Maria came to see me because she was having second thoughts about the clothing boutique she'd opened with Kendra, a close friend of many years.
"It just isn't fun for me anymore," she said. "Before, it was all about the two of us going out on a limb together and being creative. Now, the place is up and running, and everything's changed. It's all about managing stock and shipping and employees."
"Do you think Kendra feels the same way?" I asked.
"She's more ambitious than I am," Maria said. "She spends a lot of time thinking about the 'next level' and how to manage people. That just bores me."
"How many employees do you have at the boutique?" I asked.
"Actually, we just hired our first full-time person three months ago," she said. "Nancy, an old friend of Kendra's from high school."
Managing one employee didn't seem as if it should take much time. "What do you think of her?" I asked.
"She's fine. And Kendra wants to grow things faster." She paused. "I mean, in the last three months, they must have had 20 lunch meetings. Personally? I think we were doing fine on our own."
It didn't take long to zero in on the real reason Maria was dissatisfied with her work. The presence of a third person at the boutique meant Kendra's focus and attention had partly shifted away from Maria. And Maria felt jealous.
"Do you ever feel like Kendra is choosing Nancy over you?" I asked.
Maria looked at me as though I were accusing her of something terrible. But her disbelief and outrage slowly faded. She shrugged. "Maybe, sometimes. I guess so."
"That could be a big part of the reason work doesn't feel fun anymore. It isn't fun to feel jealous."
Maria took a deep breath and let it out. "Wow. I'm actually jealous of someone having lunch with my friend. I guess that means I'm a pretty pathetic person."
"No," I said. "But it might be worthwhile to think about a way to remind Kendra of how much you value your friendship — instead of running away."
All of us compete, at times, for success and attention and affection. It seems to be part of our psychological DNA to judge ourselves not only on whether we're well loved, but whether we're outshined or outdone by those around us. When we feel as if we haven't been "chosen," it's very painful — and entirely forgivable — to suffer deep pangs of jealousy. When friends and family members appear to be doing much better than we are, it's completely normal to get a sharp twinge of envy. The trouble is that envy and jealousy don't feel normal, or forgivable.
That's because wanting what someone else has — the great sex life she talks about or her beautiful house or, simply, attention from a mutual friend — competes with many of our "better" impulses, like altruism and generosity and love. It feels like something to hide.
Sure, plenty of people talk about being jealous. "I'm so jealous you got that car. I love that car." "I can't believe you're dating him. I have to admit I'm jealous." But I think off-the-cuff comments like those actually celebrate the success of the other individual. Real gut-level jealousy leaves us tongue-tied and ashamed. It isn't something we're likely to share with one another.
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