Dear Therapist: I Don’t Know How to Deal With My Workplace Jealousy

My co-workers got a big promotion that I didn’t get, and I can’t bring myself to be happy for them.

Bianca Bagnarelli / The Atlantic
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Dear Therapist,

About four months ago, I was passed over for a promotion. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a longtime goal, and when I found out, I was devastated. It precipitated a depressive episode; I have been working with my therapist since then, and have been making some progress.

While the depression itself seems to be improving, I am deeply envious of the three people who were chosen for the role. Even now, I find it difficult to be in the same room as them, let alone talk to them. I avoid contact with them as much as I can; when that is not an option, I have managed to be civil. I would hate for anyone to know I am so deeply affected by this situation. I dislike being the person so consumed by jealousy that I am unable to celebrate any of my successes or even find the will to work toward a different goal.

I have failed before, and of course have felt envious before. I have always been able to get over it in a few days or weeks. But this time has been different. I am deeply ashamed of my feelings and can't even bring myself to admit them to my therapist. It is causing me considerable suffering, and I don't know how much more of it I can take.

New York

Dear Anonymous,

Let me reassure you that though you might feel alone right now, you’re not alone in your envy—it is part of being human. Even the people you envy feel envious; no one is immune. But what makes envy especially challenging is that despite its universality, so much shame is attached to it. We might feel free to talk to a friend about, say, our anger or sadness, but most of us worry that sharing our feelings of envy will make us seem petty or selfish. What’s worse, most of us want to celebrate other people’s good fortune and be happy for our friends; so, along with our envy, we also feel guilt. (As a patient once told me of the couple she envied: “I hate them, and then I hate myself for hating them.”)

It’s no wonder, then, that many people try valiantly to will away their envy. But as you’ve experienced, that isn’t an effective way to diminish it. Instead, what helps is to discover the meaning we attach to it, and see where this discovery leads us.

Let’s start by looking at the way you’ve described your situation. Right now, you’re seeing this as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” at which you’ve “failed.” Realistically, though, many other opportunities exist that could provide whatever you believe this promotion would have brought (status, success, money, fulfillment, joy). Often when we envy other people, we engage in a fantasy about how life-changing having what they have would actually be: If only I had this spouse/net worth/appearance, my life would be significantly better. Right now, you’re telling yourself that nothing will make you as happy as having this one job. It’s important to note, too, that you’re framing this situation as a personal failure, just as you’ve framed setbacks in the past (“I have failed before”).

I wonder whether these thoughts have a familiar pattern. It might help to break down your response to the current situation (despair, black-and-white thinking) even further. Does your envy leave you feeling unworthy, incapable, unwanted, unseen, insignificant, excluded, unfairly judged? If any of these resonate, does this perceived rejection remind you of how you felt growing up—maybe as part of your family dynamic, or other experiences that led to a negative self-perception? The more you can separate old hurts from the current hurt, the more you’ll be able to separate the old voices from the situation right in front of you.

For example, a person whose inner voice generally reacts to disappointment with See, nothing will ever work out for me or Without X, I’ll never be happy tends to marinate in their envy, because that way of thinking leaves people trapped. If nothing will work out or the one thing that would make them happy isn’t available to them, well, they would be destined to misery. And even though that’s not true, what often follows is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They stop trying to reach their goals (Why bother?), behave in ways that confirm their distortion (I’m not talented might lead to a person acting less capable than they really are), or unconsciously self-sabotage when presented with potentially exciting opportunities. At that point, the misery is no longer a distortion but a reality—of one’s own making.

Understandably, not getting this promotion that you had your heart set on was a significant and painful disappointment, and with this comes loss. It makes sense that you’ve been grieving. But there’s a difference between losing a much-wanted job opportunity and losing your entire future. If you continue to tell yourself that without this job, you have nothing, you’ll start to feel as if you are nothing. But if instead you use your envy as a guide to understand yourself better, it can be an engine for positive change.

By looking straight at the envy, you can address some important questions: What was it about this job that you really wanted? What prevented you from getting it this time around? Rather than say to yourself, I want what those three people have, you might say, I wonder what they did differently that helped them get it. So far, you’ve avoided these co-workers because every time you see them, you are reminded of your “failure” and feel worthless. But their achievement doesn’t make you worthless. In fact, their achievement could be the very thing that helps you reach your goals in ways you can’t even imagine right now, because if you put down your shield protecting you from your co-workers, three things will likely happen. First, your envy will subside, because the more time you spend with them, the more you’ll see them as real people with imperfect lives and not the idealized versions of them you see from afar. Second, you may start to truly enjoy and appreciate them (and even want to congratulate them, which nine times out of 10 will soften the envy). And third, you’ll gain a better understanding of what might help you get the things you want in life by learning how other people got them.

Through this process, you might discover that you can get what you want in a variety of ways, and you’ll become better equipped to attain it. Also remember that happiness isn’t a finite resource—one person’s happiness doesn’t cut into a portion of yours. There’s enough joy to go around. What saps that joy is comparison, not only because comparison takes energy away from working on achieving our own dreams, but also because we tend to compare the worst version of our situation with the best version of someone else’s. Instead, use that energy to give yourself a huge dose of self-compassion. This was a hard blow, so be kind to yourself when you feel whatever you feel—including envy. Incidentally, at this very moment, someone out there quite possibly envies you—your job, your talent, your status, you name it. I hope you’ll have compassion for them, too.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.