Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
– Viktor E. Frankl
Whenever Yaser went on Facebook his heart would sink. His newsfeed was filled with friends’ achievements, pictures of beautiful homes and details of exotic trips abroad. Yaser, on the other hand, was just let go from a place he had been working at for eight years and he lived at home with his mother who was very ill. As the breadwinner and only child left in his childhood home, this was a devastating situation to be in. For the first time in his life, he had to go to social services to apply for financial assistance as his mother’s professional nursing care was very expensive. Everyone’s life looked so easy on social media and he wondered if he was doing such an honorable thing, then why were his circumstances so difficult? It pained him seeing wedding and baby pictures on social media. Yaser wanted to start a family of his own, but it seemed that women were not interested in marrying him when they found out he had to take care of his mother. Yaser was not doing anything exciting like his peers and often wondered if others thought he was a loser—because that is exactly how he felt. Yaser would get so anxious and depressed looking at pictures and videos online, but it was so hard to stop. He found himself experiencing tremendous jealousy and wondered why his life turned out the way it did. Yaser wanted to know, “Why is everyone’s life better than mine?”
What is happening to me?
Jealousy is painful. It feels like a heavy object you carry inside your chest and no matter how much you dislike the feeling you can’t find a way to get inside and remove the aching. Internally you may also feel sad, anxious, and overwhelmed. Nobody wants to feel jealous and be consumed by desiring what others have.
Jealousy can also feel ungrateful and petty, which compounds layers of guilt within. Outside you might wonder if others can see the burden you are carrying. Jealousy is invisible, but at the same time has a visible impact on the one experiencing it.
For many people jealousy stems from the cognitive distortion of disqualifying positives. This is when a person minimizes the good in their life by thinking less of themselves, their actions, and/or what has been given to them. The comparison might be something very specific (e.g., we both got an A on the test, but I had to study much harder) or it could be a more general global comparison (e.g., everyone likes her more than they like me).
The dark path of comparing oneself to others that leads to jealousy has been present since the beginning of human existence. In Islamic (and Judeo-Christian) tradition, we know the story of Qabil (Cain) and Habil (Abel) in which both of Adam’s sons offered a sacrifice to Allah, but only one’s was accepted. As a result of envy, Qabil killed his brother Habil and became overwhelmed with regret. Qabil suffered in a few ways: 1) immediately from his jealousy; 2) long-term by incurring the sin of being the first to commit murder in humanity, and 3) inadvertently elevating the status of his brother by possibly making him the first martyr in Islam. Jealousy and envy are some of the most destructive forces in life, causing internal upheaval and irreparable damage to relationships. Sometimes jealousy doesn’t make much sense and may seem unwarranted, while other times it feels justified because of our difficult circumstances.
When we are in times of great hardship, jealousy can sometimes be associated with feelings of entitlement. Jealousy coupled with trauma adds another layer of pain and can be a barrier to healing.
Why was I molested and not her?
Why does my child have a disability and not others?
Why do I have a chronic illness and everyone else my age is healthy?
A person who has experienced trauma does not necessarily wish harm on others but might wonder why they have to go through excruciating hardships and others do not.
Understanding your thoughts and emotions
While the example of Qabil and Habil is extreme, comparing ourselves to others is now arguably worse than it has ever been, especially with the advent of social media. In the past, accomplishments and blessings were typically shared with immediate family, friends, and relatives, whereas now every life detail is openly shared with the public in real-time. Modesty is an elusive concept and oversharing with little boundaries has opened up everyone’s once private life to the world. Much is laid bare for others to comment including one’s deep thoughts, day-to-day activities, meals eaten, objects purchased, report cards, awards from work, engagements, and pregnancies. It’s almost like TV, but even better because it’s people you know. Social media can be very beneficial, but can also be extremely toxic if one is not careful.
You don’t have to be online to participate in the comparison game as people create public personas in real day-to-day life as well. Many individuals and families act differently in public than they do at home, and brand themselves to appear different from what they truly are. Mirages are created about homes, children’s behavior, possessions, and marriages. At a halaqah, a father might brag about his son getting a scholarship to an Ivy League school, but would never disclose that his son has a drug problem. During a playdate, a woman might talk about all the jewelry her husband buys her, but would never talk about his infidelity. At an extravagant party, the host might appear very generous and have the best of everything, but nobody would ever know that the family is swimming in debt. These innocent deceptions breed jealousy as friends and family compare themselves to false standards. If one also has low-self esteem by continuously disqualifying positives, then the feelings of self-loathing and pain are even greater.
