Tell me if this sounds familiar: Back in high school, a classmate you didn’t really know beat your score on an important test. Big deal, who cares.
But on that same test, your best friend beat your score. You’re happy for your friend, but for some indefinable reason, you’re also a little bitter that you were outscored, and then you felt guilty for being resentful over your friend’s success.
It’s O.K., you’re not a bad person. Our brains are programmed to feel that confusing mix of pride and jealousy, and we have the self-evaluation maintenance theory to thank.
This phenomenon was first studied by the social psychologist Abraham Tesser, who, in a 1988 study, wrote that our self-evaluation is threatened far more by loved ones who excel in areas we define ourselves by — like our work or a particular skill — than by strangers who excel in the exact same way. We instinctively compare ourselves more to people who are close to us, even though, paradoxically, it can engender bitterness.
In fact, our brains are so bent on those comparisons that in one experiment, subjects actively sabotaged their friends from succeeding.
The worst part? They weren’t even aware they were doing it.
What’s happening is this: When someone we love is successful at something we also want to be successful at, our brains subconsciously sets up a battle — fueled by our instincts for self-interest — between pride and jealousy, Shankar Vedantam writes in his fascinating book “The Hidden Brain.” We’re generally unable to say why we have these feelings, but nonetheless they are very real.
So what can we do?
Like many behaviors attributable to our subconscious, we can’t correct something we can’t see. But there are ways to head off these feelings before they happen, and you can train yourself to recognize the symptoms when you exhibit them.
When those feelings of jealousy begin to set in, instead of framing a friend’s achievement as something you could have done but didn’t, try to find the complementary aspects of their achievement to discourage the implicit comparison, Vedantam writes.
Say, for example, your best friend earns an award in your shared field. Rather than ask yourself, “Why didn’t I win that award?” find the ways your friend’s work is different from the things you do and the goals you have set for yourself. Embrace the prideful side of this coin, and celebrate your friend’s accomplishment — studies have shown that a loved one’s accomplishment can even rub off on you, increasing your own self-evaluation.
More important, just remember this: Someone else’s success doesn’t detract from yours. Even if you haven’t won that award. (Yet.)