Four Ways to Conquer Envy
What to do when social comparison is harmful.
Posted Jun 30, 2019
Excessive envy is as bitter as bile, a sickening experience that the ancient Greeks associated with the color green. In Othello, William Shakespeare likened the cousin of envy, jealousy,1 with a “green-eyed monster.” Envy is universally understood to be a major cause for unhappiness, not only for the envious individual but for the envied person who frequently is looked upon with bitterness and hate. Whoever wants to even admit being “green with envy?” It is, after all, also deemed a deadly sin in Christianity. To make matters worse, it feels shameful to expose one’s envy as it reveals one’s vulnerability when everyone wishes to appear strong or, at least, above petty feelings. And yet.
Envy is exceedingly common and undoubtedly on the rise worldwide. In the past, unless we were eye-witnesses, all we had is our imagination when it came to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Then came TV and the shows that flaunted the green grass on the other side, including the plastic surgery of the crazed and the success of the entitled. But nothing compares to the avalanche of posts on social media. Even when intentions are pure – “I just want to share my life, inspire and hope that others can rejoice” – followers of one’s posts tend to compare themselves with the picturesque testimonies of the seemingly more successful. That which starts as harmless admiration can turn to status anxiety before it culminates into a typically unacknowledged question, “Why not me?”
Homo sapiens has a keen sense of injustice. While we get to peek into rich people’s mansions and partake in their lavish weddings and divorces, we cannot help but notice the widening gap between rich and poor. Envy is not the result of absolute income and facts about longevity in comparison to the unfortunate souls of the Stone Age. Instead, it rises with a heightened sense of real and imagined injustice in the here and now. To ignore our envy is to ignore our sense of injustice. Bertrand Russell, who was keenly aware of the harmful aspects of envy, pointed out that a democratic system depends on the restless notion of keeping up with the Joneses. Envy, said Russell, must be endured in a democracy in which all lives matter.2
Embarrassingly primitive or not, we are better off looking bravely at our envy, as a culture, and as individuals. If we look the other way, there will be political and personal unrest.
What is there to do when we detect the nagging question within, “Why not me?”
1. Do not rush to judgment.
The color of envy will turn hot-red when our only response to it is suppression. When envy becomes anger, things deteriorate. Scapegoating is usually next. Look at your experience with neutral eyes. Observe envy as you would observe any other unpleasant feeling in mindful contemplation. All feelings pass when we experience them with kind attention.
2. Ask yourself if your envy is the result of real or imagined injustice.
If you watch shows about millionaires or spend any time on social media, chances are that you buy into the illusion of others’ perpetual good fortune. Everybody suffers. Most people hide their unhappiness while rushing to take a snapshot when things go right on occasion. If you cannot shake your envy, shut down all media and start living your own life.
3. Use your envy constructively.
Learn from your experience and ask if there is anything you need to do to improve your life. Envy is fast and easy to feel. Slow down and sit down to make a realistic plan of how to live the best life that you can live. If you are already doing what you can, cut yourself some slack. Life is indeed unjust and society must continue to level the playing field. Do what you can and accept the rest without giving up on your vision.
4. Get perspective.
Recently, I talked to my psychologist colleague, Dr. Susan Harper Slate, who believes that “fame and fortune aren’t what they are cracked up to be.” She uses the psychotherapeutic technique of thinking of a seemingly successful person who has fallen into the depth of depression. There are, sadly, plenty of public examples. Then, while painting a realistic picture without the ugly schadenfreude, she asks her clients, “Is that who you envy?” In my practice, I do something similar by asking clients to describe the one thing they envy. Then I invite them to picture the complete life of the person who seems to have it. All things hang on one thread. For example, the mansion comes with a job and many preceding life choices; status comes with a price. Most people do not really want to live another person’s life in all known and unknown aspects. Be it as it may, envying another person’s life is ultimately rejecting one’s own. Most clients opt to find value in the only reality there is, which is their present moment. It is in that moment where we can find inner peace, love, and true happiness.
© 2019 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.
2) Bertrand Russell (1930). The Conquest of Happiness.