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How to Be Happy for Other People When You're Miserable

Is it possible to hold two opposite emotions at the same time?
Image: A young girl looks at conflicting emotions on her hands.
How can you push past your personal setbacks to be happy for someone else?mrs / Getty Images

It's easy to celebrate the success of those around us when things are also going well in our own lives. But the universe has a way of throwing us curve balls just as someone close to us nails a major accomplishment. Your friend receives the promotion he was up for just as you fall victim to a round a layoffs; a baby shower invite arrives after another failed attempt to conceive; your friend moves in with her significant other as you're calling it quits with yours.

You want to be happy for your friend, of course. But how can you push past your personal setbacks in order to do so? Is it possible to hold two opposite emotions at the same time, experiencing the grief of your own loss while still celebrating your friend's success?

Simply put, the answer is yes.

Here's a look at how we process emotions, the plausibility of feeling both ends of the spectrum simultaneously and what steps you can take to navigate the conflict in a way that actually helps you win in the long run.

Can Conflicting Feelings Co-Exist?

While you may not have experienced opposite emotions on such a drastic level, Dr. Kerry Schofield, PhD, co-founder and chief of psychometrics at Good&Co., says that the mixed feelings we have internally, without a second-party stimuli, are fairly common and function similarly. "Ambivalence, or having strong feelings in two opposing directions at once, can be a very stressful state," she says. "It can underlie such behavior as procrastination, because we naturally find it hard to take decisive action when we aren’t clear on what we want. These bittersweet feelings crop up in all sorts of situations — for example, we want to lose weight, but we also want a cookie; we are sad that our relationship broke up, but relieved that we’re now free to [find] a more fulfilling one."

Research has shown that experiencing a positive and negative emotion about a specific situation could potentially help us cope with difficult matters.

While there are downsides to lingering in this mental state of conflict, Dr. Michele Leno, PhD and licensed psychologist with a private practice in Michigan, says that the ability to experience these opposing emotions can actually be beneficial.

"Research has shown that experiencing a positive and negative emotion about a specific situation could potentially help us cope with difficult matters," she explains. "We almost inevitably and effortlessly become emotionally invested when we hear about someone achieving something that directly correlates with our own goals. While commonly viewed as selfish, it is absolutely fine to feel happy about someone's success while feeling sad about your own personal struggle."

The Conflict Provides Insight into Your Emotional Maturity

The stress caused by existing in a state of conflict — for example, wanting to congratulate a friend on his promotion while you're dealing with the blow of a job loss — can cause us to act in a way that's out of character.

"When we are pulled in two directions at once, one possible result is that our behavior becomes inconsistent with our values," Dr. Schofield explains. "We might both want to congratulate our friend, but also feel a darker urge to relieve our sense of jealousy by undermining the achievement with a sarcastic comment. Mostly, we’ll choose the former, but those uncomfortable thoughts may still simmer below the surface even as we’re celebrating our friend’s success. If we are especially frustrated by our own situation, we may act against our principles by treating our friend badly, despite wanting to be the sort of person who celebrates the achievements of others."

If we tell ourselves that we ‘should’ feel only positive about the situation, we risk making the negative response even worse.

Clinical forensic psychologist Dr. John Huber says that the emotion that ends up winning out in the end has a lot to do with our level of emotional maturity, and the type of response that's triggered in our brains. "One of these two emotions will likely dominate the focus of your attention," he says. "Because the setback pertains directly to you, it may be easier to become immersed in the experience. However, you may also see your friend’s success a means of escapism (the same way we experience entertainment) and immerse your attention on their joy. Every mind and individual is different."

Image: Illustration of male friends riding a tandem bicycle in opposite directions
Having your emotions pulled in two different directions can actually get your problem solving juices flowing.Malte Mueller / Getty Images

Use Ambivalence to Your Advantage

"The main problems of ambivalence occur when we become trapped in the conflict," says Dr. Schofield. "For example, say we were invited to attend a party in our successful friend’s honor. We might feel both that we want to go to support our friend, but that going to the party will make us feel worse about our own lack of success. Instead of making a decision, ambivalence may lead us to procrastinate until the decision is taken out of our hands, or we cause more problems for ourselves.“

Ambivalent feelings also impact our outward actions, which can end up making us feel better or worse.

