Before, I saw what I wanted and felt poorer for not having it. Now I “envy and acquire” or “envy and admire.” —M. Burke
Envy is a two-edged sword. In its positive spin, envy inspires us to achieve what we find lacking in ourselves. It causes us to marvel at what another has, or imagine the person we could be if only our lot were different. Envy inspires us to better ourselves, to cultivate what we lack.
The negative and violent side of envy causes us to hate and deride, criticize and blame. We do this when we feel only the lack, maybe even the regret and remorse, for not having what we wish we did and are unable to contain these feelings. As a result, we lash out with attack, passive-aggression, shaming, or ridicule.
To prevent envy from getting the best of you, challenge yourself to see all accomplishments or advantages by others as inspiration, as a signal to expand your horizons. Especially notice the subtle ways that envy operates, such as when you judge someone else for something they have or are doing—like taking a vacation, taking a nap, making lots of money, buying a new pair of shoes, making time for fun, or cultivating a meaningful relationship.
When you simply don’t have the talent, the ability, the means, the wherewithal to pursue what you are envious of, use your good thinking. Don’t merely get owned by your emotion. Feel it, acknowledge it, and generate the good sense to notice that you are envious. Call it “envy,” so that you know its parameters and character. This way you can better work with the beast and not let it take you for a walk, a ride, or bad slide into projecting and displacing your frustration, anger, unrequited love and desire for what you don’t have—which can be reframed as what you don’t have yet, if you set out to do the work to achieve it. And this requires courage, humility, self-responsibility, and some hard work—qualities that don’t come easily, not as easy as blame and projection.
Sometimes we don’t really want to work to achieve what another has. Notice this. Admit it to yourself and try to find peace in it. Because, if you can get it and simply don’t want to, that can be the end of envy, because you’ve taken responsibility for not having what you desire. But, if you do want what you envy, and you are willing to try to achieve it, however begrudgingly, you can reap the boon within the burden of envy.
I think it’s also important to question both the power and the object of our envy before we believe it at face value. Do I really want what Emily has, or am I just in awe that she has something so beautiful or wonderful? And, is what I really want not what Emily has but something just as grand, that I value as beautiful? For example, Emily has a gorgeous car, and while I feel envious of what she has, upon examination, I recognize that I don’t want her car; what I really want is to get my bicycle fixed so I ride under the canopy of trees in the park on my way to work. Or, I don’t really want Meg’s good looks; what I really want is a partner that values me for who I am. Sometimes envy is a sign that something is missing from our lives, which may masquerade as the object of our envy. It’s up to us to determine whether our envy presents us with a literal or figurative desire.
Envy & Jealousy
We often confuse jealousy for envy. Psychology defines the difference this way:
Envy is when we lack something enjoyed by another.
Jealousy is when what we cherish is threatened by another.
Envy involves two people, while jealousy involves three people.
Envy can be a mask for jealousy in that I might want (envy) what has been taken from me by someone else (jealousy of another person). You might feel envious of your good friend’s boyfriend, but on closer look, maybe you’re truly upset that your last boyfriend went off with someone else and you felt jealous of the person they absconded with. And now your jealousy looks like envy for your good friend’s boyfriend.
When you can only achieve a modicum of what you envy, try to summon the self-compassion and humility to accept this. Pat yourself on the back for trying, for making some progress, and for accepting what you cannot control, which are your own limitations. Everyone has limitations. What others are adept at, we would encounter our shortcomings doing these same things. And this brings up a last point about envy: the benefits of comparison.
When you are envious of another for what you don’t have, pause to notice what you have that they may not, and appreciate this disparity. For, it’s the same inequality that you perceive in the other for the qualities or things they have that you don’t—or which you perceive they have and you don’t. A pretty girl might think that another is prettier, or has attributes she doesn’t. In many cases, this isn’t the case, at least not objectively, for prettiness is subjective. So, examine your beliefs to find out if they are really true objectively, or if it’s just your inaccurate perspective. Your perspective of lacking something, such as looks to another girl, might be a defense against—a decoy to your self-awareness—lacking something deeper, like self-respect, self-confidence, or feeling loved deeper down.
So, we see that envy can be a help, a welcome guide to fulfillment, what the Greeks called a daemon. And envy can also be turned into a demon that works against us. The end-result depends so much on how we work with the feelings of desire that arise in us, the actions we take to cope with the uncomfortable feelings, and the accuracy with which we perceive ourselves and others. I hope this writing has helped you identify the places in your life that are wanting, as communicated to you by your envy or jealousy, so that you can take charge of your life and make it more of your heart’s desire.
About the author,
Jack Adam Weber, L.Ac., MA, is Chinese medicine physician, having graduated valedictorian of his class in 2000. He has authored hundreds of articles, thousands of poems, and several books. Weber is an activist for embodied spirituality and writes extensively on the subjects of holistic medicine, emotional depth work, and mind-body integration, all the while challenging his readers to think and act outside the box. Weber’s latest creation is the Nourish Practice, a deeply restorative, embodied meditation practice as well as an educational guide for healing the wounds of childhood. His work can be found at jackadamweber.com, on Facebook, or Twitter, where he can also be contacted for life-coaching and medical consultations.