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Are You Hiding Your Light Under a Bushel?

Our fear of envy can make us withhold what we most need to give: our true self.

Key points

  • Our fear of another envying us can cause us to hide our gifts and blessings.
  • Each of us needs to find a way to balance our need for community with our need for self-expression.
  • Being exceptional in some way is especially difficult in our childhood and early adulthood—until we find a community of kindred spirits.
  • Ideally, we discover who we are in our essence and find a supportive community that needs what we have to offer.

This week I received the following email, which is slightly edited here (the name and country of origin have been changed). I think it describes a key point that receives too little attention when we talk about envy. There is a lot of emphasis on how social media can create feelings of envy of others. We don’t often look at how our fear of other people’s envy of us can keep us from expressing our full selves.

Hello Josh,

I have just read your post here about our fear of the envy of others from 2015. This had been a serious problem in my life so if it is possible, I wanted to ask for advice.

I am a medical student in Algeria and I am a little different from my friends. I can speak English and German fluently which helped me to do an internship abroad, to learn about different perspectives in life ... I am dreaming about living and working abroad and I have been to different countries.

But most of my classmates come from families with lower socioeconomic status. At first, I was honest with them about my parents being doctors and me having traveled abroad before, but this led them to tease me ... (I felt like they couldn’t handle it).

So I changed my friendship circle and started to hide myself, my achievements, talents, and basically almost everything good about me or my life. Because I didn’t like standing out (all alone) and also I was afraid that they would jinx it if I told them everything. I mean, the look on their faces and eyes is so bad when I tell them about something good that happened to me. Anyways, then the pandemic happened and I had a lot of time away from my friends to be myself and it felt really good. I like life without thinking about what others are going to say or do.

But I don’t know what I should do when I go back to school. I can understand it when they envy me and I get scared immediately, of being left out, of something bad happening to me. And I start feeling not safe and secure because I can see that they’re wishing something bad would happen to me from inside.

What should I do? I don’t like hiding or lying, but I really know that no one is going to be welcoming if I share my true self with them. We are from different worlds.

Thank you for your time and interest.


Dear Abdul:

Thank you for reaching out. I have a number of things to say in response to your poignant letter:

1) You are not alone. I wrote five different postings on the topic of envy at that time, now six years ago. The one about our fear of the envy of others has been clicked on by five times as many people as the others in the series. Clearly, there is something in what you are experiencing that resonates with a lot of people.

2) I suggest you read the next post in the series, "The Envy of the Collective," as it also deals directly with what you are facing.

3) There is no single answer that I can give which will make your dilemma significantly less difficult. You describe very well the two different pulls you are feeling so strongly: wanting to be accepted and to belong to a community, and at the same time wanting to express your individuality, your uniqueness, your gifts.

4) The solutions you have available to you are essentially on a continuum: you can “hide your light under a bushel,” which is a phrase from the New Testament that means to hide your good qualities from other people. (You can see by this source that this problem is at least 2,000 years old.) At the other extreme, you can face the judgment of the collective and stand firm in who you are, prepared to meet the envy and ostracism. In between are various compromises you make either within yourself or with the group of people you want to be with.

5) You may choose, when you are old enough or established enough professionally, to leave and go to a place where there are kindred spirits, people who are exceptional in their own way and therefore not threatened by other exceptional people.

6) You are probably closing yourself down in order to survive even more than you realize consciously. While it ensures your survival, the price it exacts is that it may become built into your character structure, to the point where you don’t even realize the things you deny yourself as a default because of your fear of the envy of others.

7) Ultimately the solution you seek is one that will be a lifetime in the making: You wish to belong and to be wanted by others for being exactly who you truly are. This includes, but means more than whether you can speak English and German or whether you can study abroad, as important as those things are for you at this stage of your life. But it is more about your internal essence than it is your external opportunities that I encourage you to find a home for. In order to do so, you need to work to understand as deeply as you can who you are at your core, and then to seek the best home and community for that essence.

I wish you the best on this most meaningful of struggles: how to find your truest self and find a home where it can flourish, so that you can be supported for your gifts and share them with the world. In essence, to do the work you were put here on this earth to accomplish.

From a fellow traveler on this path,