Starting out as a writer, I remember a friend of mine - one with less journalism experience, I hasten to add - calling me up to tell me she'd landed a much sought-after job on a fabulous magazine. So, what did I do? I reacted the way most struggling writers would: I gritted my teeth, turned off my phone and proceeded to bang my head against my desk. Envy. It's a killer isn't it?
The truth is that I wanted to be happy for her. I kept telling myself that a good person - a better person - would be happy for a close friend's success. A good person would have congratulated her warmly, right?
Not necessarily, says psychologist and clinical director of The LightHouse Arabia, Dr Tara Wyne, who admits that even nice girls feel envy. "If we define envy as being resentful of the advantage or accomplishment someone else is enjoying and us experiencing the desire for that same advantage then we can acknowledge that everyone will experience envy at some time. No-one is immune to the green-eyed monster," she says. Phew… so, I'm not such a terrible person, after all.
The simple fact is that envy is an emotion and, yes, we've all got them. We can all feel envious - after all, wanting what thy neighbour - or rather, best friend - has is part of being human. "As we live alongside people in a social world, I think it is impossible to escape feeling envious at some point in our lives," admits Dr Wyne. "People are not all blessed with the same level of good fortune, personality or beauty. As such, we will constantly encounter people with less or more than us. Also, human beings ebb and flow in their confidence about who they are and what they have achieved and so will at some point feel insecure or worry about being less, doing less, or having less. It is this insecurity that can trigger envy in a person's life."
And, according to Dr Wyne, this ugly yet natural emotion occurs more frequently in women, when one woman sees herself as having less to give or as less of an achiever than the object of her envy. So, is it that women are more insecure, or are we just more comparative beings? "I think it's safe to say that women are very much guilty of comparing themselves with other women," states Dr Wyne. "Women are invariably concerned more with physical beauty and we tend to be easily threatened by other women's perceived attractiveness," she says. But it's not just skin deep - today's women are expected to be excellent mothers, good lovers, at the top of their careers, and beautiful to boot - surely, with that kind of pressure, it's inevitable that envy will become more widespread.
"The messages we are bombarded with by the media are that we need to be more beautiful, more successful, more multi-faceted, basically more," says Dr Wyne. "So we end up constantly evaluating ourselves against this idea of perfection and creating unrealistic goals for ourselves. We are constantly looking to measure up to other women in terms of looks, career, parenting and wealth," she says.
The friendvy phenomenon
Of course, envy has always been around, but is this comparative phenomenon getting worse? According to Dr Wyne, yes. "Comparisons that induce envy are undoubtedly being greatly facilitated by the media, internet and globalisation," she explains.
Not only are people, and women in particular, now universally valuing beauty, thinness, popularity and materialism due to the messages they are receiving about what is valued in society today, explains Dr Wyne, but social media is exacerbating the problem. "Social media like Facebook and Twitter quantifies very publicly how popular and ‘special' we are. So it's simply a new method with which we make comparisons," she says.
In fact, the problem these days is so widespread that it even has a name: ‘friendvy' - a term coined by the Facebook fraternity themselves to describe how many friends or contacts another person's profile has. "It seems we have become hooked on how many people comment on our photos and whether our statuses are witty or funny enough to attract comments from our so-called friends," says Dr Wyne. And when you consider that women especially are so vulnerable to self comparison - constantly in need of assurance that we are good enough, pretty enough and successful enough - then Facebook, in particular, can fuel such feelings of not being good enough, which leads to feelings of friendvy even in very nice girls.
A very nice friend of mine is a case in point: she recently confessed to hammering out a rapid-fire response on her smartphone, socially slapping down one of her oldest and closest friends, simply because she was sharing some ‘good news' on Facebook. Shameful after the event, she admits that the cause of the red mist was the green-eyed monster.
And this scenario is happening more and more. So-called friends turning against each other. In an increasingly connected and openly transparent world, where we not only air our dirty laundry but flaunt our achievements, friendvy is flourishing.
A case of low self-esteem
And, for us all - insecure beings that we are - it's easy to get seduced by the congratulatory nature of Facebook's comments and posts. I see people putting themselves down just so their friends will tell them how fabulous they are. Get over yourself! Oh, hang on… is this another case of friendvy rearing its ugly head? Am I naturally suited to this emotion? "I think women susceptible to friendvy are those who are insecure or have low self-esteem about a particular area of their life," says Dr Wyne.
This is certainly true of Sarah*, 29. A healthy size 12, having a size 8 woman as her best friend is painful for Sarah. "She eats all the wrong things, hardly exercises, yet remains toned, svelte and beautiful," says Sarah. "She always looks fantastic and I know I could be complimentary, but, to be honest, I'm just angry that she looks so good with so little effort while I slog away just to remain in a size 12." It's the anger part of the envy that is turning Sarah's relationship with her friend sour. "I actually don't feel comfortable being with her any more because I feel inferior and so I'm bitter and find myself making all kinds of sarcastic remarks in order to put her down," she says.
Burning envy does, say experts, come down to self-worth and envious reactions can often be a reflection of feelings of inadequacy - real or not. Says Sarah: "I know my feelings are out of proportion to the actual problem. But I have always been terribly insecure about my weight and find myself constantly comparing my physical self with other women."
In fact, says Dr Wyne, sometimes our comparative feelings get so distorted that we actually look at other women to find fault in their perfection purposefully, in order to feel better about ourselves and bolster our self-esteem.
