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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!"
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!"
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.