Watching My Friends Become Successful Fills Me With Anxiety
The human tendency to compare one’s own achievements against others starts early in life, and it’s a deep part of our nature.
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I’m fortunate to have lots of smart, successful friends, but lately I feel like they’ve been pulling ahead of me—earning promotions, getting raises, buying nicer cars, moving into bigger homes, taking splashy vacations. Meanwhile, I've stalled—stuck in a dead-end job, and unsure of what's next. As everyone else moves ahead, I can't help but feel like I'm at risk of being left behind. I feel this pressure to keep up appearances, make it seem like I’m doing better than I am. Is that just my insecurity talking? Or is there more to it?
Most of us, understandably, want to feel as though we're doing well in life. But how do we know if we're thriving or not? One of the easiest ways is to look around and compare our lot with how others—especially those similar to us—are getting on. Everybody does it.
A few years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our twins, I bought us a new, small SUV, choosing white because it was the only free color. Within the next couple of months, our next-door neighbors had traded their old car for a new, white SUV (albeit a different brand), while the neighbors opposite went one better and bought an SUV, same brand as ours, but a larger, 7-seat model. And the color? White, of course.
All of a sudden it was like half the street had big, white cars. No one said a word about any of this, but I couldn’t help chuckling to myself—it seemed like an amusing example of what psychologists call “social comparison” or “keeping up with the Joneses." This human tendency to compare one’s own achievements and possessions against others (and, if we can, to redress any perceived gaps, just like my neighbors did) starts incredibly early in life, implying that it’s a deep part of our nature.
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Consider a recent study with kids as young as seven that involved them performing a series of reaction time tests in pairs. After every test, each child heard whether they and their partner had succeeded and then rated how they felt about it. The kids were happiest of all when they learned that they had succeeded and their partner had failed—including being happier than when they’d both done well. They felt the worst when learning that they had failed but their partner had succeeded—worse even than when hearing they’d both lost.
One message to take from this is that the way you have been measuring yourself up against your friends is entirely natural. Also, when we make this comparison and perceive others are doing better than we are (a so-called “upward comparison”), it is common for this to feel unpleasant. This discomfort is especially likely if we are already rather short on self-esteem or prone to pessimism and low moods. If this is how you’re feeling, perhaps consider the possibility that your preoccupation with your friends’ success is a side effect of some other malaise and, if you can address that, your status anxieties will fade, too.
Having said that, if your friends really are climbing the social ladder (and it’s not just a negative illusion owing to your emotional state), then your fear that they might leave you behind is, to an extent, astute. Research suggests that we all have a tendency—one we should try to fight against—to perceive people who we consider lower status than ourselves to be low in competence and, in some cases, even less "human" (as in, having fewer human needs and emotions). No one wants to be looked down on, and it's completely understandable that you wouldn’t want your friends to view you this way. Although arguably, if they do, they're not friends worth keeping.
On the plus side, I noticed that you didn’t say anything about wanting to see your friends slip up—in other words, you don’t seem to be experiencing what psychologists call “malicious envy”—and that's to your credit. Especially if you have some admiration for your friends’ achievements, what you are experiencing is more akin to “benign envy," an emotion that can actually have a motivating effect when it leads us to reappraise our own situation and drives us to better ourselves.
It’s notable that you mention you have been in a dead-end job for years. While you could try to assuage your discontent and anxieties by making more downward comparisons (looking to those faring less well than you are), it's also possible that looking up at your friends’ achievements might give you the impetus you need to make some changes in your own life.
I would caution, though, that you should guard against overestimating your friends’ personal success. For all you know, behind their joyful, exotic holiday snaps may lie private turmoils, and their latest designer purchases could be little more than a superficial cover for a painful emptiness beneath. Remember, most people present a front to the outside world—especially in the age of personal brand curation on Instagram and Facebook—and it’s easy to underestimate their private strife.
If you do respond to your current situation by seeking out a new path in life, bear in mind that you're unlikely to find happiness if your main motivation is to impress others. You will find more fulfillment in pursuing goals—in either your career or personal life—that matter to you and that you want to fight for. If you manage to live a life that it is true to your values and ideals, then you will be the rich one, no matter the size of your house or the flashiness of your car.
Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster.