We all know that envy is bad for us. We know that we shouldn’t compare our insides to other people’s outsides. We know that jealousy keeps us small when we really want to expand.
But it’s just so darn hard to let go of, isn’t it?
Personally, I feel like I am constantly getting stuck in the envy trap. Here are just a few scenarios that make my monkey brain go wild:
- People who “fell into” their current, amazingly successful roles. They barely try and the world is breaking down their door to consume everything they make.
- People who say that their Instagram followings started at 500 with just “family and friends.”
- People who develop thriving businesses using only word of mouth.
- Basically, anyone who’s success seems to come easily.
You might notice a theme running through these statements. They all rely on a story that I’m telling about how these people got to where they are. This story usually includes something along the lines of, “They’re good at this and I’m not, they are succeeding and I’m not, they have something that I will never have so I should just stop trying.” This quickly turns into “I’m not good enough. Nothing I do is enough.”
I recently realized that it’s this train of thoughts that follows from the feeling of envy that is destructive, rather than the envy itself. As a result, I’m working on dealing with envy in a constructive and positive way. Because these negative thoughts are based on stories that I tell myself, I can usually find my way through the negative feelings by examining and questioning these stories, and the beliefs that they’re based on.
Finding a way through envy
If you find yourself in the grip of comparison and envy, here’s something that you can try. Go for a walk or find a quiet place to sit. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself these questions:
1. Is that person’s life really as rosy and perfect as I’m imagining it is?
A few months back I listened to the entire first season of the Startup podcast in a short period of time. It centres around Alex Blumberg’s attempts to get his vision for a podcasting company off the ground, by pitching to investors, finding a partner, and hiring staff. It was a good story by a top radio/podcast producer and I found it entertaining. But the main reason that I enjoyed it so much and couldn’t stop listening was that it proved to me that everyone is just like me. Everyone is trying their best to make something meaningful of their lives, and everyone feels like they’re failing.
From my perspective, Alex is a very successful person, with plenty of accomplishments under his belt. It seemed that if anything could create what he was imagining it would be him. And yet, throughout the season, he was wracked with doubt, uncertainty, fear, low confidence, and everything else that those of us who are trying to make a mark in the world will feel. It didn’t stop him and he was eventually quite successful (the company he founded puts out some of my favourite podcasts) but it showed me that these processes that seem easy from the outside (I just started messing around and suddenly everyone wanted to buy my stuff!) never are quite so simple.
2. Do I really want what they have? All of it? Even the really hard parts?
Think about what the subject of your envy does on a daily basis to be where they are. Is that really something that you would want to do? Are you okay with spending hours writing and answering emails, pitching your work, or stuffing envelopes? Do I want to endure the mountains of rejection that I might need to get there? If you are, then skip ahead to question number 5. If not, then there’s probably just a particular aspect of their lives that you’re latching onto, so think about what that might be. Is it the freedom you imagine they have? Is it the fact that they’re always creating something new? Is it their level of skill? See if you can get clear on what specific thing your envy is based on and move on to the next question.
3. What can I learn from this envy? What is my heart longing for that is missing in my life?
The thing about emotions is that they don’t just pop up out of nowhere. The reason that you’re feeling envious of someone is that you believe that they have something that you wish you had—something you may not even have allowed yourself to want. So what is that thing? No matter how silly, unreachable, outrageous, or hopeless it seems, acknowledge that desire or that sense of lack. Let the feelings that it brings up wash over you and allow yourself to fully experience them. If you struggle with saying yes to your desires, check out Danielle Laporte’s Desire Map program—she has some great ideas.
4. Can I turn the envy into inspiration?
I love the blog The Jealous Curator. It’s a vast, rich source of inspiration and wonder but it was started by envy. This is from the creator, Danielle Krysa’s About Page:
“The Jealous Curator launched in February 2009, as a place for me to show artwork that “made me jealous”, in a bad, toxic, soul-crushing way. I was literally getting stopped in my tracks every time I saw work that I loved. It was awful. But now, over seven years later, that “jealousy” has turned magically, wonderfully, and thankfully into inspiration… but it’s too late to change my logo. In all seriousness, I’ve realized that jealousy can actually be turned completely on it’s head, and used as fuel to get back into the studio. It can only stop you if you let it. That’s when the magic transformation from jealousy to inspiration starts to happen. Granted, when I find work I love, I still find myself saying “Damn, I wish I thought of that” … but now it’s fuel for my creative fire!”
5. How can I bring more of what they have into my own life?
This is something that I’ve been actively working on. When I feel like someone has what I want, or are further ahead on a similar journey to mine, I try to think constructively about it, rather than tearing myself down. I start to wonder what they might have done to get there. In a few cases, I’ve asked them or people like them what they did to make that thing work. In this way, our objects of envy become role models and potential allies, rather than enemies. Enemies don’t do anyone any good.
6. Can I be excited about their success while also feeling good about my own path?
I often get stuck in either/or thinking, which can lead me to believe that if someone is doing something I care about, it means that I can’t. When I believe that there’s only room for one, I start to fret that other people will get there first and ruin my chances. But the truth is that, in most things at least, there is room for everyone. There is room for me, and there is room for you. As Marie Forleo says at the end of every video, “The world needs that special gift that only you have.” When I find myself feeling low because someone else is succeeding, I’m working on changing the belief that their success means my failure: both/and rather than either/or. Loving-kindness meditation is a good way to practice this since it helps you to send good feelings toward people who you might be resenting. You can find a guided meditation here.
“No one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself; you are its custodian and entrance. No one else can see the world the way you see it. No one else can feel your life the way you feel it. Thus it is impossible to ever compare two people because each stands on such different ground.”
― John O’Donohue,
7. How far have I come from where I used to be?
In truth, the only person that you ever should be comparing yourself to is your past self. Think about where you were a year, five years, ten years ago and what you have accomplished or how you have changed. Think about people that might be where you were back then and how they might envy where you are now. When I think about the box I used to live in and the amount of anxiety that I endured on a daily basis, I realize that I have made profound changes in my life and I am proud of those.
8. What am I grateful for?
Gratitude is an essential antidote to envy. It can help to write things down in a gratitude journal, but it helps even more to actively feel gratitude for what you have in your life. This is a story that Kurt Vonnegut wrote about a friend of his:
“True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”