Envy gets a bad rap. The ancient Greek philosopher Antisthenes decried it as corrosive (“As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion.”) Envy is established as one of the seven deadly sins – hardly a list of traits that we celebrate.
Yet we all feel it. Envy is part of the human experience. Instead of judging envy as wrong or bad, is there something we can do with it?
Envy begins with social comparison. Social comparison is a psychological process where we try to determine our own personal worth by comparing ourselves to others. So often, the result is we see ourselves as not measuring up.
Research shows that this process of comparison happens continually and automatically, underneath our awareness. And it sets us up for an inevitable deflation of confidence and self-esteem, what I call “compare and despair”.
What we may not recognize is how shame is at the root of this despair. Shame is a deeply felt sense that we are defective, inadequate or not good enough. Shame is fuel for envy. When we look at somebody else and feel envy, it’s not just that someone has acquired or achieved something, but that we believe we are unable to acquire or achieve something like it.
Well, that sucks.
But, wait. What if there is a positive side to envy?
Because, when we are in despair, we are missing something important: envy is information. Envy is giving you clues about what you desire. Look at your envy to start following the clues.
Since social comparison happens so quickly, envy can be vague, like a cloud around the person to whom you are comparing yourself. You feel it but you may not know why.
When you identify the source, envy becomes specific. You can examine it more closely.
Now this is where it gets really good, because envy gives you the opportunity to challenge the assumptions that underlie it.
Consider the source of your envy. Ask yourself:
Let’s say, for example, that you envy your neighbors who own a boat. They take their boat out on the water every weekend and it pains you each time they head out on Saturday morning.
Is it the boat you really want (with all of its associated responsibilities like dock fees and storage, maintenance and repairs, insurance and fuel, equipment and supplies)?
Or is it a sense of freedom? wealth? escape? (or something else?) that the boat represents for you?
There is no right or wrong answer – it’s about understanding what you really want. Because when you know what you want you can begin to deliberately bring it into your life.
This is how you transform envy, by utilizing it as a tool to help you understand:
What you really want, what you value, what success looks like for you
How you can generate that for yourself
When you are clear about what’s most important and what it looks like in your life, you can start building it for yourself.
What other people have and do becomes so much less significant. Comparisons won’t matter. And you’ll be happier when you are focused on your life, rather than on the lives of others.
"Become diligent and careful students of our most persistent envious feelings. They are trying to tell us something and we should listen" - Alain de Botton
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