top of page

Why Do We Hate Successful People?

Do you get just a little pinch of jealousy, animosity or spitefulness when a best-friend gets proposed to or a colleague gets promoted? We all want to be nice people deep down, but can we truly be happy for other peoples achievments?

Recently, I went for dinner in my local family-run Italian restaurant. It’s cosy and intimate, so on my way to the bathroom, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation happening on a table close by. Now, I don’t know who they were talking about exactly, but whoever it was, they weren’t in favour of them. I caught this part clearly, “…and when I found out she’d received a BAFTA fellowship, well…” and the woman speaking tutted and rolled her eyes.

The nosy side of me wanted to mooch in on the gossip. Perhaps it’s human nature, but my first instinct was, ugh, who’s the diva? Tell me more! As American writer and socialite, Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” But as I moved out of earshot, I thought about this time of year; award’s season. The BAFTAs and the Oscars took place last month. All that glitz and glamour, all hailing the tremendous global talent. It’s all fake, isn’t it? Sure, it’s a celebration of the wonderful work created, depending on what way you look at it. Turn the other way and you’ll see a room of resentment. A rather large room, too.

It’s possible, of course, that whoever the woman at the table was talking about had done something deserving of the eye-roll. Maybe they’d stolen her husband. Ran over her cat in their fancy Rolls Royce. Whatever it was, the fact that they happened to be a BAFTA winner was the overall insult. Success was being harshly judged. Typical (tut and eye roll). As if achieving something as high profile as a BAFTA is associated with people being a pain in the backside and all of the plebs, the modest hard-workers and super-moral non-BAFTA winners are the almighty voice of reason.

The feeling isn’t unfamiliar though, is it? We’ve all been there. We see a friend or colleague has been promoted, now has a bigger house, is making more money, and rather than feeling happy for them, we get depressed and angry. You’d rather not admit it, but there’s a part of you that would like to see them fall from grace. Just a little. And it’s embarrassing, right? Having all these envious, ugly feelings. You can’t open up to your other friends about it and you certainly wouldn’t tell the target of envy. You weren’t brought up to be so…mean. You’re a good person. You should be glad for them and the - very different - path they’re on. But, gah! The feeling is there. Eating away at you. And you’re powerless to stop it.

So let’s break down what your mind is telling you:

- hmm, they don’t deserve this success

- and wow, they think they’re so superior to me

- I mean, they ARE superior to me

- ugh, it makes me hate being around them

- dammit, I hope they fail.

But, uh-oh, now you feel gross about yourself and start thinking:

- I must be super inferior

- and I’m forever falling behind

- I bet everybody just looks at me and thinks, “loser”

- which sucks because, hey, I could have done that.

Now before you start to worry why you’re not a normal person - because a “normal person” would be over the moon for another person’s success - the truth is, you are very normal. According to clinical professor of psychology and author of The Jealousy Cure, Robert L. Leahy, envy is everywhere and starts when we’re just children. Two kids playing a game together can feel better if they both lose, rather than if one wins, and the same can happen to adults. He says, “We often have a hard time not being the winner. When we are envious, we think of the world as a zero-sum game: If she wins, I lose. And it seems that rewards are scarce.” Nobody wants to be jealous, though. We feel ashamed when it pokes its head around the door. But as Sarah Noel, a New York based psychotherapist says, “Jealousy is often a protective strategy, fuelled by more vulnerable feelings such as worthlessness or feelings of inadequacy.” Even though we’re clued up enough to know that a Facebook status sharing a win is more than likely counteracted with a well-hidden loss, it’s still extremely common to presume that somebody else’s life is better than our own.

On the flip side, we all strive for success in whatever form we believe it exists. Promotions, awards, money, marriage, babies, an annual ski-trip to the Alps…we work hard for our goals, dreaming of making the perfect life a reality. The urge to share what we accomplish is strong. Social media dominates and if you have a work success, it’s not going to do your career or your business any favours if you don’t shout out about it. But for all the likes, the hearts, the mini rounds of applause that assist in you gaining more followers, there are some who wish they could press a dislike button. Your success isn’t your problem, but it is theirs. Why? How can something that happens to you have such a direct effect on another person entirely?

For a start, everybody is always looking in the mirror. If we love a particular movie, it’s usually because we have identified with one of the main characters. We feel somehow, seen. The same can be said with books, TV shows, music…I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger when it first came out because, although the story is high concept and considered science-fiction, there was something very raw about the relationship between Clare and Henry that reminded me of my own at that time. As spectators, when we see people “just like us” achieving so much more than we feel we’re capable of, we struggle to process it. How did this happen to them? Why didn’t it happen to me? Gosh, it only seems like yesterday you were holding your mate’s hair off their face as they threw up in the toilet after a messy night down at the students’ union and now they are CEO of a global wellness brand? That over-enthusiastic kid from your high school choir is now a Broadway star? Your next-door neighbour is moving…to a villa with a pool?! Rather than see their win purely as their win, you look in the mirror at yourself. You’ve had one hell of a day…Your boss is ignoring you, not to mention your husband, your kids and well, the cats couldn’t care less, could they? Oh, and you got a parking ticket. It’s impossible to consider that whoever is driving you mad with their stellar successes might actually be feeling ignored too, and be dealing with something much worse than an annoying fine.

Let’s try to remember that one person’s success is never another person’s failure. It does not discount the good you have done and will continue to do. In fact, labelling each other as a “success” or a “failure” makes no sense. However, one person’s happiness can reflect another person’s sadness, and vice versa. Life is complicated at the best of times and success can happen one moment and fizzle out in the next. The spotlight only shines for limited periods of time. Just because somebody is holding the Grammy doesn’t mean there isn’t a hole in their heart in the shape of a loved one they’ve lost. As Robert L. Leahy reminds us, “Success is about a behaviour at one point in time. Do you really think that none of your behaviours will be rewarding?”

So when that reward comes knocking at your door, let the hater’s hate. I know this is easier said than done. Nobody is comfortable having daggers thrown at them. But people tend to judge things when they have no context or understanding of how much work you did behind closed doors. They only see the end result rather than the blood, sweat and tears, not to mention all the fears, you experienced. So live in your truth. Let go of the need to be liked and desired. There will be loving people in your corner and please, hang onto them. They are your true successes, your gold dust. Humans hurt when they live a life they feel is unfulfilled, so when you get those truly great moments, indulge in them wholeheartedly. And keep going. In the words of George Eliot; “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”


bottom of page