Coping With Your Envy: Turning Envy on Its Head

A few ideas of how to turn envy around.

Posted Nov 07, 2015

Source: J.Schelkle/Shutterstock

In my previous blog, Envy: Why we Can’t Stand it When Other People Succeed, I indicated that envy is a near-universal experience where we may resent or feel uncomfortable with the success of someone else. We can distinguish between hostile and depressive envy, where hostile envy leads us to want the other person to fail (Schadenfreude) and depressive envy leads us to feel sad and inferior when we compare ourselves to the other person. Neither emotion is very pleasant. And when we feel envious we may act in ways that eventually undermine our own interests.

Let’s look at how you can turn things around with your envy.

  1. Motivation to change.  A lot of times we hold onto a negative emotion because we think we are being realistic, honest about ourselves and entitled to feel whatever we feel.  Everyone has a right to his or her feelings, but you can ask yourself what you think you are going to get out of your envy. Is this an emotion you would want someone you love to have? Would you send a holiday card that says, “I hope you feel envious this coming year”? You can have a right to your feelings, but you also have a right to change them.
  2. The problem with status. We often think that status is something that everyone agrees with. Academics get hung up on status, comparing their work with the work of other people in terms of the citations to their work. Actors get hung up on the success of another actor who might get a more lucrative contract or a more “in” role to play. In the corporate world, someone might get hung up on the office that is assigned to her or the title that they get. But status is a very local and transient thing. Go outside your small group of peers and you will realize that no one else really has any idea what you are talking about. Imagine an academic saying, “She got an article published in the Journal of Triviality”. No one cares. It’s trivial to the rest of the world.
  3. What is the sense of always comparing yourself with others? Some people are continually comparing themselves with other people. Now it might be helpful to know how you are doing, but that doesn’t require criticizing someone else’s success or thinking that you are a loser. Why not try focusing on getting your job done? Focus on the here and now. Or, if you are going to compare yourself with anyone, compare yourself with yourself. Try to do something even better the next time. Improve yourself rather than envy someone else.
  4. Think of status as a game. Now there might be some advan tage in a promotion or in doing something that is recognized by people in your reference group. What if you were to think about the “status game”—a game that you play for a few minutes a couple of times a week. It’s like fantasy football. It’s fantasy. And be realistic about what you will really get with a little more status. Will your life really change if your status increases by 10%? What will really change? What remains the same?
  5. Identify the negative thoughts that feed your envy.  What negative thoughts are triggered for you when you hear about someone’s success? “I must be a loser because they are doing so well” or “It’s unfair—they don’t deserve it”. But how does someone else’s achievement make you a loser? How can someone else’s behavior cancel out everything about you? If you focus on fairness you might want to ask, “Could there be some good reason why that other person did get that success?” Or you might go even further, “Is it realistic to think that everything is going to be fair?” I remember in high school when my friends and I would play basketball and people would foul each other right and left—and these fouls weren’t called. You learned to play successfully in an unfair world. The kid who whined and picked up his basketball and said, “I’m going home”, wasn’t admired. It may not be pleasing to think this way, but a lot of things in life are unfair. And we need to be able to be resilient and play even better in an unfair game.

Getting envy under control may actually help you gain greater success in the things that matter and may free you from the nagging negativity that feeds your resentment, anger, depression, and sense of humiliation.