envy most are the things we see -- for better or for worse -- as sources of our self-worth. "When my best friend got engaged, it was hard for me to be happy for her without thinking: "What does her fiance see in her that my boyfriend doesn't see in me?" says Petra, 36, of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Is it also in our chromosomes? Yes and no. "Women aren't necessarily more jealous creatures -- it's just that being jealous makes us feel bad," says B.J. Gallagher, author of Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Other Women (Conari Press, 2002). "Men are more openly competitive. We're competitive but we're taught that it's not nice. That's why the feeling can go underground and get ugly."

So when you feel those pangs, face them and work through them to keep them from creeping in between you and your friend. "If you don't acknowledge and deal with it, unchecked envy can really hurt," says Margaret Gibbs, PhD, professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. What's the harm? People whom Dr. Sapadin has surveyed say that two of the most important elements of friendship are intimacy and support. But when envy rears its green-eyed head, you offer neither; you might see or talk to your friend less, and you might put down the pom-poms when you do. "I was so not the friend I wanted to be when a dear galpal had her baby, because I wanted one so badly, too," says Libby, 41, of Pittsburgh. "I'd have felt okay about keeping a little distance, but I still wish I'd been less 'too busy' to bond with her kid and be part of something so important to her."

But keeping the green meanies in check isn't only about being the best friend you can -- it's also about doing what's best for you. Says Sapadin: "Don't play the zero-sum game with her successes. Instead of thinking 'If she gets more of something, I get less,' you could think, 'If more good things happen to my friend, more good things happen to me!'" Her new boyfriend could introduce you to his friends; she may have good advice for you on how to land a killer promotion. After all, says Sapadin, "friends help out friends. When she's in a good position to do that, so much the better for you!"

End the Envy

Envy's normal, but you don't want it to get the better of you. Here's how to keep it in its place and find room for true happiness for a true friend.

  1. Remember: Green eyes can be near-sighted. In other words, there may be trouble in what you see as paradise. Risa, 39, of Minneapolis, recalls envying a friend's "perfect" life as a full-time mom (with full-time maid) in London. Eventually the truth came out: "She had the trappings of an affluent lifestyle, but she and her husband were up to their eyeballs in debt. When the marriage dissolved -- he was cheating! -- she was far worse off than I ever was: two children, no home, no job, no skills." No gloating necessary -- just keep in mind that not everything is as enviable as it seems.
  2. Allow for double-think. That's the beauty of our brains: we can feel envy and be happy simultaneously. "Right after my miscarriage, I couldn't talk to any of my friends with kids," says Noa, 40, of Cranston, Rhode Island. "Eventually, I could manage to have both a big twinge of envy and a good time shopping for a baby gift." So don't wait in vain for the pangs to vanish before trying to drum up a smile.
  3. Remember that her success is a reflection on you. Hey, she picked you as her friend! "Why not bask in her reflected glory?" says Abraham Tesser, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Georgia. "You can think, 'When my friend wins an award, somehow that lifts me up, too.'"
  4. Try on her shoes. "The capacity to empathize is such an important part of friendship," says Gibbs. If your friend gets something you want, you are specially qualified to imagine how she feels. Say, "I know how happy you must be!" and you'll be telling the truth.
  5. Convert envy into "energy to fuel your own ambition," says Gallagher. Rather than seething on the sidelines, take a page from Valerie's playbook: "My close friend's business was a success right out of the gate," says the 38-year-old New York entrepreneur. "So when she got good press, I'd make more calls for my business. I let her success inspire me. Because of our healthy competition, we grew as businesswomen -- and friends."
  6. Jog your memory about what matters. Suggests Gallagher: Make a two-column list of "things I'm jealous of" and "things I love about her." This exercise helped Risa deal with her apparently fabulous England friend: "In the midst of my worst bouts of jealousy," she says, "I could draw upon a common history, a thousand shared interests, and remembered kindnesses."
  7. Vent to a friend who gets it. "My best friend from eighth grade was the only person who could relate to my 13 years of single hell. Knowing that I could call her in tears from the restroom of yet another wedding reception helped me keep my sadness between us -- and freed me up to be happy for my lovebird friends," says Anna, 38, of San Francisco.
  8. "Keep a long-term perspective," says Gallagher. "Think: everyone has great times and failures. Right now is her turn for the great times -- mine will come, too." This outlook helped Laurel, 37, of New Haven, Connecticut, when her best friend got engaged. "It helped me to remember that even though I desperately wanted to get married, I'd had a pretty good time being single -- whereas she'd been through total hell and heartbreak. I got happy for her when I realized she'd earned that ring!"

    Jane, 39, of Los Angeles -- who's survived her share of work envy -- likes to think of it the way people describe the weather in Boston: "If you don't like how life is balancing out, wait five minutes." The time will soon come when your friend is happy for you.

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