Robin Stern Ph.D.

Power in Relationships

Envy: The Power Vacuum

Envy can strip us of our power in relationships, but we can learn to let it go.

Posted Sep 09, 2019

It’s that time of year again. At schools and universities all over the country, classes are starting. Students are filling the campuses and walking the hallways.  

As the Associate Director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, I see a new group of Yale freshmen arriving each year at this time. As may be obvious from the name of our center, emotions are the focus of our research and our practice – and, we even sometimes get to ask our students how they’re feeling! In one survey of a couple of hundred freshmen students last year, we asked what emotion they experience the most since becoming college students. The number one answer? Stressed. Perhaps, there are no surprises there. It was their first year of college; Yale’s an Ivy League institution. And, for many of these teens, it may have been their first time away from home and living with people other than their families.

But what's really interesting was when we asked them why they felt so stressed. The number one answer on that? Envy. They wanted to be as smart as their roommates, as athletic as their chemistry partners, as attractive as their friends on Instagram or Snapchat. They were stressed when they weren’t. We found this data alarming. These students achieved the highest level of success in high school, were admitted to Yale, and lived on a beautiful campus with like-minded students all around them, yet so many were wracked with envy.

When they could have been focusing on their courses, what new knowledge awaited them to learn, or what interesting people they might meet in their new home away from home, so many were busy worrying about one thing: what others had that they didn’t. And the strong emotion of envy has power over us. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, envy is “the feeling of wanting to be in the same situation as somebody else; the feeling of wanting something that somebody else has.” But, it’s more than that.  

“Envy always implies conscious inferiority wherever it resides,” said the Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder. Today, almost 2,000 years later, psychologists know envy as unpleasant and stemming from feelings of inferiority. Envy also may include feelings of resentment, hostility, frustration, desire, pain, and malice. Not surprisingly, envy correlates with unhappiness, depression, and low self-esteem. It renders us powerless, or at least with less power than the person or people of whom we are envious

When we long to be someone else or to have what someone else has, envy can drive our behavior and cause us to behave blindly. In this way, it can poison our relationships by diminishing our self-worth, leading us to withdraw from relationships and use negative self-talk, aggression, and poor judgment. Essentially, when we are envious, we giving away our power to that envy.  And, that giving away of power, can leave us vulnerable to gaslighting and other types of manipulation. 

What can we do to break away from envy’s hold over us? 

We can give ourselves permission to feel. Though we may not be proud of our envious feelings, we can accept that’s somehow where we landed. And, we can use that acceptance and acknowledgment as a starting point for exploration. We may ask ourselves what led up to our feeling inferior, what impact it has had on ourselves and our relationships, and what we can do now. Sometimes, when it is balanced with realistic self-appraisal, envy can be motivating.

Can you get to the point of achieving what someone else has achieved if you take action? For example, if you envy how many new friends someone has on campus, that may motivate you to make new connections through joining clubs, attending lectures, and perhaps being more assertive than you have in the past. On the other hand, if you are envious of an attribute of someone that you cannot change in yourself (for example, height or family wealth), that envy will likely harm more than help.  

We can break away from unhelpful comparisons, and be grateful for what we have. It’s human nature to compare what we see and experience. Yet, when we compare ourselves to photo filtered “friends” and their highlight reels on social media…when we look longingly at others’ awards, accomplishments, and appearances…that is when we lose sight of all we have. As the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, once said, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not…” 

Feel pride in your accomplishments, the skills you have developed, and your natural beauty and talents. When we focus on the things we have, we gain the freedom and comfort that comes with self-acceptance and gratitude. Only then can we begin to loosen the grip of envy and take back our power.