In most societies and cultures around the world, the average person doesn’t discuss failures and tragedies except with a few people. When was the last time you heard a coworker or acquaintance say: “I’m lonely,” “I think my spouse doesn’t love me anymore,” or “I’m not as a good father as I should be”? The answer is likely “Never” because although it would be very authentic, it wouldn’t be socially appropriate. One might be labeled as negative, needy, or trying to attract unnecessary attention, although everyone experiences these types of emotions. If someone appears positive, attractive, witty, intelligent and well-rounded, however, he or she will get that acceptance and recognition that all human beings crave. As a result of invisible social rules, a lot of effort is expended to create public personas that just reflect the best parts of ourselves, creating illusions of how we truly live life. While the average person understands these concepts, there is still competition, jealousy, and deep resentment when other people’s lives appear better than our own.
Changing your mind, body, and heart
What is the cure for comparing yourself to others and disqualifying your positive attributes? There is no easy fix, but it starts with internalizing key concepts about how you view yourself and look at the world. You cannot change your feelings or behaviors until you hone in on the thoughts that are contributing to them.
To help break out of the cycle of thinking that everyone’s life is better than yours, remember that you are special and nobody can fulfill the calling and purpose Allah has planned for you. You have the same power as anyone else to create the life you want and envision. Your life may not look like the life of your friends or people you see on social media, but then again why would you want it to? If you firmly believe that you are a person of irreplaceable value and can bring meaning to the world that nobody else can, you would not want to be anyone else.
When you feel like you are getting pulled into thinking that everyone’s life around you is better than yours, start by paying attention to the thoughts about your self-worth and reflect on the script or recurrent messages playing in your head. Many times those unhealthy thoughts are related to 1) low-self-esteem; 2) misunderstanding about Allah’s bounties; and/or 3) unrealistic or false expectations of how the world works.
I’m not as pretty as my friends.
I will never be as accomplished as my brother.
My friend’s children are so much smarter than mine.
Low-self esteem causes feelings of self-doubt and never feeling good enough. It leads to minimizing good qualities and focusing on negative qualities (which we all have). The person with low self-esteem is in no place to objectively judge if their life is better or worse than others because their assessment will be clouded by the negative feelings about themselves. When you think negatively of yourself everyone else will appear better by default. When you begin to have healthier self-esteem, however, your perspective will not be as skewed.
Where does low self-esteem come from? The biggest predictors of low self-esteem are early childhood emotional neglect, physical, and emotional abuse. Parenting style, perceptions of successes and failures (especially in the domain of academics), and genetics also play a big role in self-esteem. These childhood factors have profound emotional and physical effects on individuals into adulthood. Understanding the impact of emotional neglect is imperative, as it’s widely acknowledged that physical abuse is a type of trauma. Many people who grow up with low-esteem due to emotional neglect do not know that they may also be victims of trauma.
Another contributor to low self-esteem can be the occurrence of a negative experience, like failure or rejection. The negative experience can be any event that was emotionally painful and decreased the individual’s perception of self-worth and core values about themselves. Every individual has core values about who they are; a negative experience may be perceived as an anomaly or it may open up a new door on how they view themselves. For example, a person who is verbally attacked with racial slurs may look at the experience as a fluke whereas another person might internalize the experience to the point they change how they view themselves. Core values like “I belong,” “I’m worthy of being safe,” and “I’m a good person” can change to “I’m an outcast; I will never be accepted,” “I’m not safe,” and “There is something wrong with me.”
Self-esteem work in adulthood is not easy but can be accomplished by focusing on your positive traits and building mastery in those areas. To begin to counter low self-esteem, shift your focus needs to shift to your good qualities. Your good qualities are not going to be the same as those of your friends or the person who is the subject of your jealousy. It may be hard to find those positive qualities initially, but you can nurture them by learning how to strengthen and use them. For example, if you are not very academically inclined, but are good at making things with your hands, then focus your efforts on improving those skills. If you are not great at making friends, but excel at writing, then work on your writing skills to uplift you and make the world a better place. Also keep in mind that just because someone doesn’t value your good quality doesn’t mean it’s not a good asset to have. If your father thinks that math is the most important skill in the world, but you are fantastic at English, that doesn’t mean your English skills are not of value.
To improve self-esteem, it’s also important that you change internal and external factors that contribute to how you feel about yourself. Internally, pay attention to how you talk to yourself or about yourself in your head. If you talk to yourself very negatively, you can expect that your mood and outlook will reflect that. Just for one minute, imagine being around someone who is chronically putting you down and saying negative things about you. How would you feel about this person? You probably wouldn’t feel very good about them or yourself. What if that person was actually you? Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk intentionally and consistently can have a profound effect on how you view yourself. Nobody deserves to be put down continuously, especially by one’s own self.
