Need to know
An example of envy at its ugliest: the picture was of a good-looking, blond man in his 40s. He was smiling at the reader from the top left-hand page of the local newspaper, back in the days when we still read paper ones. A glance at the headline let me know it was the obituary of an psychologist from the area, prominent for his bestselling books.
Two parallel tracks ran through my mind as I read the article. One was what I’ll call my ‘social expectation’ track – how I thought I was supposed to feel. In this track, I felt pity for a man cut down prematurely by a heart attack; for his wife and daughters left behind. The second track, and by far the stronger, was envy. As I read his obituary, I noted that he was both younger and more accomplished than me. Aside from his popular books, he had appeared on national television, and he had a private practice in a wealthy area, where – I assumed – he saw full-fee, high-functioning clients.
My envy track started sniffing for a hole in this otherwise glorious life. His books were bestsellers – they probably weren’t that deep. I had never read them and I wasn’t about to increase his Amazon ranking by buying them now. Yes, he had appeared on Oprah, but maybe he was just a publicity hound? Maybe he had multiple divorces? No, the article said he had a long-term marriage. He even had way more hair than I did and was better looking by any standard. As I put down the paper in exasperation, I distinctly remember a voice in my head saying, with a kind of sneering satisfaction: Well, he’s dead and I’m not.
This anecdote is true. I acknowledge it both because I want to create a safe space for readers to own their envy and because it contains within it key elements that we will be looking at in this Guide:
- Envy doesn’t appear to have any rational basis. This man’s death did not help me any more than his success hurt me.
- We most envy those who are like us in a meaningful way. If this man was a prominent painter or scientist, or even a psychologist who lived thousands of miles away, my envy would not have been triggered so strongly.
- Envy feels shameful. Do you think I would stand up at a professional conference and acknowledge these feelings so baldly? It is only because they are folded into a Guide on envy that it is safe enough to own them, and it still remains a stretch.
- Envy is sometimes accompanied by Schadenfreude, a German word for which there is no English equivalent, but that means taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune (Schaden = damage, Freude = joy).
Envy is an emotional experience with many faces
While many people use the words ‘jealousy’ and ‘envy’ as if they are synonyms, they are not. Jealousy is wanting to protect what you think is rightfully yours (such as the affections of your romantic partner). To admit that you are jealous can be difficult, but it is seldom shameful, because there is social recognition that what you want to protect rightfully belongs to you.
Envy is both more complex and more shameful. At its most basic, to envy is to want something that someone else has and that you think you lack. You envy your coworker’s higher salary, you envy your neighbour’s more successful children, you envy your colleague’s recent award, you envy your brother’s larger house, you envy your friend’s better marriage, you envy your sister for not having to work and getting to stay home with her children, you envy your husband for getting to leave the house and kids each day and go off to work. Like the desires that fuel it, envy has an unlimited number of possible targets.
While jealousy is relatively straightforward (‘I want you to stop having lunch with that woman from your work’), envy is often secretive and elusive. It also takes on disguises. It can appear as anything from gossip to back-biting to effusive compliments – saying ‘I’m so happy for you!’ with a forced smile when what you’re really feeling is I hate that you got that raise/prize/new house!
Envy is the Achilles heel of the ego. An Achilles heel is typically thought of as a weak spot that must be protected at all costs. But it is precisely this weakness and vulnerability that, if explored with compassion and self-awareness, can open up a window of understanding. Envy is a reminder of how fragile we actually feel in the world at large. Why can she do that and I can’t? Why does he get that and I don’t? What does their having that mean about me?
You can use envy as a guide
Many of us have not been shown the process by which looking directly and honestly into our darkest fears and our deepest doubts yields the rich fruit of self-knowledge – and the heightened sense of self and security that come with it. Envy is a door to your personal underworld. Rather than shunning this door for fear of where it will lead, I suggest you learn to open it to explore the riches awaiting on the other side. As a clinical psychologist, I have found it extremely useful to help people admit their envy and look at what it is trying to communicate. What you will find is this: Envy is not a sign that there is something wrong with you. It is a sign there is something right with you that you aren’t claiming. With regard to the opening example, you could say that I was a perverse individual taking pleasure in the death of another man I had never met, and how dare I practise psychology? Or you could say: ‘Hmm, maybe it’s time for this man to write a book himself? Maybe that’s what his envy is demonstrating?’
