Why you need to learn from the people you most criticise

I remember a conversation I’ve once seen in a group of women.

It was a heated discussion, with a general overtone of critiquing women who give “too much attention” (whatever that means) to their physical appearance. A large number of women were undergoing the scrutiny of this ad hoc jury, facing a rain of sharply presented arguments aiming at how embarrassing their preoccupation for weight, clothes, make-up and hair was. To this group, it was very clear, beyond any shade of doubt, that such a preoccupation instantly cancels any other merits women may have: you simply could not be well-dressed and, at the same, be intelligent, a good person, a good wife, a good mother, etc.

I will not discuss the stereotypes in themselves, but I remember asking why did we spend so much time discussing the topic. Why do we spend so much time discussing about something that we declare is unimportant and superficial? What drew my attention the most was the tone of the conversation. There is a certain nuance of tone that is very hard to ignore — envy disguised as virulent criticism. This nuance is really unpleasant to hear or see.

Now I have a personal issue with the word itself, “envy”, partly because it was overused by melodramatic singers but mostly because it is a human emotion that I really don’t enjoy witnessing — in others or in myself.

It seems to me that envy has actually become taboo. We’ve managed to bring fear, sadness, shame and guilt more into the light, but not envy. Envy makes us feel small, silly, awkward, mean. To be envious and to admit it means accepting that you are/you have less than another and, at the same time, that you really wish you were/had what that other person is/has. Envy stings in a very specific way, so we have many reasons to hide or ignore it. But, time after time, I reach to the same conclusion — we need to talk upfront about the particular things we try to avoid.

There are 3 requirements needed for envy to manifest itself:

  1. we are confronted with a person that has a quality, accomplishment or material possession that we perceive to be superior to what we are/have
  2. this quality/accomplishment/material possession is something we really want for ourselves or we envision a world where the other person doesn’t own it
  3. the comparison with the other person really hurts.

Since envy is such an unpleasant and socially condemnable feeling, we do our best to avoid a direct manifestation of it. As a consequence, envy has an array of disguised ways to show up: being overly sarcastic of the person or quality we envy, critique, contempt, slander, sabotaging (like the child who breaks the toy he is not allowed to play with), the compliment that hides an insult (“congratulations on your promotion… I was really surprised you were the one selected for the job”), denial or faked indifference (not being able to bear conversations about how wonderful X or Y is and doing anything you can to change the topic), and so on.

Envy is not frustration that someone else has a better thing than me, is the frustration of believing I am not able to have that same thing. I will not be envious with a person that buys an ice-cream if I too am able to get an ice-cream.

At the same time, if we don’t change our reaction to envy, we remain trapped in a vicious circle that continues to produce more and more envy.

Here’s an example: I think of myself as an intelligent person, someone who would have a lot to say, but I am somehow shy and don’t dare to speak up. I constantly think I am not good enough. At the same time, I am frustrated to see other coworkers who are, from my point of view, less qualified than me, daring to hold presentations and signing up to be speakers at various events. I judge them from a distance, and I notice all their flaws and shortcomings. I am sometimes called to give them feedback as an expert that has never stepped onto the playing field. When I get asked about why I don’t sign up to be a speaker, I say that too many people start talking too much without really grasping what they say, and that I have a different set of principles. I would much rather sit on the sidelines and do my job well. Although what I really feel is fury, shame, humiliation about not having the guts to speak in public, although I really admire these people precisely for their courage to get into the spotlight, that’s not what gets seen from the outside. Looking from the outside, what people see is me expertly and coldly critiquing public speaking, and wearing a mask of “I don’t care that much for this topic”.

When I deny the fact that I feel envious and I want what others have, I don’t give myself permission to start working for those things myself. I don’t want to enter into this race, because I have a strong feeling of being super far behind everyone else. I end up trying to convince myself and others that neither the race, nor the players in it are worth any dime. In the end, I remain the same, not having grown at all, and carrying a ton of resentment and frustration.

When we encounter someone we think is better or more successful than we are, we actually have an array of ways to respond. I can respond with indifference, joy, admiration, emulation or envy.

As I mentioned earlier and as you surely noticed from your own experience, envy is the least beneficial response.

So for a while what I’ve been training myself to do is to allow my feelings of envy to show up, to claim them, and then to consciously craft a better response.

When I would find myself criticizing someone, mildly or strongly, privately or in public, I would also be vigilant for the specific kind of sting that envy brings. When I would notice envy showing up, I would ask myself what is it that I actually admire in that specific person. Envy can be a wonderful resource: someone else mirrors a thing that I want. Maybe that other someone is a reminder of what I could be if only I were more persevering, resilient, brave, straight-forward, strategic, empathetic, etc. Maybe that other someone’s life reminds of my own abandoned hopes and wishes. I allow myself to admit to what I really want to be and do and slowly start to work towards that goal. I look at the people I envy in a different way — I stop avoiding them and, on the contrary, I start being curious about them. I want to understand them, to learn from them, and even to tell them how amazing I think they are.

A friend of mine has a very direct way of communicating her envy: “Alex, I so hate the fact that you are X or you do Y… you’re annoying as hell.” First time I heard that from her I felt not only amused, but extremely safe to be around her. I appreciated her very honest way of saying what she thinks and promised to myself to do the same with others.

Envy is telling us a lie. It tells us that if someone has what we want, we can no longer have the same thing. It tells us that there are limited resources and that the world is too small. But that’s simply not the case. The world is big enough and we are all different enough to be able to coexist even if we have similar attributes, accomplishments or professional interests. There is enough need and interest in this world for different styles, and for the personal touch each of us inevitably brings.

So allow yourself to compare to others, to get inspired from others, hell, to even be bothered by others’ success so that you can afterwards discover how to get closer to your own measures of success. There are 7 billion people in this world, and your mission is not to be the best at everything or to hide your weak spots; your mission, if you wish to accept it, is to continue to develop the skills you already have, to do the things you haven’t done before, and to remind yourself that you can be comfortable with yourself even if there are many more things you need to learn.

Leadership Coach & HR Leader