How often do you look at a co-worker, friend, teammate, acquaintance, or celebrity and think to yourself, Shit, if I had what they had, my life would be complete!
How good would it feel to have that mansion in the hills? That Lambo in the garage? That private jet waiting to take you anywhere you wanted? That company worth millions, or billions?
Or maybe you want the perfect little family like the one down the street. Maybe you want your boss’s job or to own a cafe like the one you stop at each day. Maybe you want to eat at more fancy restaurants like your friend or to be fit like the people on the covers of magazines.
Whatever it is, you want something that someone else has. And when you see that they have it, you feel incomplete, insecure, inferior, down in the dumps, shitty.
You envy them.
And you’re not alone. One study found that 79% of women and 74% of men reported envying someone within the past year.
Not that envy is always bad. But, at it’s worst, envy can be an awful feeling that can overwhelm our lives. It can distract us from what’s important and make us do or think terrible things. This, I think, we’d all prefer to avoid.
The question is, can we do something about it?
Feeling envy might not be a choice, but what we do next is
Envy is caused by feeling inferior to someone else for what they have. This makes us feel like we have only three options: criticize the person to bring them down, work hard to bring ourselves up, or both.
The problem with putting someone down is that it doesn’t change anything. In an extreme case, you spread rumors around the office about someone you envy and utterly destroy them. Then what? What have you accomplished? Do you really think that no one will fill their place?
If you’ve allowed envy to dictate your actions in the past, you’ll allow it to dictate your actions in the future. This is a habit. Your actions aren’t anyone else’s fault — they’re yours.
There’s a lovely quote by Victor Frankl, author and Holocaust survivor, that paints the picture nicely:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
It is our responsibility to find the space that Frankl describes so that we can choose our response. If we don’t choose our response, we are simply repeating the unthoughtful patterns of behaviour that we’ve absorbed throughout our lives.
If you grew up like me, no one ever taught you what to do with envy — you simply felt it in yourself and observed it in others. Maybe you observed how your parents or friends dealt with envy. Maybe you observed how teachers, extended family, or characters in movies dealt with envy. Wherever you observed it, you probably didn’t see anyone effectively dealing with its dark side. So, just like everyone else, you’re stuck repeating ineffective patterns of dealing with envy.
When people are envious, they typically behave like this is a problem that lies outside themselves. It does not.
When you are fixated on what other people have, you are ignoring the real problem — you. It is YOU that envies. The reasons for your envy are internal, not external. No one is forcing you to feel envy.
You are feeling envy because of how you feel about yourself. And nothing that happens to anyone else is ever going to change that.
Our salvation, then, must lie inside of us.
Reframing our envy
Reframing a situation refers to a shift in mindset about it. For example, when you’re boss is being an obstacle to your work you might think, Why do I have to be so unlucky to have a boss that prevents me from doing my job! This is a self-defeating thought because it causes paralysis and helplessness. By repeating this thought over and over, the situation only gets worse and worse.
Instead, you could ask yourself, What can I do right now that would make a positive difference to this situation? Although you might not immediately have an answer, it breaks you out of paralysis and helplessness. By repeating thoughts like these that empower you to take control of the situation, your mindset will shift.
Can we reframe envy so that it has less of a negative impact on us? Yes, I believe we can. But, it’s going to take work.
Below are a few things you can remind yourself when you feel envy that will help you change your mindset toward it.
- We idealize what we envy. We tend to look at the positives in people’s lives, and not give any thought to the negatives. What did they sacrifice to achieve what they have? Are they really as happy as we think they are? Would we really be happier if we had their success? Would we really want to live their lives? If we’re honest, the answers to these questions aren’t as obvious as we think they are.
- We are often wrong when it comes to predicting our future happiness. We might look at what someone else has and strive for it. We might sacrifice years of our lives to achieve what they have. And when we get it? We don’t feel the satisfaction that we thought we would. This is a well-known phenomenon in psychology. After a year or two, even lottery winners return to the same level of happiness they had before winning. Remind yourself of this often.
- Your journey is your responsibility. Mark Manson, author and blogger, thinks we need to take radical responsibility for our lives. Instead of dwelling on past events that we can’t change, Manson believes we need to refocus our attention on what we can do right now to improve our circumstances. But, this doesn’t mean sweeping problems under a rug. On the contrary, it means dealing with problems head-on and making them our responsibility to solve.
- Your journey is unique to you and it only ends when you die. Theodore Roosevelt once said, Comparison is the thief of joy. By comparing yourself to others, you are taking away your ability to enjoy your life today. You will literally never get to live this moment again — what will you do with it? Will you spend it wishing you were someone else? Or, will you spend it pursuing what brings you joy, satisfaction, happiness, or contentment now? Find meaning in the things you do on a daily basis, and you will realize that it’s all you need. And don’t pursue anything thinking that once you achieve it, your life will suddenly be easy, happy, and relaxing. Your journey, and your struggle to find meaning, will continue until the moment you die. But, that doesn’t have to be depressing — that can be the reason you need to do what you love today, rather than putting it off for the proverbial tomorrow.
Give one or more of these a try and let me know how it goes. I hope they help you on your journey!
Thanks for reading! The ideas presented here have been influenced by the thoughts of Mark Manson, Ryan Holiday, Sam Harris, and Frank Ostaseski.