Beyond comparison: Overcoming envy
There are occasions when we may find ourselves spending a solitary evening scrolling through social media. We see an old colleague who is travelling through Japan. A couple are eating in a trendy new restaurant. Another person is documenting the renovation of their new house. The contrast between our own experience and the seemingly vibrant lives of others suddenly evokes a sense of isolation in us.
Engagements or pregnancy announcements, in particular, may stir challenging emotions. The isolation intensifies, leading to feelings of anger and resentment towards the experiences others are enjoying. At times, we may even convince ourselves that we are more deserving of these experiences. Conversely, when we learn about a friend facing relationship challenges, or losing their job, a subtle undercurrent of satisfaction may arise within us.
A universal struggle
Envy is a familiar emotion, one that can sneak into our lives when we least expect it. While envy is a universal human experience, when it transforms into a more hostile or depressive force, it can have profound effects on our well-being. Sometimes it can feel as if envious reactions are beyond our control.
While these emotions might be something we're reluctant to disclose to others, many individuals can empathise with them.
Envious emotional responses may include:
- Frequently scrutinising or judging what other people are doing in comparison to your own life.
- Feeling unhappy when others around you have success, or finding it difficult to celebrate that success.
- Noticing joy when other people experience setbacks or failure.
- Downplaying or diminishing the success of others.
- Becoming upset when people receive compliments.
- Copying or competing with a person you feel envy towards.
Our society fosters the cultivation of envy
From childhood, we are encouraged to define ourselves in relation to others. Furthermore, our society actively promotes the habit of social comparison and reinforces a perspective that deems continuous success or accumulation as essential for being considered "worthy."
Engaging in such comparisons can create a sense that others' joy and success are depriving us of something, giving rise to feelings of resentment or anger, directed either inwardly or outwardly. This experience can lead to a sense of shame as we grapple with bitter feelings about another person's good fortune or happiness.
In any situation where an envious response is particularly strong, it is usually because it is related to a perceived sense of inadequacy in ourselves:
- The colleague who gets a promotion at work brings up our deep-seated fear that we are never trying hard enough professionally.
- A friend’s new relationship highlights our insecurity that we aren’t worthy of love.
Envy’s connection to anxiety
The internal dialogue fuelled by envy can permeate our thoughts, magnifying our sensitivities and making us more prone to experiencing anxiety in multiple areas of our lives. Feelings of envy often lead to unkind thoughts and emotions directed not only towards others but also towards ourselves. This self-directed negativity creates a fertile ground for the activation of anxiety.
The impact on relationships
When someone experiences strong feelings of envy it can significantly affect how they respond to and treat other people. If others perceive that our reaction to the joys in their lives is marked by envy, it may trigger defensiveness and hurt. It can be difficult for our loved ones to comprehend that as a response to their happiness, we have focused on our own emotions.
Envy causes us to see other people’s lives unfairly, and may often whisper to us that someone else has a “perfect” life, while ours is comparably inferior. While it’s undeniable that some people’s lives are easier than others, can we really say anyone else’s life is “perfect”?
Seeing those around us in such a two-dimensional way flattens the complexities of human experience and difficulties, and we often don't know what a person is going through in private.
Envy takes us away from compassion
Many can relate to the frustration of hearing someone complain about their stresses when their life appears considerably more fortunate than our own. Envy can cause us to flatten the difficulties of others, taking us away from our innate ability for compassion. This is often because envy easily leads us to self-pity.
Self-pity means feeling sorry for ourselves, that feeling of life being "unjust". Self-pity distances us from our inherent coping abilities and hinders our ability to perceive the broader perspective.
There is a crucial difference between self-compassion and self-pity; when turned inwardly, compassion is a learning experience, whereas self-pity is a reinforcement of being a victim and can exaggerate the extent of our personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and others without these feelings of disconnection.
Isolation as a result of envy
The cycle of self-comparison reinforces a mindset that accentuates differences rather than shared humanity. When we adopt a perception of ourselves and our challenges as fundamentally separate from others in our lives, we tend to establish emotional or even physical distance from the people around us. This process sets the stage for a potentially damaging cycle.
As we retreat into our own concerns and isolate ourselves, the temptation to measure our progress and successes against theirs becomes ever more pronounced. This self-comparative analysis can then contribute to a distorted perception of our own worth and accomplishments.
This sense of isolation often gives rise to the bitter irony of intense envy; amid self-criticism and negativity, we frequently discover ourselves utterly unmotivated to make any positive changes in our lives.
Strategies for rediscovering what truly matters
Acknowledging envy is the first step towards change. Like any emotional challenge, it's impossible to address or transform what we are not aware of. By recognising envy within ourselves, without judgement or shame, we open the door to new experiences.
- Pay attention to instances of envy in your life. Begin noticing any patterns, triggers and contributing contexts. Do you adhere to a specific narrative about what constitutes a "successful" life? Are there instances where this narrative might have exceptions or variations?
- Shift your perspective by considering the possibility of being envied. Explore how others might envy you and reflect on how that would feel. This exercise encourages recognition of the complexities of emotions on both sides of the envy spectrum.
- Evaluate your social circle. The tendency for social comparison can easily spread. Consider the values of those around you. Are you surrounded by individuals who embrace social comparison as a fundamental aspect of life?
- Appreciation of the positive aspects of your life. While not always easy in practice, gratitude is a powerful antidote to envy.
- Recognise envy as a guide to personal desires. An envious reaction can be a useful sign for what you really want, or aspects of your life that may need attention or improvement.
- Assess your wishes for others. Delve into your true intentions and desires for those you care about. Reflect on whether you genuinely wish them well or if envy is clouding your emotions. Question whether these feelings align with the person you aspire to be.
Remember that change is not always a place of comfort. By incorporating new reflections, you can navigate the complexities of envy and build more meaningful connections with others.