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Why we can't stand it when other people succeed.

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." — Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Envy Triggers

Does any of this ring a bell?

  • A colleague gets a promotion that you were hoping to get. You feel angry and resentful and harbor feelings of wanting her to fail.
  • A classmate from college is in the news. You begin to think, “He’s doing so well. Where am I?” Then you begin thinking about what an obnoxious person he was. And you feel better for a few minutes.
  • You are at a party and someone of the same sex as you is outgoing, surrounded by people, and looks more attractive than you. You feel depressed and then think, “I’ll bet they’re shallow.”

If any of these experiences ring true then you are like the rest of the human race. You are prone to envy. What is envy? Let’s define it as, “A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.”

Envy is about someone getting ahead of you, someone doing better, someone possessing qualities that you wish you had. You think you are losing the race. You are falling behind. And you are feeling sad, angry, resentful, anxious and you just can’t accept it.

Two Kinds of Envy

There are two kinds of envy that we are interested in here—hostile envy and depressed envy.

Depressed envy occurs when someone else’s success makes you feel worse about yourself or worse about your life. You feel diminished, lost, defeated, even humiliated. You take their success personally—it reflects on you. Hostile envy occurs when you feel angry and want the other person to fail in some way. You might criticize their success or their personal qualities, claim their success was undeserving, or claim that they manipulated their way into their position. Hostile envy is filled with resentment, the desire to get back at the person, and often the desire to undermine the person. Of course, this is known as Schadenfreude. And everyone can identify with this feeling at times.

Some people identify a third kind of envy—benign envy. This refers to your positive admiration of the qualities of another person. Positive envy can be adaptive and can motivate you, but people seldom worry about their benign envy. So, let’s stick to the hostile and depressed envy here.

Envy is different from jealousy. In jealousy you are concerned that your partner is attracted to someone else. Jealousy is about a threat to your personal relationship: “She’s flirting with him.” Envy is about a threat to your status and your perception of success: ‘He’s more successful than I am. That makes me feel like a failure.” But you can envy someone about whom you are jealous. “They have the qualities I wish I had. That’s why my partner is attracted to them.”

It’s Hard to Admit to Your Envy

Envy is unlike all the other emotions. We can admit to feeling jealous that our partner is attracted to someone else, we can admit to feeling sad, angry, anxious or confused. But envy often carries the added burden of embarrassment or shame. We don’t want to admit to envy. We see it as a petty, selfish, sour-grapes emotion. So we hide it, we harbor it, we disguise it with claims of unfairness or character assassination. And we may avoid the people about whom we feel envious. You might think, “I don’t want to be around him because it reminds me that they are doing better than I am doing.” And we may want to undermine them.

I am going to be writing about envy in the next couple of blogs. But I want to take this opportunity to get envy out in the open. Here is what I want you to keep in mind.

  • Envy is universal. You show me a social hierarchy and I will show you envy.
  • Envy evolved because being higher in the social hierarchy led to significant advantages. Being higher in rank grants you greater access to sexual partners, greater access to food, and a greater likelihood that your genes would be passed on to the next generation. There’s a lot to be said for being the top dog—especially if you are a dog.
  • Envy also reflects our desire for fairness. We don’t like unfair advantage, we dislike nepotism, and we think that people should be rewarded for merit. So, envy is also tied to positive social values. It’s not all negative. We don’t like it when people get what they don’t deserve.
  • Envy can motivate you if you use it adaptively. I like to think of turning envy into admiration and admiration into emulation. Learn what the other person is doing well and see if you can do that too. In fact, you might turn the tables on envy. Search for people you envy and use them as role models.
  • Envy can interfere with your friendships, your marriage and your work environment.
  • It’s important to own up to your envy so that you can do something about it. We will discuss that in a later blog. But for now, own it.

Here are your quiz questions for the week:

“How would you be better off if you had less envy?”

“What behaviors would you change?”

“Would you ruminate less?”

“Would you complain less?”

“Would you be better able to focus on the present moment and positive goals?”

Getting a handle on envy won’t be easy. But there are some things that you can do. Stay tuned.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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