From Othello to Cinderella, Toy Story to Snow White, envy and its kissing cousin jealousy have always gotten a bad rap. It is, in the words of the evil Iago, “the green eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
But the truth is, envy and to a lesser extent jealousy, can be useful, and even productive emotions that don’t always lead to poisoning one’s beautiful stepdaughter or murdering a beloved spouse. The eminent British mathematician and philosopher, Betrand Russell, said that while envy is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness, it’s also at the foundation of how democratic and egalitarian societies are developed. How come so much contrast? His view counted on the genesis of the emotions and the ability to then work at altering the context. We are good at altering the context when we don’t like something, but what about when we want it? Now. Like an Oompa Loompa, give it to me!
In other words, the trick to generating happiness out of the despair and maliciousness created by envy and jealousy is in identifying where the feelings come from – what really generates them, not a superficial analysis…, and in what you do next. Are you willing to do the work necessary to improve your life or will you be passive and wallow in self-pity? Stated simply, envy and jealousy can help you realize what it is you really need and want, but you still need to do the work to make the proverbial lemonade.
In some cases, the first step is determining whether what you feel is envy or jealousy. While the words tend to be used interchangeably, they do have subtle, crucially different meanings. By putting your emotional experience into either the envy or the jealousy bucket, you’re on the way to understanding and using it in a positive way.
Envy is about what you don’t have. It is a lack, a longing, a hole to fill. Envy is what you felt as a kid when your sister got the bigger bedroom and as an adult when your best friend added another boat to her collection, won the Pulitzer or scored a pair of Jimmy Choos on sale. It is the entire plot of the Real Housewives of New Jersey and the reason we sort of hate Sheryl Sandberg, though we appreciate the advice.
Jealousy is about the fear of loss…it is about what you want to keep – your boyfriend, your status as the best lawyer in the firm, being the go-to parent on the PTA or ranking doubles champion at the club. It is how you felt when your parents paid more attention to your sister or when your spouse paid more attention to, well, anything. Jealousy makes you crazy, while envy makes you unhappy. While both are personal, one makes you feel depressed and the other makes you wish other people were depressed. You can’t be jealous of Sheryl Sandberg, unless the job she leaned into happened to be yours.
Of course, neither feels good. It seems petty, often pathetic, a clear indication that we are not the people we want to be, and so, on top of the discomfort of envy we often add an unpleasant layer of guilt – anger at ourselves for having this tacky, weak emotion. If we deal with it at all it is only to try to talk ourselves out of it or bury it deep in our psyches and pretend it’s not there.
At best, when we are trying to handle envy or jealousy we catalogue all the wonderful things we do have, our professional accomplishments and personal blessings in hopes that it will make us feel better about what we still want that seems just beyond our reach or about what we are constantly terrified is slipping away. That’s not a bad thing, but let’s be honest: How well does that work? Does Katy Perry reminding herself that she is an international superstar and one of few women in the world who can pull off a bustier as evening wear really ease the gut clenching she experiences when she sees Russell Brand with that blond?
Instead of trying to get rid of the guilt, refocus on the matter at hand: The envy or jealousy itself.
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize. Your best friend lost 30 pounds and is suddenly turning heads. Jealous? Why yes.
Other times, it’s hidden behind layers of denial. Let’s say that same friend tells you she is going to spend the next two years traveling the world and living in a collapsible yurt. Something hits you in the pit of your stomach. You assume it’s merely worry. What exactly is a yurt anyway? Is it safe?
Well maybe you really are just concerned for her future, but maybe, just maybe, what you are really concerned about is your own. Perhaps that gut punch is envy. She is spending her life as she wills it…not at the mercy of her husband, boyfriend, children, boss or parents. She is living her own life. Wow…wouldn’t that make anyone envious?
Once you recognize envy for what it is, use it as a catalyst for change. Figure out exactly what it is you envy her for and you lack. Maybe it’s as simple as needing a little excitement in your life or maybe it’s the beginning of acknowledging the need for a real, substantive change that makes the day into night. It’s up to you to process, fertilize and transform your envy into the fuel that propels positive change or the blissful acceptance and appreciation that demonstrate that you are truly becoming the person you admire most.
Jealousy is a bit harder to use for your own enlightenment but perhaps that much more important for you to understand and to take control of turning the tables. It’s not always going to work: Your bestie’s engagement ring is going to be hard to stomach if the love of your life just broke up with you any way you look at it. But it can be a useful exercise in figuring out exactly why you are so soured. Start by asking yourself some tough questions.
If you are feeling jealous it’s because you lost something. But what exactly did you lose? Each jealousy is merely a stimulus for you to examine your life, and while Plato’s words suggested the unexamined is not worth living, the over examined life may not be the way you want to live either. Assuming your friend isn’t marrying your ex, you’re not really losing anything tangible. The truth is what you have lost is an idea – about yourself, be it about your own desirability or your (perhaps totally unrealistic) previous vision of your future. Whatever it is, go ahead and figure out how you can regain what you actually lost…not the man but the love you felt. Chances are if you and Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful broke up before you could go the distance down the aisle it’s because those things weren’t really on offer in the first place. So maybe you didn’t actually lose anything and the jealousy and envy provided an opportunity for a productive new future… one in which you actually know what you need and want.
Jealousy is often a reaction to what cognitive behavioral therapists refer to as projecting the future. You see your friend happy and you predict –irrationally, that you will never be that happy. Remind yourself that you are not, in fact, clairvoyant, and your friend’s happiness can actually add to your own and that your thought pattern can use a readjustment to see potential, not pain.
Of course, not all envy can be turned on its head but the truth is, not all envy is painful or even negative. In some cases, you can not only use your envy but also enjoy it. Think about it. Is there anyone you hate more than Gwyneth Paltrow, with her Vegenaise and her handmade this and that and her smug and perfect skinny, blond, rich everything?
Still, the majority of what you hate is not hate at all. It’s envy but the fun kind, the kind you and your friends can giggle about and yet still, in the back of your subconscious mind, recognize that there’s a decent quinoa recipe on her Web site you could probably pull off and you could go to the gym or prioritize what the jealousy and envy brought so clearly to your mind. So thank you Gwyneth. We may hate you – or really, just envy you – but you are making us better despite yourself.
Often, of course, it’s not that easy. Envy can eat at you. Jealousy can indeed become a monstrous force, a dark green cloud that throws a pall over moments that should by all rights add to your happiness, not slice a blade through it. The feeling that the grass is forever greener over the hill you can’t climb needs to be replaced with climbing lessons or gardening lessons so that you get what you want instead of nagging dissatisfaction.
But the truth is, the monster is not that ferocious. Just by recognizing it you have sapped its strength, turned it docile, made it into your pet, to be taught and tamed and ultimately to make yourself stronger by serving your needs and wants…now that you know what they are. The grass you fertilize may become the envy of the neighborhood. Then walk magnanimously over to the other side of the street …. and teach your neighbor how to do the same thing.