Let's Talk About Envy

Envy: If you’re religious, it’s classed as one of the seven deadly sins, and even from a secular perspective, it’s not hard to see why. As the old English proverb has it, “Envy shoots at others and wounds itself.” But first, for the sake of clarification, I’ll distinguish envy from jealousy: envy occurs when we want something another person has; jealousy results from fear of losing a relationship (or a valued part of one) that we already have.

When our discussion group recently chose the topic of ‘envy’ it was interesting to note that none of us considered ourselves the envious type. Apparently, this isn’t unusual – multiple surveys of the subject find people claim that envy is something experienced only by others. Sure enough, each of us could readily recall envious behaviour in others – siblings being mentioned most frequently – which is not surprising when you learn that research also shows envy is a frequent occurrence in family relationships. It is easily recognisable, for instance, in the sibling fights over ‘fairness’ – “Why does she have that, and I don’t?”   Less frequently occurring, but just as ugly, is the situation in which parents are envious of their child for having things of which they were deprived.

When our discussion group dug deeper, people commonly recalled being envious but not wanting to admit it: envy isn’t an attractive emotion to fess up to, after all. I can recall several times I have been envious of others – the cool girl at school with the stylish shoes, the relative that gets all the attention – and even writing these words makes me feel base. As the Buddha expressed it, “he who envies others does not obtain peace of mind”.

Psychologists explain it this way. When we answer questionnaires, even if anonymously, we do so with a ‘social desirability’ bias. Envy is not a positive emotion and, as such, it’s one that we are reluctant to admit to because by doing so we are admitting to be inferior. We are more likely to admit to anger another negative emotion – than to one that suggests we are inferior or lacking in something.  Like all emotions self-awareness is key to control.  If we recognise ‘envy’ by the way it feels physically (knots in the stomach?) and mentally (wanting, shameful, empty, confused) and acknowledge its presence and the way it zaps our energy and drains our happiness, we can do something about it.

The antidotes to envy are gratitude and compassion. Firstly, self-compassion: be kind to yourself. Negative emotions are real, and it is how we respond to them will affect the outcome. Acknowledge your weakness but also the good qualities you possess and be thankful for the good things around you. Make some lists!

Secondly, compassion and gratitude towards whomever you are envious of. Remember what is good about them and what is around them. Make more lists!

Finally, can you learn from this situation? Could you do things differently by turning envy into something positive? The answer is “yes”, the real question is, “Will you try?”