And how to keep the clothing comparisons from becoming toxic, according to a psychologist.
During a recent Zoom call with a college friend, I found myself drooling over her closet. As she excitedly showed me some of her new fall arrivals, including tailored jackets, Pucci-inspired dresses and colorful vintage clogs, I wished they were mine. This isn’t the first time “closet envy” has set in. I still remember coveting my classmate’s pink satin jacket when I was 8 years old. Just the week before, the Molly Goddard worn by Harry Styles on the cover of his new album weighed 580 pounds, which is exactly what I craved.
As a psychologist, I know that jealousy is an everyday emotion, but my history seems worth examining. Was there something deeper behind my lifelong habit of craving other people’s shoes, handbags and clothes?
“Jealousy is an emotional experience that arises when another person has something we want,” explains Miriam Kirmayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. While craving someone else’s closet may sound like a scene from the ’90s movie Clueless, Kirmayer says the emotion can also affect real-life friendships.
“Some of my clients envy their friends’ closets or fashion sense,” she shares. In her work, Kirmayer finds that closet envy often goes hand-in-hand with wanting a friend’s confidence, physique or career opportunities.
Monica Corcoran Harel, founder of media company Pretty Ripe, can relate. “One of my dearest friends is a clothing designer with a beautiful closet, and when I saw her closet, I was triggered.”
Harel shares that her friend often dresses luxuriously and draws attention to herself wherever she goes. “Right now, I’m wearing vintage work pants and she might be wearing a prom dress,” she shares. As the founder of a new business, Harel has a limited budget, but she says her jealousy has nothing to do with money. Harel admits that my friend’s dress says “look at me” and sometimes I want to be in her shoes.
Although jealousy is part of almost every relationship, we often misread its meaning, says Dr. Marisa G. Franco, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of “Pluto. Because emotions feel bad, we mistakenly think it means we’re “bad,” friendship experts explain. However, understanding the drivers behind this green-eyed monster can reduce shame and help us find ways to cope.
When it comes to closet envy, our need for a sense of social belonging can come into play. Researchers call this “style affinity” and have found that dressing like someone we admire fosters a sense of intimacy.
For starters, our need for social belonging can come into play when it comes to closet envy. Researchers call this “style affinity” and have found that dressing like someone we admire fosters a sense of intimacy. For example, we might buy the same athleisure clothes worn by our best friends or the same clothes owned by our mentors.
However, when the need for “style affinity” is not met, feelings of inferiority and rejection can arise. For example, consumer research has shown that not being able to afford luxury goods can trigger jealousy and, in some cases, gloating, which is the feeling of satisfaction from someone else’s misery. For example, if someone steals your friend’s Louis Vuitton, you might be secretly happy.
However, these unpleasant emotions are not always associated with fashion. “Style doesn’t have to be expensive to cause jealousy,” Kirmayer says. “Buying new clothes and keeping up with trends requires disposable income that many people don’t have, and the disparity isn’t just personal.”
Freelance writer and editor Sara Radin has a few friends who can buy whatever they want. “I still get uncomfortable when they wear designer clothes that I can’t afford,” she shares.
[Wardrobe envy] can tell us what we want out of life and our relationships.
While jealousy can be unpleasant and embarrassing, Franco says it’s a powerful messenger. “It can tell us what we want out of life and our relationships,” she shares. According to psychologists, the key is to make friends with our emotions rather than letting them control us.
Here are some ways to prevent closet envy from sabotaging friendships.
Suspend judgment and acknowledge the emotion.
Too often, self-judgment prevents us from talking about any flavor of jealousy, including closet envy. In fact, it may seem downright trivial to tell your friends that you covet their new necklace or how they dress like Carrie Bradshaw. But when jealousy goes unaddressed, we act in ways that can destroy the relationship.
Writer and mental health advocate Tanya Trevitt admits to turning her jealousy aside. “One of my friends has impeccable style, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t emulate her,” Trevitt shares. Instead of broaching the subject or seeking styling advice from her friend (who owns a boutique), she steered clear. “I feel guilty and immature for feeling this way about someone I love.”
Kirmayer says one of the best ways to prevent jealousy from hurting a friendship is to acknowledge it. “Recognizing and validating our experiences can help us overcome our emotions in a healthier way,” the psychologist shares.
With the help of her therapist, Trevitt began to understand the true source of her jealousy. “It was really because I lacked confidence,” she shares. Now, she is working on feeling more comfortable and examining how her self-limiting beliefs affect her relationships.
Another way to find the silver lining of jealousy is to exercise curiosity. Ask yourself, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” Kirmayer suggests.
Sometimes, she explains, jealousy has less to do with coveted clothes or jewelry and more to do with what those items represent. It may mean, for example, that you want to take better care of yourself or seek a new creative outlet.
To temper the jealousy, Harrell began to engage in self-reflection. “I asked myself, ‘What’s going on here?'” She realized her feelings weren’t about her friend’s fancy dress and Tom Ford sunglasses. “I realized it was more about feeling worthy of attention, and that my friend wasn’t trying to diminish my glow.”
Talk honestly with your friend.
According to Franco, there is nothing like honesty to purify a worrying friendship. Starting a conversation by saying “this is really hard for me” shows courage. Kirmayer says we can take it a step further, adding, “I’m trying to understand what I’m really jealous of, and if I’ve been distant, that’s why.”
In the end, these vulnerability exercises can help us fight jealousy in ways that protect our happiness and friendships.
Turn envy into inspiration.
Despite a bad reputation, jealousy can point us to our true desires, which can help us feel empowered. When we discover this message, we can take positive steps to cultivate meaningful change in our own lives.
Instead of focusing on the clothes she couldn’t afford, Radin put her energy into organizing her closet. “I started buying vintage and I take a lot of pride in my style,” she shares.
While Harel is still reluctant to emulate her friends’ looks, she took new risks. “I bought a few more colorful pieces,” she says. “Emotionally, it helped me accept the fact that sometimes I deserve attention.”