Envy may be considered one of the seven deadly sins, but it’s actually a perfectly normal, universal emotion. With envy, you see someone with a coveted attribute that you don’t have—money, looks, professional success—and experience negative feelings as a result. You equate that person’s gain with your loss.
Sadly, envy is a ubiquitous human emotion that doesn’t feel good. A 2020 Cognitive Therapy and Research study confirmed that envy is associated with anger, anxiety, rumination, even depression.
Rather than allow envy to become self-destructive, why not take a fresh approach to this toxic and tricky emotion? Bottom Line Personal asked three leading experts for their best advice…
Mark Goulston, MD
Los Angeles–based psychiatrist, author of Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior, host of the “My Wakeup Call” podcast and creator of the “Defeating Self-Defeat” audio course at Himalaya.com.
Tame envy by using gratitude to move from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. How people view life tends to fall into one of two categories—those with a scarcity mindset and those with an abundance mind-set. Those with a scarcity mindset view life as a pie with a fixed amount of slices, so if one person takes a big slice, then there is less for everyone else to enjoy. These folks see other people succeed and think, I don’t have that. They have it better than me, and now there’s not enough for me. Those with an abundance mindset see the world as a limitless pie, bursting with opportunity and potential for growth. They see others thrive and think, Great work. Maybe I can aim for that kind of success, too.
These terms, developed by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, can make an enormous difference in how you experience envy. A scarcity mindset can bring out the worst in a person, causing him/her to constantly thirst for more while robbing him of the optimism or motivation needed to go out and get it. Many people inherit a scarcity mindset from their parents who, rather than being grateful for what they had, walked around in a state of continuous disappointment. Poor self-esteem also is linked with feelings of scarcity. These people may leave their house one day wearing their favorite sneakers…see a friend wearing great new sneakers…and instantly wish they had those sneakers, not the ones they are wearing. Their scarcity mindset triggers envy, making them feel as if they’re somehow lacking simply because their attire isn’t as high-end or eye-catching.
Now imagine a person with an abundance mindset in the same situation. She sees someone in an outfit that’s a bit more fabulous than what she’s wearing and thinks, Wow, what a classy, elegant ensemble. Maybe I’ll try something that color/material/style the next time I go shopping. Rather than focus on what she’s lacking, she finds inspiration in others’ success. And because she’s not coming from a glass-half-empty place, when she sees someone with a new car, great job success, high-achieving children or abundant grandchildren, she isn’t envious…she thinks, I feel good about life, and maybe it could be even better.
If you see yourself in this description of a scarcity mindset, one way to shift is to tap into the power of gratitude. When you wake up in the morning or before going to bed at night, write down three things you’re grateful for. Ideas can be big and small—relationships…a great meeting at work…your home…doing more sit-ups than the day before…a recent feel-good experience. If you’re religious, you could try a prayer of gratitude. You even could send a quick text or e-mail telling someone why you are thankful for him/her. Taking time every day to focus on all that you have takes power away from envious feelings.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD
Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst, adjunct professor of gerontology at University of Massachusetts Boston, and author of PsychologyToday.com’s “Fulfillment at Any Age” blog.
Tame envy by mining it for inspiration. When we feel envious of someone, the natural tendency is to avoid him. We do this not only because we want to distance ourselves from what we consider to be the source of our resentment, but the envy itself tends to make people feel bad about themselves. (If I were successful like he is, I wouldn’t feel this way.)
Let’s say you have a friend or acquaintance who received an award for his community service. You’ve always wanted to get involved with volunteering but never had enough time to make the commitment, and now you’re envious of the accolades he is receiving. Instead of distancing yourself from him, do the opposite—get closer. Ask him how he discovered the right cause to get involved with, how he found the time to do it and what are some of his favorite aspects of volunteering. The goal is to reframe your envy as a longing to better yourself and use that as motivation to grow and make positive changes in your own life. Researchers call this benign envy. Use it as a jumping-off point for your own success.
Dwelling on your envy will only make you more depressed. The healthier choice is to acknowledge your feelings and make the best of them.
Added bonus: By connecting with the source of your envy, you have the opportunity to spend time with a potentially remarkable person who is doing great things in the world.
Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.
Tame envy by figuring out what it’s trying to tell you. We all have childhood experiences that shape who we are today, the emotions we feel and the way we react to the world around us. Those experiences—particularly the negative ones—can predispose adults to feelings of envy, triggered by seeing other people succeed in the same areas where we feel we have failed.
Maybe you were constantly critiqued by a parent for not being smart enough…felt like you never fit in at school…never excelled at sports, despite your best efforts…struggled with your weight…or didn’t have your material needs met due to financial struggles in your household. These types of hurt and suffering can manifest in adulthood as something called a “core wound,” and it usually is behind feelings of envy. Someone prone to envying people with large, luxurious homes may have grown up in a modest or even rundown house or apartment, and that envy represents the shame you felt as a child. If you and your sibling grew up arguing all the time, leaving you feeling disconnected, then you might now feel envious of a friend who has a rock-solid relationship with her brother and his family.
The key is identifying your core wound, which often requires the deeper dive of therapy. The depth of these experiences—and the defenses we develop over a lifetime—can make it difficult to identify these vulnerabilities. However, taking time on your own through journaling, reflecting on uncomfortable triggers in your life and trying to link them to origins earlier in life can be useful. What hurt you the most in childhood? Chances are, you’ll quickly see the link between the core wound and your current feelings of envy. Treat yourself with compassion when you identify a core wound—imagine talking to yourself as a child—and remind yourself that these emotions you now feel don’t make you a bad person…they’re simply an activation of your own vulnerabilities. Now, instead of beating yourself up for coveting your neighbor’s seemingly perfect marriage, you can dig deeper and realize how difficult it was for you to grow up as a child of divorce, and that pain is now materializing as envy.
Core wounds may never completely fade but are likely to remain “tender” areas. Be gentle with yourself, and you may be able to peacefully and mindfully coexist with them.
The same principle applies if you suspect that you are the object of someone else’s envy. Something about you or your life may be triggering one of his core wounds. In this situation, the envious person may be prickly or even rude to you.
Your initial response may be to defend yourself or engage in an argument in response to a snide comment. Instead, remember that the other person is feeling insecure and treat him with compassion, humility and grace—three things that the world is severely lacking right now.