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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

they want to see you fail by Rona W. '23

managing others' envy

Recently, one of my friends relayed that she grew up in an environment filled with vicious, competitive peers. When I got into MIT, they might be nice to my face, but I know they were secretly upset. They didn’t want me to succeed, no matter what platitudes might escape their lips.

It’s a story I’ve heard from plenty of people. I needed to be careful, because I was surrounded by people who wanted to see me fail. This dynamic might continue long after college admissions; after another friend received a prestigious graduate fellowship, he said he felt it, too.

I’ve never really known how to deal with others’ envy, and it feels weird to even say that, to suggest that other people might be envious of me—it’s like I’m claiming there’s something about me or what I have that is so spectacular that others might want it, and isn’t that a boastful claim to make? And isn’t it presumptuous of me to assume someone else’s underlying emotions?

So I’ll give an example where the other person openly admitted their envy of me, so I don’t have to speculate about their motivations.

I switched to a math major (from a humanities major) in fall 2019; initially I struggled to adjust, but by late 2020, I had gained more confidence in the area. Some cool opportunities came my way: I was invited to speak at Math Prize for Girls, a competition for top female students in mathematics, which I’d attended in high school. I was accepted into well-regarded international programs. I was admitted into a research program that led me to co-write a graph theory paper with an established mathematician, which was then published in a combinatorics journal and got me an Erdös number of two (which, to be clear, is a vanity metric and not indicative of much, but it’s still a fun fact that can raise some eyebrows).

One of my close friends, a fellow math major and a guy, saw all this happening and asked, point-blank: “Do you think you’re getting all of this because you’re a girl?”

That question went over about as well as you might expect. I was one of four women (out of sixty students) in my research program. If they were trying to show favoritism to girls, they were doing a terrible job at it.

Aside: because he was such a close friend, I did approach this question in good faith and with nuance. After all, I have no idea how these programs admit students, so it’s possible that being from an underrepresented demographic boosted my application. But really, I don’t think the answer matters that much.

Later, he did confess that he’d asked that because he was jealous that I was succeeding, even though he didn’t think I was that good at math. We talked things through and moved on.

This was a relatively mild situation—yes, this guy was upset and said something rude, but he wasn’t actively rooting for my downfall, and he never would’ve done anything malicious to hurt my prospects. But in another universe, maybe he would’ve emailed those programs saying I was bad at math so they should kick me out, although I’m not sure how effective that approach would’ve been. Maybe he would’ve purposefully given me the wrong answers when I asked him for help. Maybe this resentment would’ve manifested in ways that are completely unrelated to math.

In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure how I should’ve defused the situation or avoided it in the first place. Yes, there’s an argument that I didn’t do anything wrong so there was nothing I should’ve done differently—that’s true, but it isn’t about whether or not I’m morally right. It’s about self-preservation, and things could’ve gotten much worse if this guy had been more malicious.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have texted him about all the good things happening—maybe that had felt like bragging. Or I asked him for too much homework help, so his impression of my math ability was worse than the truth? Once I’d realized he was angry, I could’ve resorted to self-deprecation (you’re right, I don’t deserve this) to placate him.

You might be reading this and thinking, if you have to conjure these defensive tactics, why are you even friends with this guy? But it isn’t about this specific friendship. It’s about how I interact with people in general. I’m not sure how to avoid this flavor of ire. I’m not sure how to preemptively stifle these flares of jealousy before they ignite.

For many years, the only LinkedIn profile I had was a joke.

screenshot of a linkedin

Not to brag, but I have more than 20 Twitter followers now.

I made it on a whim for shits and giggles, but there was some underlying discomfort, too, which I was trying to manage through humor.

hated LinkedIn. I knew how people use it—how they scroll through someone’s profile, casting judgment over all of their achievements (or lack thereof), reducing a person to their resumé. A charade that I’d eventually have little choice but to participate in—so many job applications required a LinkedIn profile.

I didn’t want my accomplishments to be dissected—I didn’t want to do anything that might threaten others’ egos. Hence, jokes! In third grade, my classmates called me the class clown, but they also called me the second-smartest kid in the class (first place went to my math rival). If they were busy laughing, they wouldn’t hate me for how quickly I could complete my times tables. I don’t think eight-year-old Rona had the social awareness to understand jester’s privilege, and there are so many more reasons why I adore humor—truly, it makes the world go round—but even now, I sometimes find myself relying on it as a protective measure.

Not everyone uses that tactic. Some of my friends keep a low-profile, no online presence, never talk about what they’re doing. Others are extremely discerning about who they forge relationships with, and only get close with people who don’t seem prone to envy. I’m still figuring out my own style.

It feels imbalanced to write a post about others’ envy but to not discuss my own, but truthfully, as I got older, I became less preoccupied with comparing myself to other people. The change wasn’t one of moral goodness but self-assurance. I’m happy with my path with all of its twists and turns; I’m happy with who I am. This doesn’t make me better than anyone who might struggle with envy—first, I still have my moments of insecurity, and second, I think it’s a perfectly natural emotion and society would be more harmonious if it were socially acceptable to confess one’s envy.

Maybe that’s why my favorite non-single song from Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album is “jealousy, jealousy”. It’s admittedly surface-level—she never delves deeper into the root of her resentment—but she’s unafraid to make that angsty adolescent cognitive dissonance so explicit: And I see everyone getting all the things I want/And I’m happy for them, but then again, I’m not.

Messy. But that’s what makes life interesting, no?

Cross-posted on Substack here.