Career Envy: What To Do When Your Professional Jealousy Is Out of Control

Picture this: your coworker just got the promotion you secretly hoped to land. They're not any better than you, nor any more qualified, yet they were chosen over you. You can't help but feel jealous. It seems like they're light years ahead of you, even though they started in the same position after you did.

Feeling resentful just thinking about it?

This kind of green-eyed monster may be unpleasant, but it's normal to look at someone else's success and feel pangs of envy about it. We live in the age of comparison. It's an everyday exercise to look at LinkedIn or glance over the cubicle wall and wonder why we're not jet-setting off to Europe or shaking hands with industry leaders like they are.

But what happens when those feelings of envy start to take over? When you can't seem to shake off the resentment and it's impacting your work and personal life? That's when career envy becomes a problem, as our experts explain.

What is career envy anyway?

Socrates called envy “the ulcer of the soul.” Shakespeare called it the “green-eyed monster.” In many cultures, the “evil eye” is a curse cast by an envious onlooker. Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Even fairy tales warn us of envy's destructive power: The Evil Queen was so envious of Snow White, she tried to have her killed.

With so many negative representations, it’s easy to assume that envy is always a dark emotion. However, that’s not entirely true, says relationship and human behavior expert Dr. Patrick Wanis.

First up, let's explain the difference between jealousy and envy. Jealousy is about possessiveness. As Wanis explains, it's “the painful feeling that something you have, something you believe belongs to you, is being threatened by someone else.” Narcissists often have a lot of jealousy at work because they believe that success is rightfully theirs, regardless of the work they put into it. 

For the rest of us, envy is the more common emotion. Envy is all about comparison. It’s “the result of comparing myself to someone else and believing something they have is superior to what I have or who I am,” Wanis says. 

However, while the driving motivation of career envy is always comparison, delve deeper and you’ll discover that there is not one type of envy but three—and only two of them are toxic. 

Wanis breaks it down:

  • Malicious envy: This is an unhealthy type of envy. It involves feelings of resentment that “motivate you to take down someone else or try to prevent someone from having something, whether it's an experience, an accomplishment, or even a character trait.” You think someone is better than you, so you try to bring them down at all costs.
  • Self-inflicting envy: “Self-inflicting envy is where you look at someone else and believe they're superior to you in something," says Wanis. That may be something they own (“Why do they have such a nice car and I'm still driving this old clunker?”) or something they've done (“I'll never land my dream job like they did.”) This type of envy can be just as toxic as malicious envy, as it reinforces your insecurities, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. 
  • Benign envy: Benign envy is a positive type of envy that motivates you to change. Instead of looking at someone's six-figure salary and feeling resentful, you feel inspired to work harder, improve your skills and make more money for yourself. This type of envy can be extremely beneficial, as long as you use it in a healthy way.

"It's okay to feel that way"

While studies suggest that people with higher levels of Neuroticism may experience higher rates of envy, it's fair to say that most people will experience it at some point in their careers.

Julie Jansen, executive career coach, workplace expert and author, says she often sees envy in early-career or junior employees. But rather than letting people beat themselves up over it, Jansen tells her clients that “it's okay to feel that way.”

“We've all been ingrained in the fact that envy is bad, and we should never feel it. And if we do, we shouldn't share it with anybody,” Jansen says. “It would be a rare human being who would be telling the truth if they didn't feel envious at some point in their life. So it's okay. It's just figuring out how to make it productive.”

The stigma surrounding envy is a problem. It often leads to people feeling ashamed of their feelings and keeping them bottled up. So instead of finding healthy ways to cope with their envy, they allow themselves to get stuck in unproductive thought loops such as,  “Well, she has the same amount of experience I have, she's worked in the same area, the same type of projects, so I must be receiving unfair treatment” — something Jansen says she “hears all the time.”

Something else she hears a lot of? Defeatism. When someone is stuck in a cycle of envying their peers, they say things like, “Oh, that’s never going to happen for me,” and “Maybe it's not worth it. Even if I try, I am not going to get it … I think I'm going to have to give up. I have to go somewhere else because I won't get it here.”

The “it” in that thought train may be a promotion, more recognition or even just feeling satisfied with their current job. Regardless of the specifics, thoughts like this are a drain on success. They can lead to the self-sabotaging habit of jumping from workplace to workplace, instead of addressing the root cause of your envy, which can harm your chances of advancement if you do it too often, Jansen notes.

So what can you do to turn your envy into something productive?

Trading envy for motivation

Wanis and Jansen both believe that the best strategy for defeating career envy is to take those toxic emotions and turn them into benign envy, a motivation. Here are four steps to making envy work for you:

Stop comparing. “When you're feeling envy or jealousy or anger, you have to go back and look at yourself," Jansen says. "Regain perspective, because you don't know what the variables were of why someone got something you wanted.”  

Reassess your values. Are the things you're envious of actually important to you? Do they align with your values and goals? If not, why are you envious in the first place? “Instead of comparing yourself with other people, look at your life. Establish clearly — What are your targets? What are your goals? What are your values? — and live in alignment with those,” Wanis says.

Make a career plan. Once you've figured out what you want to achieve, take the energy you're wasting on coveting another person’s achievements and make a concrete plan for how you can accomplish your goals. “Funnel those feelings of envy into, ‘How can I be positive and constructive and productive and figure it out?’” Jansen says. 

Keep checking in with your own journey. As a silver lining, career envy is much more common in early-career professionals, and maturity and experience might dissolve it to some extent. Over time, you learn what achievements you need to have and what actions you need to take in order to get the things that previously you felt envious about. 

“You start learning that you are the one, for the most part, that's in charge of your own career,” Jansen says. “So you start focusing more on yourself and less on other people to make things happen.”

Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.