“We just started using the terms boyfriend and girlfriend last week!”, my friend gushed to me.
“Oh my god, congratulations, that’s so exciting!” I heard myself say. Some part of me did mean it. But another more shadowy part of me felt a heavy blanket of envy come over me.
I felt like my friend’s excited words should have inspired selfless happiness for her, but instead I immediately compared my single-ness to her newfound romance and I felt this complicated smoothie of emotions. You are supposed to be happy for your friends! Why was I making this about me? Why can’t I just be purely, graciously happy for her rather than this abhorrent concoction of envy, loneliness, and shame?
I wrestled with this situation, not wanting to admit it to anyone. And then I realized that envy really thrives in our society, precisely because it’s rarely admitted to or talked about. It is a “deadly sin” after all. No one wants to be that person who is envious of those around them. Especially if the envy is related to friends and loved ones. There is a lot of shame attached to wanting what someone else has, and that shame is multiplied when we try to hide it away or pretend it’s not there.
en·vy /ˈenvē/ noun: desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable attribute belonging to someone else.
There are a lot of benefits to a capitalistic society that fosters uniqueness, independence, and ingenuity. But this environment can also cultivate a sense of shame around any hint of desire for what someone else has or does. We see this shame rooted early on, as children tease each other for being “copycats” and teenagers chide “posers” for trying to be something they’re (ostensibly) not.
These same messages are carried onto adolescence and adulthood where the taboo of envy becomes even more inked in. Envy-shaming is hidden in more subtle words like “basic” and “bitter”. Don’t be basic is code for Don’t like what everyone else likes. For God’s sake, be unique! You long to travel to Machu Picchu after seeing your friend’s Instagram photos of it? Psh, that’s so basic. Go somewhere more original. Bitterness is used to describe people who’ve failed to hide their envy — the bitter single woman who’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride, the bitter colleague who didn’t get the promotion, the bitter sibling who’s always outshone by his older brother. If you’re the bitter or basic person in this situation, you never admit it. The underlying envy becomes a secret emotion, pushed down in the name of being a worthy person.
But pushing away your uncomfortable emotions is never the answer. Shame flourishes in the dark.
The truth is, most of us feel envy sometimes whether we want to admit it or not (unless you’re a Buddhist master who truly has no ego, in which case, you win). We look at our friends’ photos of their carefree, yoga-filled, vespa-riding adventures in Bali and wish we had the time and money for that. We see our peers excelling at work or starting their own business, and we hope we can achieve the same success. We see our friends get married, or get pregnant, or buy a house, and we feel behind, aching to skip ahead to where they are. We see the chiseled bodies of people we know and don’t know and think, gosh I wished I looked like that.
Our knee-jerk reaction is to shame ourselves for feeling this way. But what if instead we get curious about our envy? What if we can show our envy some love and shine a light on it? Instead of closing it away in the closet, invite Envy to the table. Offer Envy some hot cocoa and sit with it for awhile. It’s a part of you and offering it love and attention will allow you to actually benefit from having felt it.
Because really, your envy has some important information for you!
Envy is a pointer to your own limiting beliefs
We feel envious of others often because we believe we can’t have what they have. Digging deeper into this feeling can show us where we have limiting beliefs about ourselves. If you’re envious of someone else’s career success, you could realize that it comes from a belief of “I’m not smart enough”. If you’re envious of someone’s epic travel adventures, you might believe “I’ll never be that free and spontaneous”. If you’re envious of someone’s romantic success, you might have a believe that “I’m just not lovable like that”. Chances are if you feel deeply envious in certain realms, you have beliefs in that area that are holding you back. These are beliefs that are triggered by the envy, but likely have much deeper roots. Loving and shining a light on your envy allows you to uncover these limiting beliefs and work on changing them, rather than projecting them into your future.
Envy can be reframed as an expansion of what’s possible for you
Those that you’re envious of can become people who you look to for inspiration, or as a favorite teacher of mine calls them, “Expanders”. If you can titrate some of the shame out of feeling envy, you can choose to see the success of others as proof that you too can have success! So your friend found love? Great! It means you can too. Someone you used to work with created an app and it’s thriving? Cool, now you know it’s possible. On some level, you want what you want because your soul knows you’re capable of achieving it. If you can reframe your envy towards people, they become important mirrors of success for you — you can observe what qualities they embody and know that you have, and can embody these same qualities within yourself.
“What inspires us about others is a mirror of our capacity and capability.” — Lacy Phillips
Envy can be inspiration for change in your own life
The discomfort of envy can quickly reveal areas of our lives that we’ve been shirking or procrastinating in. Maybe we’ve been wanting to take that solo trip to South America but have been too nervous. Maybe we wanted to develop an artistic side hustle, but haven’t put in the time. Maybe we’ve wanted to get in shape but keep making excuses. Sometimes seeing others who have what we want, or who are where we want to be, can inspire us to finally make a change. Without that person there to be envious of, we may have never felt the urge to finally jump into action!
In my case, the envy around my friend’s newfound love made me realize that I still have some work to do around trusting that the love I’m looking for is out there. Once I realized this, I was able to extricate myself from the swamp of envy and guilt, and feel truly happy for her. The experience reminded me that I’m only human and I’m bound to feel envious every now and then, but it’s better to just acknowledge it rather than shun it. Envy may be uncomfortable but loving your envy will always be more fortuitous than pretending it’s not there.
Envy is much better as a friend than as a foe.