The problem is that we end up losing friends, as envy often occurs within close friendships - most of us are attracted to people with qualities we admire. It's easier to be envious of those in the same realm as us or those with the same goals. Shrugging off Elle Macpherson's perfect body or Meryl Streep's incredible talent is easy, but when your best friend flaunts her curves or reveals her achievements, "it can really burn your toast," as one friend put it.
This feeling is all too familiar to Natalia*, 32, a lawyer in Dubai, who admits having feelings of envy towards her best friend, also a lawyer, who has advanced further than Natalia in their shared profession. "If she was succeeding as a doctor, I would probably be happy for her, but because we're in the same profession and she's doing better, I'm pleased for her but I want to be where she is, so I feel jealous. But, I've never seen myself as insecure, so I don't know where it's come from," says Natalia. "Maybe I'm just one of those people who is never happy with themselves."
Dr Wyne further explains that perfectionists are also more susceptible to feelings of envy. "Perfectionists have significant problems with envy as they set such high standards for themselves," says Dr Wyne. "Perfectionists are inherently discontented with themselves and this can be fertile ground for comparisons with other women, and inevitably, envy."
And, according to author and clinical psychologist Linda Blair, who studied the effects of envy for her book Birth Order (Piatkus), this perfectionism can often stem from your birth order. She says first-born children are particularly susceptible to feelings of envy, explaining how they have, and then lose, through no fault of their own - but because of the birth of a new baby - the precious attention of their parents. This is likely to make them feel more anxious and quite helpless when others are praised at their expense throughout their life.
Useful of destructive?
So, can feeling friendvy be positive at all? Yes and no. According to experts, little flashes of envy can be a good thing because it creates competition and can motivate us. "If we use envy as a motivation to direct our efforts, then envy can inspire us to push ourselves to achieve," explains Dr Wyne.
This may well be true, but it's not always easy to take that initial knot - "a cold stab in the gut", as one friend put it - and turn it into something productive.
"If we are simply coveting what another has and this does not inspire effort and action to attain these goals, then envy is controlling us and keeping us stuck," explains Dr Wyne. This is of course when the serious side to these negative feelings shine through and this is what we need to tackle.
"Envy is a very strong emotion," says Dr Wyne. "In small doses, it may serve as a motivating factor. However, in larger doses there may be signs envy has become toxic. When our envy spills over into feelings of inferiority as well as spite and we wish we could take those things we covet from other people, we know it's reached a dangerous level."
What are the warning signs, doctor? Emulating the behaviour or look of someone else so excessively that your identity is lost; when envy undermines relationships we have built up and results in us losing people; and when we get so stuck in dissatisfaction that we start to hate ourselves, lose touch with reality and can no longer truly see ourselves as we are, but just through very disappointed and dissatisfied lenses.
So, how do you tame the ‘green-eyed monster'? The great psychoanalyst philosopher, Theodore Reich once said, "jealousy is a sign that something is wrong, not necessarily rotten, in the organism of love." Perhaps seeing envy as a warning of something ‘wrong' is the first positive step to correction.
Dr Wyne agrees: "The first step is to recognise and label these feelings as ‘envious'." But, this may be harder than it sounds. Because envy is considered a socially unacceptable emotion, many of us deny having these feelings both publicly and privately. "We need to repeatedly examine our thoughts to determine whether they are envious. If we find they are, we should remind ourselves of how these thoughts don't help our life and can actually harm it. The more we can catch and correct our thinking, the easier it will be to remain envy-free."
Once recognised without shame, such feelings can then be conquered: talking to someone about it can help as it normalises what you're going through, says Dr Wyne. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can also be useful in helping you build confidence.
Self-acceptance is a further step to overcoming envy - it's about getting to the stage where you can say, yes my best friend is thinner, sexier and more successful than I am, but so what?
Dr Wyne says as women we should focus on what we have and what we can do to improve our own lives. "Concentrate on your personal development and goals. Take an active, rather than reactive approach to life. Remind yourself that you can control your life and your situation. A big part of envy comes from the feeling that you have been treated unfairly by life. If you stop thinking about how things should have been and instead focus on what you can do and attain by your own actions, you will defeat the feeling of envy."
For me, envy worked wonders back in my struggling writer days. Masochistic by nature - or perhaps, a perfectionist - I forced myself to work harder, be better and make the most of what I have. The result? I landed my dream job. You'll be pleased to hear that I did congratulate my friend who got that ‘fabulous magazine job' eventually - but it took me a good week to overcome that first wave of envy. These days when I think about her achievement, I hardly grit my teeth at all.
* Names have been changed
Make envy work for you...
How to use envy to make you a better person
Reaching new goals You may not even know you want something until you see someone else having it. It can change your perspective on your current life situation and be a much-needed wake-up call to set new goals.
Being a role model Seeing someone else with what you are now sure that you want lets you know that it's attainable and gives you someone to learn from.
A better understanding of yourself What, who and why you envy lets you know what you want in your life. It helps you realise what's important to you.
Enhancing motivation Envy can provide more energy and drive for you to go after what you want in life.
The four signs of friendvy
How to spot when feelings of envy in friendships are occurring:
1. Downplaying success Your friend will minimise your success and try to make it seem less exciting than it really is.
2. Being insulting When your friend insults you and puts you down. They may seek to make you feel less of yourself, or insult your clothes or appearance.
3. Talking behind backs Your friend talks negatively about you to others.
4. Getting one-up When the friendship is unhealthily competitive. You and your friend are constantly trying to have an advantage over the other.