Envy is a common emotion but learning how to overcome it will leave you feeling empowered…
Dr Mark Goulston, psychiatrist and author of Get Out of Your Way: Overcoming Self-defeating Behavior (markgoulston.com)
Lucy Sheridan, a comparison coach, helps people who are drained by constantly comparing themselves to others (proofcoaching.com)
Wendy Bristow, psychodynamic psychotherapist and counsellor (wendybristowpsychotherapy.co.uk)
Whether it’s a fleeting thought or a daily assault, everyone knows how envy feels. You may envy someone their international career, perfect marriage or effortless size eight; their poise, optimism or fearlessness. What starts in childhood (“Her toys are better”; “She’s more popular”) can still be going 50 years later (“I wish my daughter was more like hers”; “I wish I had grandchildren too”). But while comparing ourselves is part of being human – we all use others as a yardstick to see how we’re doing – envy can shut down our ability to be inspired or uplifted by what we see. Instead of helping us be our best possible selves, this endless “compare and despair” only tells us that we’re falling short. Envy leaves us feeling empty, inadequate and demotivated. So how can we break the habit?
There’s a lot of shame around envy – It is one of the seven deadly sins, after all! It feels mean and miserly, so our instinct is to keep it secret. But it’s important to realise that everyone experiences it, including those you’re envious of. And at certain times, it’s unavoidable. During a painful divorce, you’ll probably envy your happily married friends. If you’ve lost your job, you may envy your friend’s soaring career. Beating yourself up – and allowing yourself to be beaten by it – just makes it harder.
Be kind to yourself and accept that envy is a side effect when bad things happen. It can help to put it into words. When your only single friend finds love, leaving you alone in the desert of online dating, voice what you and she both know you’re feeling: “I’m thinking, ‘Good for you’, and it’s fantastic, but if I’m not coming across as excited, it’s because I’m envious.” Saying it out loud dispels the shame – and gives a route around the awkwardness.
Envy derives from the latin word invidia, or “non sight”, and it really is a form of blindness. When you envy someone, it’s your own skewed, idealised perspective of what they have or what you believe them to be. you know only how it seems from the outside and how it makes you feel on the inside. next door’s brand- new, top-of-the-range kitchen may look sleek and stylish, but in reality, the stress of paying for it or keeping it pristine could be making your neighbour miserable! similarly, your sister’s high-flying career may look incredible, but perhaps your job has allowed you a family life that she can only dream of – and envy! When envy strikes, remind yourself that you simply don’t know the true picture.
Sometimes judging from the sidelines and wallowing in a little “it’s not fair” seems easier than taking action to make positive changes. Try listening to your envy and identifying the patterns. What do you often find yourself envying and what does that signal? If you are constantly envious of your friend’s gorgeous figure – or indeed every 40-plus celebrity who looks great in a bikini – then instead of thinking, “It’s not fair” and reaching for another biscuit, use it as motivation to hit the gym.
You can choose to be envious of others or inspired and motivated by them for showing what’s possible. What is it you admire about the person you envy? What have they done to get where they are, and what can you do to get your life on track? Crucially, don’t berate yourself about where you may have gone wrong. That was then. Start taking steps in the right direction. When you’re moving forward and excited about the future – whether its your weight and fitness, career or relationships – it’s very hard to focus on comparing.
Envy is experienced as a “lack” – it highlights what we feel is missing. the remedy is to find ways to shift focus from what you don’t have, to what you do – and could be enjoying. In psychological terms, having this “abundance” mindset instead of a “scarcity” mindset is key to wellbeing. happiness won’t magically materialise when you acquire all the things you envy in others. It comes from appreciating what’s there right now.
At the end of each day, try boosting gratitude by writing down – or even mulling over – five good things that happened. They could be big or small. A good Skype chat with your son.
A walk in the park with your dog. Delicious bread from the local deli. A successful presentation at work.
Be generous. Volunteer or spend more time, energy or money helping people who are struggling (a widowed aunt, a sick friend). remember to compare downwards instead of upwards. Look at people who have less – think about the times you had less, the ways your own life has improved, and how you’ve grown. And consciously count your own blessings instead of the perceived blessings of someone else!
WATCH THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
“Compare and despair” can be contagious – so don’t surround yourself with people who obsess over the salaries, houses and holidays of others, or value possessions and qualities that you don’t.
Spend quality time with grateful people who have the gift for enjoying life as it is. When it comes to social media, think carefully about who you give space to. Where once we only compared ourselves with those around us, we’re now able to compare every aspect of ourselves with everybody and anybody – whether that’s former classmates we haven’t seen for 30-odd years, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg or Kim Kardashian!
Look at your social media feeds and Facebook friends with the “house party rule” in mind. Would you habitually invite someone like this into your house – to watch them take selfies, brag about their holidays and what they had for breakfast? Probably not, and yet you give them time, space and energy, and probably chose to follow them after less than two seconds thought. Every two months or so, look at your online connections, clean up your feeds and “unfollow” anyone that brings you down. (Your sister-in-law may be one person in real life and quite another on Facebook.) Find people who lift you up, make you laugh, inspire and challenge you in all the right ways.