I think of envy as admiration’s awful step brother, and chances are you’ve met envy in the dark halls of a late-night social media lurking session. If you’re unfamiliar with social media, it’s the place self-esteem goes to die. According to recent research, social media can “elicit envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives.” Despite knowing that people tend to put their best foot (or unrealistically beautiful foot) forward when it comes to social media, we continue to feel envy–a reality which has caused mothers in the US a lot of stress. Social media makes the lives outside of our own look magical. In this magical world everyone is successful, in love, and always at brunch. In reality, many people are stressed at work, fumbling through tinder dates, and eating Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwiches.
But it’s not just social media that sparks envy. You may have a friend who is reaching a higher level of professional success than you. Or you may live in NYC and feel bombarded by people who are living “the good life.” Whether it be physical possessions or personal attributes, envy is simply the experience of feeling that you don’t have what others do. And because life isn’t magical, there will always be things you won’t have. So how do we begin to admire more and envy less?
Envy vs. Jealousy:
Although we sometimes use the terms interchangeably, these two emotions are different. The saying “green with envy” comes from Shakespeare, who described jealousy as a “green eyed monster.” This illustrates a popular confusion between the two emotions. Understanding how they differ will help us to better understand envy.
As Dr. Richard Smith and others have pointed out, we feel jealous when we think we’re going to lose something (a relationship) to a third person, while envy only involves one person feeling envious of something that another person possesses.
Jealousy is a reaction to the fear of losing something that we already have while envy is the experience of not having. You might feel jealous when your girlfriend spends more time cuddling your cat than she does you and you might even think that she only visits you to see your cat. On the other hand, you may feel envious of someone’s physical beauty because you feel you’re not attractive or you may feel envious of someone’s financial success because you feel financially unsuccessful. The important difference between these two being that jealousy requires that you already have something to lose, while envy implies that there is something missing.
Because we envy in others the things we feel we lack, the experience of envy can be described as one of “not having.” For this reason, envy feels like an emptiness. We think that if only we had what we feel is missing, we would feel better or be better. If I were as beautiful as my friend then I would be happier or I would find a loving partner. If we are prone to feeling envy, then the real issue may be that we feel empty or “less than.”
Many things can make people prone to feeling envy. If you grew up in a household where you felt like nothing you ever did was enough, you might grow into an adult who feels as though they are always lacking. If you never felt seen by your parents or family, you might feel that you’re not special and that you need something more to feel seen. Maybe your handsome brother or beautiful sister received more attention and love, leaving you to feel that you are less worthy if you’re not attractive. Growing up feeling as though you are not enough, or do not have enough, can make envy a very familiar feeling.
What do we do?
Now that we better understand envy, how do we begin to transform it into admiration? Here are a few things that can be helpful:
Acknowledge your envy:
Envy is an emotion that we don’t like and one that most people think of as “bad.” In fact, it’s so bad that it has made it onto Catholicism’s’ list of seven deadly sins. Feeling envy, then, can be hard to admit. When we don’t acknowledge our envy, it can worsen as we spiral into other negative feelings such as guilt, shame, and so on.
Identify when you feel envious:
If you can notice when you feel envious, you can begin to use envy as a way to identify areas that you feel you are lacking in. For instance, If you notice you often feel envious of individuals with money, then you can begin to understand that financial success may be a source of insecurity for you. Ask yourself: What does money mean to you? What would be different if you had the money that this person has? And are there other ways to get to that with what you have?
A helpful way to begin to notice that you are feeling envious is to make a note of the emotions that accompany envy. If you are feeling resentful, angry, and insecure, you may be feeling envy.
You can also take note of how you feel physically when you are envious. Are you hot or cold? Tense or relaxed? Dry or Sweating? By noting these things you will be better able to identify when you are feeling envious.
Learn from those you envy:
If you envy someone’s professional success, you can find out how they became successful and see if what they did can help you to become more successful. If you envy someone’s ability to speak to a romantic interest, find out what they do and work towards getting better at those things. Now, this doesn’t always work because some of the things we envy may not be real or achievable (the barbie body) so it’s important to assess whether or not the thing you envy is realistic.
Talk to a therapist:
We can all use some therapy, not just those of us who feel envious. But if you find yourself feeling envious and discontent often, therapy can be very helpful. Therapy can help us identify patterns and address long-standing beliefs and behaviors that contribute to our struggles. Envy can sometimes be representative of deeper insecurities, low self-esteem, and feelings of emptiness. The good news is, these can all be addressed by a competent therapist.
In order to admire, you must feel “full enough” to appreciate someone else’s positive qualities. You need to feel as though you are OK without your friend’s beauty or financial success. If we feel content and full we might not envy people on Instagram and may instead feel happy for them and admire their achievements. This level of self acceptance can be hard to come by, but it is not impossible. The more you can begin to appreciate who you are and provide love and attention to yourself, the more you will be able to admire those around you.
KIP Senior Fellow, Supervisor