Sam and Ellen were best friends. Together they shared movies, devoured pizza, and watched football. They talked about whatever thoughts came into their heads and they were comfortable with silence too. If Sam needed help, he could count on Ellen. If Ellen had a rough day, Sam was there to help her get past it. When Sam couldn’t find a job, Ellen looked at ads and gave him leads she got through her friends. They supported each other through the hard times.
Then Sam won a contest. Soon after he earned a promotion at work. He expected Ellen to be happy for him. Ellen tried, but she couldn’t quite manage to celebrate his success. In the beginning she hid her doubts, fears, and resentments but soon she began avoiding her friend and not talking as openly with him. She believed he had changed. She was sad, thinking she had lost her friend. They just didn’t have that much in common anymore. She spent less and less time with Sam and when they were together she felt uncomfortable.
Sam was confused. He thought Ellen would be happy for him but she was pulling away. She seemed angry and withdrawn. He resented her attitude and was determined she wouldn’t pull him down. They spent more and more time apart, each blaming the other.
Sometimes, particularly for emotionally sensitive people, friendship can be based on being needed. When someone is struggling you might be the first one to offer support. You know how difficult it can be to deal with life’s problems and want to help other people find their way. Shared struggles can help form a bond. Sometimes that bond helps us remember that life is hard no matter what we do.
When someone gets good news, that can be more difficult to support. You may resent their good fortune and at the same time feel guilty for your resentment. You may not be proud of your thoughts, but they still come. Maybe you wonder what your friend did that was so great? Why does he deserve such a break? She’s not so great, how did she get such a great boyfriend? You’ve tried harder, done more work, or waited longer. It should have been you.
What’s behind the difficulty in being happy for your friends’ good fortune? Maybe you see the world as made up of people who struggle and people who succeed, and your friend is no longer in the same group as you. Maybe if the two of you aren’t the same anymore your friendship can’t survive. Maybe he won’t want to be friends with you anymore and you pull away to protect yourself. Maybe you get angry for the same reason.
Maybe you see his success as an uncomfortable challenge to you. If your friend can find a job, then it puts more pressure on you to do the same. You compare yourself to your friend. If he can do it, then you could too. That changes your view and pushes you to take more responsibility. Or maybe you judge yourself more harshly when a friend has good news. Your thinking becomes black and white, with you as the “loser.”
Celebrating a friend’s happiness, especially when you are struggling, can be a real challenge. It’s just as important as being there during hard times. Being happy for someone else’s success is part of friendship. If this is an issue for you, then you might try letting go of comparisons. Comparisons often lead to judging and judging yourself or your friend is not helpful. If you do find yourself judging, just notice the judgments and let them pass. Throw yourself into being happy for your friend. Be fully there. Remind yourself that what happens for someone else is not a judgment of you. If you want the same achievement or experience that your friend is having, be aware of and honor that thought. His happiness does not take away from your efforts or chances to have the same result.
Thank you to everyone who has contacted me to participate in a research study about emotionally sensitive people. I am starting the study very soon. The study involves filling out some questionnaires and participating in a recorded interview about what emotional sensitivity means to you. If you are interested in being interviewed please email me your contact information. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This project has been reviewed by the University of Houston Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects (713) 743-9204.
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Last reviewed: 1 Jul 2013