I have not been able to find a language that doesn’t contain a word for ‘envy’, though some have more than one. Envy appears in the first book of the Bible, so it has been with us throughout recorded history. Some people are more naturally prone to envy than others, just as some people are more naturally prone to anger or to impatience. It is not a moral failing on your part if you find yourself more envious than your peers. It just means that this will be a primary emotion that you can learn to use for your growth.
My hope is that, wherever you are on the envy continuum, you will learn to befriend your envy as the marvellous inner counsellor it can be. Learning to recognise your envy – and to accept it without judgment and unnecessary shame – will open you up to understanding where you need and want to grow, whether you feel prompted by individual instances of envy or a general sense that you are an envious person. Let’s now look at how to go about accepting and making use of envy in this way.
What to do
Identify and acknowledge your envious feelings
To respond to envy in a helpful way, you must learn to see your envy for what it is – to call it by its true name. Here are some signs that might help you confirm that you are experiencing envy:
- You feel negatively toward someone else without them having given you any good reason (eg, She thinks she’s so special because people are always paying attention to her).
- You are frequently comparing yourself to another person, and you feel as if you are losing the imaginary competition (eg, The boss called him in for a meeting three times this week, but he hasn’t called me in since last month).
- You feel satisfaction when you hear the other person being criticised for something (eg, I bet winning that prize doesn’t make up for that nasty article about them).
If you recognise that you are most likely feeling envy, it’s important to name it – say to yourself: I am envious of that person.
In certain circumstances, assuming you want to be closer to the person you envy, it might even be helpful to acknowledge it to them directly. I once had a client, Jack (all names used in this Guide are pseudonyms), who went on and on about a woman who bugged him because, according to him, she ‘took up too much space’. Finally, he realised he was simply envious of her. To his credit, he told her this directly. She responded to his honest disclosure with a hug. They went on to become friends and colleagues, with him helping her organise workshops that she conducted in their field. He went from envying her to learning from her, from adversary to student, all because he was honest with himself and with her about his envy.
Try to pinpoint the cause of your envy
Once you have identified your envy and admitted it, the next stage is to consider what it is about the other person that makes you envious. Is it some ability they have? Their popularity? How successful they are in some area that you care about? Try to get as concrete and specific as you can. This will be important for helping you realise where you want to grow.
You might find that the most obvious answer to the question of what’s making you envious is not the complete answer. For example: Roberta, recently divorced, was envious of her friend’s marriage. In exploring her envy, she realised that what she wanted was not to be married to someone like her friend’s husband. What she wanted was to feel that there was someone in the world who cared about her, who understood her, so that she wouldn’t have to repeatedly ask herself: Am I crazy for thinking or feeling as I do? This was actually quite different from a desire to simply get remarried. It was wanting to feel connected. And this was a need that could be met in many different ways — through friendships, through community, and also through intimate relationships.
So what I recommend you do is look at your envy in a step-by-step fashion. Start with the concrete, most obvious: if you’re envious of your neighbour’s larger house, do you really want something that big, with all the attendant headaches and expense? If the answer is ‘no’ to the concrete question, then start to look at it symbolically. What would a larger house mean to you? Would it be a sign to others that you’re successful? Would it let you feel more comfortable hosting overnight guests? Would it give you a greater sense of internal spaciousness? The possibilities are endless. Be creative, be flexible, be symbolic in your thinking. One trick you might try in order to get at the deeper meaning is this: pretend you dreamt that you were envious of your neighbour’s larger house. How would you interpret your dream?
Accept that envy doesn’t mean something is wrong with you
Self-acceptance may be the most important step of all, and it can be the most difficult for many of us. It is not the same thing as self-approval – as in, I’m OK, because I can do all these other things. That kind of outlook just keeps you on the envy treadmill. Self-acceptance means trying to genuinely see the beauty in that which you reject within yourself, to accept yourself in all your fullness. It’s the basic message of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast: we need to see the beauty in that which we reject, and only then will it be transformed into the prince of our dreams. Until you start to accept any unaccepted aspect of yourself that has been highlighted by your envy, you will feel trapped in a prison with something you detest.