To improve your self-esteem externally, reflect on whether some people around you may be the source of your negative feelings or may reinforce pre-existing negative feelings about yourself. If you know someone at home, work, or school who contributes to your negative self-esteem, consider distancing yourself from that person. If you can not do that because the person is family or someone you have to interact with, then put appropriate boundaries in place when interacting with them to protect yourself. People will treat you as you allow them, so do not let anyone think it’s ok to call you names, put you down, or take advantage of you.
Misunderstanding Allah’s bounties
Minimizing blessings is a very sneaky way Shaytan brings people down emotionally and spiritually without them realizing it. There is a regular kind of jealousy when you want what others have, and then a more sinister kind of jealousy that wants those people’s blessings to be taken away. This latter form is very dangerous because it involves a questioning of Allah’s Wisdom and perhaps even a resentment towards Allah for giving things to other people and not you.
Why is my best friend better-looking than me?
Why is my brother so smart and such a good test-taker? I wish I was more intelligent than him.
Why do I have to work so hard at my job to make ends meet, but this lazy community member lives in a mansion and has a lot of family wealth? Aren’t I more deserving than him?
Bounties and blessings are all gifts from Allah. At certain points in life family and friends may appear to have more than us. Blessings can have nothing to do with how hard a person works or desires something. Some blessings you are born with, some are transient, and some last a long time. Sometimes beauty, wealth, and success are good for some people, and sometimes they can be trials that take people away from their closeness to Allah. Ultimately, Allah has allotted a share for each person and questioning what He gives to whom indicates a lack of understanding of His Wisdom.
There are ways to increase your blessings, but when certain bounties are outside of your control be cautious that you are not upset with Allah directly for the things you wish you had. Allah encourages, if not commands, us to be thankful, and tells us that if we are thankful He will give us more:
And He gave you from all you asked of Him. And if you should count the favor of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, mankind is [generally] most unjust and ungrateful. (Qur’an 14:34)
And if you should count the favors of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. (Qur’an 16:18)
So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me. (Qur’an 2:152)
And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe.” (Qur’an 14:7)
Then do you wonder that there has come to you a reminder from your Lord through a man from among you, that he may warn you? And remember when He made you successors after the people of Noah and increased you in stature extensively. So remember the favors of Allah that you might succeed. (Qur’an 7:69)
If you feel that you are starting to go down the path of being ungrateful to Allah, then seek refuge in Him from Shaytan, as this tactic is an aggressive assault on both your emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s one thing to lose faith in yourself, but never lose faith in Allah’s positive attributes and His ability to provide for you. Allah is Ar-Razzaq (The Ever-Providing, Sustainer), Al-Fattah (The Opener, the Victory Giver), Al-Muqeet (The Nourisher) and Al-Karim (The Generous, The Bountiful). When you ask and work hard, Allah will give you what you are looking for, even though it may come in a different form than you anticipated. Allah has no limitations in what He can give; if you see someone who has something you want, never fear that there isn’t enough bounty left for you or that you can not have the same.
Abu Hurairah, RadhiAllahu Anhu, narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
There is not a man who calls upon Allah with a supplication, except that he is answered. Either it shall be granted to him in the world, or reserved for him in the Hereafter, or his sins shall be expiated for it according to the extent that he supplicated—as long as he does not supplicate for some sin, or for the severing of the ties of kinship, and he does not become hasty. They said: “O Messenger of Allah, and how would he be hasty?” He ﷺ said: “He says: ‘I called upon my Lord, but He did not answer me.’”
 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).
 David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).
 Seyede S. Sajjadi, Yadolla Zargar, Leila Zare, and Fakhri Tajikzadeh, “The Predictive Role of Early Trauma Dimensions on Self-Esteem in 11–13-Year-Old Students: Controlling the Role of Maladaptive Schema,” Razavi Int J Med. 4, no. 3 (2016): e38869.
 Ilyse L. Spertus, Rachel Yehuda, Cheryl M. Wong, Sarah Halligan, and Stephanie V. Seremetis, “Childhood Emotional Abuse and Neglect as Predictor of Psychological and Physical Symptoms in Women Presenting to Primary Care Practice,” Child Abuse & Neglect 27, no. 11 (2003): 1247–58.
 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Costs and Causes of Low Self-Esteem, 2001, https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/n71.pdf.
 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Causes of Low Self-Esteem.
 Nicholas Emler, “Self Esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self Worth,” Youth Studies Australia, no. 21 (2001).
 Jāmiʿ al-Tirmidhī: no. 3604d, bk. 48, hadith 238.