You know the feeling — the inner lurch of dismay when your friend buys the Jimmy Choos or Mulberry bag that you can’t afford, the gritted teeth through which you congratulate your work colleague on their promotion, the pang of misery with which you view images of happy families and couples on your social media feed…
As the American writer Gore Vidal so memorably said: ‘Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.’
Envy is a painful emotion, gnawing away at our insides and warping our view of the world.
It’s not the same as jealousy, although the two words are often interchanged and the emotional experiences are similar. Jealousy is what you feel when something you have, something important to you, is threatened. You may be jealous when your partner shows too much interest in another person, for example.
Envy is what you experience when you want what someone else has, or what you perceive someone to have. The qualities which cause you to envy someone are far-ranging — their success, their looks, their body shape, their cute and clever children, their new sofa, their new house, their adorable dog, their personality, their holidays, their lovely significant other, or even just the fact that they have an SO, because quite frankly right now you’d consider anyone…
Once envy creeps in, it’s hard to get rid of, and it can sour even the soundest of relationships.
Accept that you feel envious
It’s good to acknowledge what you’re feeling. Put a name to the emotion, and and accept its presence.
Don’t beat yourself up with ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this.’ You are, and it’s part of being human.
Don’t expect envy to go away (although now and then we can find that something which once got to us no longer does), but find a strategy or two to help you get a manageable perspective on the situation.
Explore what you are feeling
Your reaction to an event tells you something about yourself. Why and how does this particular aspect of someone else’s life get to you?
The painful emotion may be a clue that something is missing in your life, or that something matters to you more than you thought it did. You may be looking to external things — clothes, trips, status — for something which can only come from your inner self.
Identifying your envy of someone as admiration can make it a more manageable emotion.
These attributes might include being a good listener, or not giving up after a disappointment, or spending time choosing their wardrobe. You could always be up-front and ask: ‘You know, I envy (go on, you can say it)/admire the way you handle Lisa’s tantrums. Do you have any tips?’
We may feel resentful when we think that someone doesn’t deserve the good things that happen to them.
The person who doesn’t study but gets top grades in their exams, the work colleague less competent and with less experience than you who is made partner, the person who eats what they like and doesn’t gain an ounce in weight, the pal who inherits money and is no longer generation rent, can all make us feel angry and bitter about their good fortune.
Two approaches might help:
1: It’s not the whole story
You don’t know the whole truth of a situation. There are aspects that you’ll never know, or which might only gradually be revealed.
- Earning shedloads of money might come at the cost of health and sanity.
- Someone’s conspicuous spending on items you covet might be an expression of an unmet need.
- A promotion might mean the loss of former friendships and alliances at work.
At the same time, you might want to keep a balance between having a realistic view and dismissing or diminishing events which matter to others. Always responding with a spoken or inner ‘yes but’ feels a bit mean and sour-grapesy.
Just being aware of the deceptive nature of appearances, including our own, might help you to bring a gracious presence to the congratulations and celebrations.
2: Life isn’t fair
The face value of the situation might be spot on. Someone may well not ‘deserve’ what they get. Best just to suck it up, and hope that you’ll get more than you deserve, one day.
This is particularly insidious, and is hard to deal with. It taps right into our tendency to over-estimate the wonderful things about others’ lives and under-value our own. Here are two things to try:
i: Admire the artistry
Images and entries on social media are carefully curated and presented to show the subject in the most flattering light. They are single snapshots, shown out of context. Even the most banal occurrence can be given a glamorous spin with a snappy use of words and a cleverly shot picture.
It’s an art, it’s a game. Maintain a distance by adopting an ‘I see what you’re doing there’ approach. You might find it difficult to feel envious of a construct.
ii: Cut off
If it really gets to you, and brings you down, cut down on your use. Limit yourself to a certain amount of time, or cut off altogether. You might be surprised to discover that the world doesn’t end — not the real world, that is — and you feel better.
Check in with your values
It’s easy to lose sight of the things that really matter. Focus on, or make a list of, the values which inform your life.
In addition, write down the names of the people who matter to you, friends, family members, influencers, mentors. You could try drawing a circle, with the most significant names at the centre and moving outwards.
It’s probable that those on the fringes of your life are unlikely to be the objects of envy, other than the most fleeting. Those closest to the centre are probably similar to you and share your values. Being envious of a person in this area could have a major impact on your life and your relationship, but you can make the situation better by being brave and honest.
For example, if you are longing to start a family and it isn’t happening, you might feel automatic envy of anyone who’s having a baby, even strangers, but that’s different from being deeply envious of, say, a close friend who’s pregnant.
Rather than let it fester, you could try telling you’re friend that you’re happy for her, but are finding it difficult to cope with your feelings. Talking about them won’t take them away, but it might reveal ways of dealing with the situation which help to keep your friendship intact.
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