Why You Envy People You Haven't Spoken To Since School

Comparison culture is rife – but envy is rarely directed at our closest friends. Here's why.

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“I don’t really envy my close friends,” says Claire*. “It’s very much that wider circle of people that I don’t really see in real life.”

Her comments will no doubt resonate with anyone who’s spent evenings scrolling through the Instagram account of an old school friend (guilty), envied the career progression of a near-stranger (guilty), or simply marvelled at how their boyfriend’s sister’s friend looks effortless at all times (well, you get the picture).

Envy is something we all experience from time to time – as unpleasant as that is to admit – which is why we wanted to tackle the topic in an episode of Am I Making You Uncomfortable? (#AIMYU), HuffPost UK’s weekly podcast on women’s health, bodies and private lives.

When we asked listeners to admit what makes them envious, a common theme emerged: we tend to envy people we barely know or have lost touch with, rather than our immediate social circle. So, what’s going on?

“The fact that we don’t know as much about people we barely know makes envying them easier, because we are making a lot of stuff up,” explains psychotherapist Lucy Beresford. “We might recall they were popular at school, for example, so when we discover later in life that something has gone right for them, we construct a narrative that suits our existing knowledge, to decide they have a great or perfect life. This apparent perfection triggers our envy.”

With people we know well, we are better able to modify our response towards their successes, adds Beresford, as we have “more of a 360 awareness of the life of a close friend”. This might include knowing what struggles they’ve gone through to get that house or baby, or seeing first-hand how hard they’ve worked for that promotion.

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Think about the person in your life who sparks the most envy. Are they the same age, gender or profession as you are? We tend to envy people we share some similarities with, says Beresford.

“It is easier to dismiss the life of another person if it differs wildly from your own because in our head it is as though they are a different ‘tribe’,” she explains. “Far more unsettling is comparing yourself to someone similar to you, because it invites the anxiety ‘that could have been me.’”

It’s perhaps because of this that some of us are tempted to track the apparent life progress of old school friends to see how we compare. After all, we know they’ve broadly had the same start to us in life – educationally at least.

“School is relentlessly competitive, educationally but also socially,” says Beresford. “House points, sports day, being chosen for the school play, or who snogged who, all set up scenarios where we are forced to measure ourselves against people we know pretty well.

“We forget to shake off this comparison, and instead stay in the comfort zone of this benchmark in our adult years.”

While our parents’ generation attended the occasional school reunion, social media makes it “scarily easy” to track people we haven’t seen in a while, be that classmates, former colleagues or old flames.

“And as well as factual information, like whether they are still an accountant or did they ever marry that boy from the year above, we can actually see what they are doing,” says Beresford. “The visual images of glamorous holidays or stylish parties (okay, not in lockdown…), the beautifully turned out children or the flashy car, fuel our envy by providing a powerful snapshot of a life, which we then use to fill in the blanks about their life as a whole.”

We’ve heard a gazillion times that social media isn’t an accurate reflection of reality, yet that logic isn’t always at the forefront of our minds when confronted with these emotionally provocative images.

“Comparison culture definitely affects my life and social media is a huge part of that, particularly Instagram,” says Shannon*, another #AIMYU listener.

“It’s where you see all these beautiful people and your peers, and obviously it’s a highlight reel, we all know that, but it doesn’t stop you feeling incredibly envious when you see someone who is on a beach with a cocktail or looking amazing with their abs – and you don’t feel amazing.”

So, how do you fight these feelings of envy if they’ve started to have a negative impact on your wellbeing?

If your feelings of envy tend to be directed at people you watch from afar, comparison coach Lucy Sheridan recommends connecting with the real relationships in your life that remind you of who you are and how you are good enough.

“Have those conversations with people that do really get you, rather than feeling like you’re looking out [...] trying to see what’s going on in strangers’ lives,” she advises on the #AIMYU episode.

Although envy is an uncomfortable emotion to recognise, we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging it altogether, adds Sheridan. By recognising it proactively, envy can help us realise what we want in life – then make a plan to get it.

“Let yourself feel it,” says Sheridan. ”[Ask] ‘what is this telling me? What’s really going on here? What’s my insight?’ But allow yourself to feel it. There’s nothing to fear, it can’t hurt you. It’s just you.”