How to cope when your friend succeeds — and you don’t

StartupStockPhotos via pixabay
The worst part of success is to try finding someone who is happy for you.
Bette Midler

Your friend has been there with you every step of the way. You’ve plotted together, traded advice, bonded over tea or coffee or wine.

And then you get the phone call that’s almost incoherent, or a text message full of emojis and misspelt words. She made it, and you didn’t.

Your smile feels fake and frozen. You type out an equally happy reply, but there’s a cold stone in your gut. The words choke you.

Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and you’re watching your friend try to look pleased for you and sound genuine. He’s failing miserably.

Welcome to the first challenge of success.

You lie awake that night, wondering how she did it. You agonise over whether you’ll ever manage the same. Or you’re angry because she’s not that good, right? If anything you’re better, and if people could just see that you’d be set.

Perhaps you felt a little pang of envy but then flipped right into genuine pleasure on your friend’s behalf.

Dealing with success can make or break the strongest friendship. Fortunately, even negative responses can be channelled into more useful forms with some thought and self-awareness.

Is success your priority?

Success and friendship come in many different flavours and levels. You need to consider what matters to you most. Your relationship might be of prime importance, in which case you need to tread carefully.

Expressing deeply negative reactions is unlikely to play well with someone who expects you to be happy for them. If the relationship is more distant, you may be fairly neutral. Say something nice and move on.

We all have differing versions of success and it’s easier to cheer for a different sport than our own.

The issue is most difficult with those we are close to, either personally or professionally. When we regard someone as a professional equal, and their achievement outstrips ours, we naturally feel that we deserve the same. Consider your attitude if you found that your peer got a pay rise but you didn’t.

Friendships are also based on equality, at least until they’re tested. Success for your friend can cause all manner of hidden resentments and feelings to surface. You might experience a surge of inadequacy because deep down you always felt inferior to them on some level. You might feel angry, because you helped them through some problems or shared your knowledge, and now they’re using it to get ahead.

When strong emotions are triggered, we aren’t able to make considered decisions. Learn to take a breath and give yourself time. Recognising your feelings is the first step to mastering them. Only then can you respond in a way that doesn’t threaten a valued relationship.

It’s all relative

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…
If, by
Rudyard Kipling

Success can be fleeting. It carries with it the fear of failure because having done it once there is an expectation to do it again, sometimes many times over. While it is worth working for, success needs to be put into context.

The advantage of obscurity is being able to practise while no-one is watching. The public eye can be unforgiving. Successful writers still agonise over their latest work. How could they not? They are higher up the mountain, which means they have further to fall and more to lose.

The tabloids love to bash the personal failures of the rich and famous. We understand instinctively that the peak of the mountain is a very lonely place without someone to share the view.

We might think that we’re better than the latest drug addicted celebrity, but we’re not. We’re human, and we need to care for all the aspects of self that make us healthy humans.

Success should be one part of a full life. Single-minded pursuit of success at the price of important relationships leaves us ultimately hollow.

But I want it

Another’s success commonly triggers envy. Envy is discontented longing for something owned by another. It can mean either I wish I had that or you shouldn’t have that. Envy can start with looking inwards and feeling inadequate but often morphs into external negativity which can be surprisingly aggressive.

This is because feeling inadequate is a threat to our self-image and we have psychological defence mechanisms against those threats. Those include projecting our feelings, acting out our feelings, denial, and others.

Defence mechanisms can be helpful or unhelpful, but they are basic human responses. That means they are deployed very quickly, almost without thinking. Just as we jump to conclusions based on first impressions, so we jump to responses based on deeply wired triggers. Often we need time to engage our thinking brain and compose a thoughtful response.

I wish I had that envy can lead to shouting at your children (acting out), road rage that’s definitely the other guy’s fault (projection) and drinking to forget (denial.)

You shouldn’t have that envy can lead to bad mouthing (projection), inciting a flame war in comments (acting out) and selective forgetting (denial.)

Any of these responses and more can combine in a highly emotional and toxic mix. Here’s how to deal with that before it blows up in your face.

Recognise it for what it is

You want what he has for yourself. Anyone who’s watched very young children interact has seen this in action. Sadly some adults behave in much the same ways; crying, throwing tantrums or snatching things away. You’re envious. It’s not shameful to feel that way. Take a breath. You decide what comes next.

Temper your responses

I wanted that, I’m envious, now I’m angry, it’s not fair, I’m hurting so I’m going to hurt you.

Sound familiar?

This might be a hard one to hear because angry people are often in denial. They refuse to recognise the source of their anger and act it out around them. They pick fights so that their angry response is legitimised.

If you’re always angry, other people see it before you do. You could try asking a trusted friend, on neutral ground and in a neutral mood. Asking for this kind of feedback is scary but enlightening. Think of it as asking how the back of your head looks. You carry it around but you can’t see it. If there’s an issue it must be identified before you can fix it.

Unresolved anger spills into all areas of your life, and it can destroy relationships.

Be nice

Follow the golden rule and treat others as you would like to be treated. Be polite and avoid further comment if you need time to process. In other words, practise empathy. If the positions were reversed, how would you feel?

Recognise that the other person might be worried about sharing their good news. They know what envy is. Recognise that the other person is asking for the same thing you would want; genuinely shared happiness for a win whether big or small.

Practise ahead of time if you struggle with this. Say, “that’s great, well done” and smile, even if it kills you. That person will remember how you responded when it’s your turn to celebrate. So be nice.

Practise self-analysis

Know yourself before you can control yourself. Emotions in one area of life often spill into other areas, so a calm mind depends on balance. Ask yourself questions using the 5 whys technique.

The 5 Whys aim to get to the root cause of a problem by asking why. Usually 5 questions is enough to uncover the root cause.

I get angry when Jane gets an article published

Why do you get angry?

Because my writing is just as good so it’s not fair

Why is it not fair?

Because I’ve been writing longer so I should get better results

Why should you get better results?

Because I followed the rules and I want to succeed

Why do you want to succeed?

Because I want to prove I can do it

Why do you want to prove you can do it?

Because [insert person] said I’d never amount to much!

You may already know that you struggle with feeling inferior, or overreacting to small things with tears or anger, or lacking confidence in your work. Once you have a handle on your personal weak spots, work on them.

Here’s a list of books on building self-confidence. Dr. Brené Brown has several books and talks to help you understand and accept your self, including The Gifts of Imperfection. Building strong self-worth is key to living well.

Fuel your own journey

You can turn envy into something useful and positive, once the initial sting passes. Let it focus your attention on what you really want, then decide how you can work towards it.

Lessen feelings of inferiority either professionally or personally by working on self-esteem. A confident person is not threatened by another’s success.

Work on impostor syndrome by reminding yourself of your talents as well as working on your areas for improvement. Accept positive feedback when given, as many people have a tendency to discount it.

Be inspired and empowered by your friend’s success and know it is possible for you too.

Cheer and share their success. Wouldn’t you want them to do the same for you? Bask in the reflected glory that is seeing someone you care about with a happy smile. It isn’t all about you.

Share their knowledge and use what they have learned for mutual benefit. Ask how they did it and listen.

The positive fallout

A writer in my IRL group workshopped a short radio play that was eventually accepted by BBC Radio Scotland in 2017. Shortly afterward she left the group to pursue her comedy writing career part-time. Recently she shared a screenshot of her first TV writing credit on Facebook. We congratulated her and shared her happiness because that’s amazing.

She showed us that you don’t have to be under thirty, an Oxford graduate, well connected, or in possession of an MFA to succeed.

You have to do the work, keep going, and give as good as you hope to get.

Envy is merely a signpost disguised as a challenge.


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