Self-acceptance can sound like this:
I am feeling envious right now because she got the part in the play that I wanted. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. This means I wanted something I didn’t get, and it’s good for me to want that part, because it shows there are things in me that want to come out. The pain I feel at not getting the part shows how much I want to act.
We can all learn to trust that whatever we think is wrong with us actually indicates that there is something positive in us that is trying to be birthed. Isn’t this a better option than seeing yourself as defective and in need of ‘fixing’? Do children grow better through praise or through criticism? What makes you think you would be any different?
Use the elements of envy to inform your response
In the Need to Know section above, we looked at four major elements of envy. Each of these can contain within it an important key to helping you transform your envy from invidious comparison to healthy emulation. Revisit them now with the goal of self-growth in mind:
- Envy doesn’t appear to have any rational basis, as another’s good fortune seldom comes at your expense. When you are envious of another, it is time to recognise that there is something in you that you are not claiming, and that you ought to do something about it. Taking away another person’s good fortune will not help you. The only thing that will help you is taking steps to increase your own good fortune.
- We most envy those who are like us in a meaningful way. Not only will you not be envious of a painter if you want to play the violin, you also probably won’t feel envious of Itzhak Perlman, the renowned violinist, unless you happen to be just a level below him in talent. Envy is like a magnet pulling you toward becoming more of yourself, so you are likely to be most envious of those just above you in order to motivate you to improve in an area that’s important to you.
- Envy feels shameful because it is where we come face to face with ways in which we feel ‘less than’ in the world. This pinch of not yet being or feeling ‘enough’ can come in physical, psychological and even spiritual forms. It can also help us home in on where we need and want to grow.
- Envy is sometimes accompanied by Schadenfreude – and that is a sign that you have waited too long to do something about envy. It is like a warning light, flashing red and loud, signalling ‘Wake up!’ If you wish evil on someone else for their good fortune, you likely haven’t been paying enough attention to your own gifts and potential.
Envy and its remedy sometimes show a one-to-one correspondence. In the opening example of my envy and Schadenfreude at the psychologist/author’s death, I was forced to recognise that it was time for me to stop procrastinating and write a book, instead of envying others who’d done so. The book I wrote about envy was the result. Writing that book eliminated my envy of other writers.
Sometimes, however, the answer is more nuanced. Mike, a successful businessman I saw in my practice, noticed himself feeling envious of people on the covers of tabloids in supermarket checkout lines. Aware of my thesis on envy, he challenged me: ‘You say envy is a sign that there’s something in me I’m not claiming. I don’t want to be a Hollywood movie star, with their messy lives and lack of privacy. I’m a businessman and I like what I do. So why do I keep feeling a twinge each time I see someone on the cover of a magazine?’ We discovered that what Mike wanted was not to be famous, but to be more visible in his life. He wasn’t envious of these people’s fame, but of their being seen. He had some things he wanted to say and to get out into the world, and when he started doing this by presenting at local business chapter meetings, his envy disappeared.
Once you have identified what part within you is saying ‘ouch!’ because it’s not finding expression in the outer world, what concrete steps can you take to rectify this? Consider one or more ways you can go about attending to this part of yourself – depending on what your envy is pointing to, you might find that it seems right to take up a new creative project that makes use of your talent or experience; to devote more time toward an existing professional goal; to find ways to share your knowledge or values with others; or something else. It might help to discuss possible goals with someone you trust, and you may well decide to adjust your goal over time. Whatever it ends up being for you, think about specific ways you can get started in that direction.
Underneath all the stories of envy that are in this Guide is one basic premise: there isn’t something wrong with you when you envy, there is something right with you that it is right to put out into the world. When you have the courage to do so, your life will change, perhaps dramatically. Envy is challenging, but its rewards are powerful. The important thing is to recognise that there is something in you that wants to show up in the world, and to take steps toward making that happen.
