Facing the Green-Eyed Monster: Learning from Envy
When William’s neighbor drove up with a new Mercedes sports car, William suddenly felt “less than.” Spoiled little inheritance baby, William thought. At least I work for my money.
Frances wanted to be happy for her friend—who had just landed a lucrative book publishing contract and had a new boyfriend—but inside she was ticking off all the reasons her friend didn’t deserve either.
Joey’s classmate was excitedly telling of his winning soccer goal over the weekend, when Joey interrupted to describe a movie he’d just seen—without even acknowledging his classmate’s joyful report.
Envy isn’t pretty, is it?
Even on a good day, news of someone else’s good fortune can send us spiraling into a pit of bitter—though silent—accusations and weak self-righteousness. It poisons our confidence and undermines our sense of worth. Given enough energy, envy can balloon into outright hate.
But facing this green-eyed monster, looking it in the eye without flinching, can tell you powerful things about yourself—what you really want, what needs to change and what you need to let go. Seen this way, envy is information. It points us to the good we thirst for and points out our belief that good or excellence is out of our reach.
“It’s really our getting mad at ourselves,” says Debrena Jackson Gandy, author of All the Joy You Can Stand. “The other person is the character stand-in. It’s about not being okay with where you are.”
It’s not the movie star or the seven-figure executive we envy but those closest to us, the people we imagine ourselves to be like, those with whom we compare ourselves.
Frances was working in a low-paying office job, with no love in her life, when her friend called with her good news. Frances examined her envy and discovered that it wasn’t about her friend, but that she was really feeling unfulfilled, stuck and lonely. And underneath that, she believed that fulfillment and love could never happen for her.
Thanks to the guiding light of envy, Frances reflected on what she really wanted in her life and eventually decided to start her own business and join a singles group.
For William, it was entitlement that fed his green monster. He compared his long hours of physical labor with what he perceived to be “the easy life” of his neighbor. If anyone deserved lots of money, he did.
William later learned that the neighbor had inherited his money when his entire family died in a plane accident. When William looked at his life, he realized he loved his work trimming trees and felt so blessed to have a healthy and alive family. Acknowledging that goodness and grace were abundant in his life helped him free himself from envy’s grip.
As 18th century writer Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu wrote, “If one only wished to be happy, this could easily be accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.”
Joey’s parents helped him to see the envy in his ignoring his classmate’s good news. It got him in touch with his need for competence in the sport he liked best, basketball. After that, Joey shot hoops every day and improved his skills to the point that he made the varsity team the following year.
As writer Bertrand Russell put it, “Where envy is unavoidable, it must be used as a stimulus to one’s own efforts, not to the thwarting of the efforts of rivals.”
Taming the Monster
Admitting envy’s force in our life reveals parts of us that need much attention and care. Here are some steps to take to tame this multi-headed monster.
- Have the courage to catch yourself. As awful as it may seem, let yourself fully feel the needs, desires, longings and yearnings behind your envy. Recognizing this is the first step toward opening yourself to the good that you seek.
- Ask yourself: What brings me joy? Be very specific about what fulfills you in key areas of your life (finances, career, health, relationships, family, etc.). What actions can you take to make your life the way you want it to be?
- Tell the truth. What have you done to further your own dreams and goals? Or, are you, perhaps, aspiring to goals that really aren’t yours?
- Destroy all your yardsticks. In other words, don’t compare. How do you feel about yourself and where you are? If you’re happy, then it doesn’t matter what someone else has or does.
- Count your blessings. When we feel envious, we often discount the good that is in our lives already. Notice what fortune life has bestowed upon you and express it. Do you have use of all four limbs? A warm bed to sleep in? Make a gratitude list to post around the house or keep in your wallet.
- Let go, when necessary. If you are 5’ 4” and have curly hair, you will never be 6’ 2” with straight hair. This kind of envy is a true waste of time. Put it where it belongs: in the “waste” basket.
- Trust life’s abundance. Envy often stems from the unconscious belief that when someone else gets something good, there’s one less for us—one less wonderful man or woman, one less good job. Every time you feel envy, remind yourself that there is enough good in the world for you to have some, too.