"Another potential negative result is where we end up acting one way while feeling differently," Dr. Schofield explains. "This can be expressed in a positive way — we [feel] jealous of our friend but choose not to show it, so we can feel good about ourselves for being a good friend. However, as we have a tendency to think the worse of ourselves, a more common experience would be to feel bad not only about our lack of success, but about being jealous of our friend, thus compounding the bad feeling. If we tell ourselves that we ‘should’ feel only positive about the situation, we risk making the negative response even more negative, and spiraling into guilt and self-loathing for being a ‘bad’ friend, regardless of how we act."

We may be able to use our ambivalent attitude towards our friend’s success to figure out new ways to achieve our own goals.

If you're sitting there in the throes of a similar situation and need help navigating it, Dr. Schofield says you're already on the right track.

"If we are self-aware, we can accept that feeling 'negative’ emotions like jealousy is perfectly normal," she says. "We can focus on acting in accordance with our deeper values, regardless of passing thoughts and feelings. Not only is ambivalence not necessarily unhealthy, there is even evidence that it can be beneficial — if we focus it the right way. The attempt to resolve an apparently un-resolvable conflict can lead to creative problem solving. For example, we might use our ambivalent attitude towards our friend’s success to figure out new ways to achieve our own goals."

How to Validate Your Own Feelings, While Being Happy for Others

When you find it tough to navigate the two opposing emotional forces, follow this plan for acknowledging your feelings, supporting the success of others and ultimately, using the conflict to produce results.

  • Acknowledge the negative. One thing that's sure to backfire? Ignoring the negative. "What we shouldn’t do is try to suppress the negative side of our reaction — suppressing thoughts and feelings doesn’t work; it only makes them more potent," says Dr. Schofield. "The best way to deal with the thoughts is to make room for them. Let them be without obsessing over them."
  • Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Because it's in our nature to think the worst of ourselves, Dr. Schofield says step one is to allow yourself to feel how you're feeling. "Accepting how we’re feeling, and that whatever we’re feeling, is an important step, as it reduces the risk of the ‘guilt spiral’ described above," she says. "It can be helpful to work through our feelings by discussing them with someone we trust, or writing them down. Sometimes this alone can be enough to ease the sense of conflict and discomfort created by ambivalence. If we want to refocus on the positive side of the situation, the best thing to do is embrace it! List all the reasons why we are happy for our friend; focus on celebrating their success and let the negative thoughts and feelings live in the background."
  • Use other’s success as inspiration. Instead of looking at your friend's success as magnifying your failure, letting the fact he or she achieved something that you're also working toward serve as proof that you can also get there can be helpful. "Instead of focusing on our lack of success, we can see our friend’s achievement as inspirational," Dr. Schofield says. "If he or she did it, so can we – our time will come! We can be proactive and evaluate how and why our friend was able to be successful, and see if there are ways we can apply this knowledge to improve our own lives."
  • Practice mindfulness (even if that means just enjoying the champagne). As for navigating your friend's celebration party, being in the moment is key. "During the event itself, perhaps the most effective strategy to avoid becoming mired in negative thoughts is to practice simply being present," Dr. Scofield says. "Mindfulness focuses our awareness on what is happening now — the present moment being the only thing which really matters. Everything else is just a thought about something which already happened, or may never happen. For example, at the baby shower we could focus on the expression on our friend’s face as she opens her gifts, the taste of the food or drink we’re enjoying, the décor in the room, the voices of the people around us, even the feel of the couch supporting us — a rich and immersive tapestry of sensation is available to us in every moment. If we give it its due attention, any negative thoughts we might have fade into the background, and cease to trouble us."

Use these tactics now — then pass them along to your friend when you head out to happy hour to celebrate your promotion.