Be compassionate with yourself. If this were easy, you would have done the work already. We have all spent a lot of time holding ourselves back for various reasons – fear of failure, a history of being criticised, deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. I hope that the reflection prompted by this Guide validates every part of you, including the part that struggles to change. But I also want it to serve as a reminder and a roadmap: this is where you need to go.
Key points – How to put your envy to good use
- Envy is an emotional experience with many faces. At its most basic, to envy is to want something that someone else has and that you think you lack. Envy feels shameful and it may be disguised.
- You can use envy as a guide. Reflecting on what envy may be telling you can help you discern the ways in which you would like to grow.
- Identify and acknowledge your envious feelings. When you recognise signs of envy – such as unwarranted negativity toward someone and a sense that you’re losing a competition with them – be honest with yourself about it.
- Try to pinpoint the cause of your envy. Ask yourself what it is about someone that makes you envious. Start with the most specific, obvious focus of your envy – but consider whether that might symbolise a more general desire.
- Accept that envy doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. What seems ‘wrong’ could actually reflect something positive in you (such as an ambition, or a desire for change) that calls for your attention.
- Use the elements of envy to inform your response. A healthy response to envy is not about bringing someone else down, but taking steps to grow or give expression to a part of yourself that envy suggests is important to you.
The spiritual nature of envy
Many secular people, if asked about envy from a spiritual perspective, might have some awareness that it is considered a sin. Some might even know that envy is one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, along with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust and gluttony.
Envy is the only one of these sins that has no intrinsic redeeming quality. Wrath can be satisfying to express in the moment, even while it is a short-lived pleasure with long-term consequences. Greed can bring enjoyment in the accumulation of what the person hoards, even though it might eventually poison her. Sloth – well, who hasn’t experienced the pleasure of turning off the alarm and going back to sleep, only to regret it later? Pride is great for the ego, even if not for interpersonal relationships. Lust may be, for some of us, the most powerful of the sins because the pleasure involved is so compelling that all judgment is temporarily suspended. And gluttony seems like a lust for food: again, there is the short-term pleasure followed by the longer-term regret.
But envy is not at all pleasurable to experience. I believe that envy is the sin that holds the greatest spiritual potential, precisely because it has nothing overt to recommend it. It requires us to engage in an exploration of our inner worlds because there is nothing in the outer world that easily explains it.
The foremost way I believe you can walk the spiritual path with envy – by this I mean learn to appreciate the inner dimension of your envy – is to trust that you, and only you, have a particular something that you can bring to the world. If you don’t bring it out, the world will be without it. It doesn’t have to be a major, visible accomplishment. It could be your presence in another person’s life; the way you do whatever your job is; or any expression of what makes you uniquely you.
Envy calls upon you to trust that you are not a mistake. The more you truly believe this and live this, the more fully you will express yourself in your life, and the less you will feel envy. If you believe in God or another higher power, then overcoming envy can mean trusting that you were created perfectly and that you don’t need to change anything about you – you simply need to express yourself as fully as you can. If the ‘G word’ is troubling for you, perhaps you can appreciate that you are a part of nature and, just as you see perfection in nature, you can learn to appreciate that you are an intrinsic part of that perfection.
Links & books
I have written a few articles on other aspects of envy for my blog at Psychology Today. One piece takes a deeper look at envy and ‘social propinquity’ – why we envy those who are more like us. Another blog post discusses the ways in which the fear of other people’s envy, as opposed to your own envy, can stand in the way of expressing yourself more fully. (I’ve also written about how this can happen at the collective level.) Finally, there’s a post on Beauty and the Beast as a lesson in self-acceptance.
My book, Embracing Envy: Finding the Spiritual Treasure in Our Most Shameful Emotion (2014), is a fuller treatment of some of the material that appears in this Guide. It includes many interviews with people who speak about their experiences with envy.
Richard Smith is one of the world’s foremost authorities on envy, and the author of The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (2013). His is perhaps the only book that deals exclusively with the most extreme manifestation of envy: Schadenfreude.
The book Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour (1966) by Helmut Schoeck is somewhat academic and dense but, if you’re up for working a bit, it’s effort well spent. Schoeck explores how pervasive and destructive envy has been to human progress, cross-culturally and throughout human history.
This Guide was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.