You’ve probably experienced envy enough times by now to learn it has no upside. But it’s hard to break the cycle of envy. Wanting what someone else has can lead you to feel bad about yourself, even to act in ways you later regret.
Envy’s a human condition. It’s one of the so-called seven deadly sins, after all. As human beings, we’ll always confront feelings of envy at some level. But still, it’s possible to break the cycle of envy in your own life. Here are some thoughts on envy’s destructiveness and how to free yourself from it.
Envy declines with age but doesn’t go away
A 2015 study at the University of San Diego (USD) found that older people envy less than younger people. In fact, how often a person experiences envy correlates more strongly with their age than with their political views, education, income or gender.
The object of people’s envy also shifts with age. Younger people envy others’ scholastic, social and romantic success. Older people’s envy focuses more on financial achievement. All ages envy others’ “luck” or “overall better life.”
Although you tend to experience less envy as you grow older, you never stop. About 80% of USD study respondents under age 30 vs. 69% of those over 50 reported “at least one strong feeling of envy in the past 12 months.”
Midlife envy of our past selves
In addition to envying others’ lives, success and money at midlife, you also may envy your bygone youth. In Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy,* Frank John Ninivaggi of Yale Medical School writes about the role of envy in the midlife crisis.
Ninivaggi asserts that envy involves automatic splitting into polar extremes of idealization and devaluation. You tend to idealize and grieve your youth. At the same time, you devalue what is about to happen in older age. You view your life beyond this point as a downhill journey.
These concepts of idealization and devaluation feed your sense of loss at midlife. It’s easy to regret past decisions, opportunities not taken, and so on. You might even connect your envy of others’ current success with a “woulda/coulda/shoulda” attitude about your past.
Envy’s downward spiral
On its own, envy is a negative emotion. But envy connects with feelings of inferiority. Left unchecked, it cycles down into self-pity, isolation and doubt.
This can happen even if you perceive someone else to be more successful than you, regardless of the facts. It goes for small as well as big stuff. You can envy another’s professional success or their bridge game. No matter how it starts, envy ends poorly.
Envy leads to self-pity
If you feel envious enough of someone else’s success, you start to feel sorry for yourself. Let’s illustrate with an example from a recreational activity I enjoy.
I start by envying a friend’s tennis skills because she’s improving faster than I am. I may be working just as hard, practicing just as much as she is, but I’m not seeing the payoff – at least not yet. This doesn’t seem fair. So I feel sorry for myself.
From self-pity to isolation
I notice my friend’s improving skills are gaining her invitations to teams I’m not being asked to join. I might even hear of a third person who’s joining a group of higher-level players.
Before you know it, I’m feeling left out. I tell myself, “It’s not my fault. People are being unkind to me. I deserve to be included as much as anyone else does.”
My mind jumps from observing one or two people surpassing me to feeling like everyone’s leaving me behind. But it can continue to get worse.
From isolation to self-doubt
The next step on the downward spiral is wondering if there isn’t a bit of truth in your feeling isolated. So for example, you wonder if people are leaving you out because, at some level, you don’t deserve to be let in.
It sounds odd when you spell it out like this. But how many times have you gone from feeling left out to feeling inferior? A 2014 study of age, beauty and confidence found that over half of women ages 45+ feel “left on the shelf” and “judged negatively” because of their age. Moreover, only 15% say they feel confident in any area of their life.
Envy is bad but you can break the cycle
Pretty much everyone agrees that envy is bad. The only “good” envy researchers have identified is more akin to admiration. Admiring another’s success can motivate you to work harder and achieve your goals.
But in general, envy is a topic on which philosophers, psychologists and scholars of the world’s major religions agree. They all attest to the destructiveness of envy and advise you to avoid it.
The good news is that you can break the cycle of envy and its grip on your life. I’ll start with some simple practices to help you interrupt envy’s downward spiral. Then I’ll explore what religious tradition has to say about envy.
Break the cycle of envy: simple practices
Sometimes I’ll notice I’m feeling envious, and I’ll tell myself to “snap out of it.” But this is easier said than done. More often, avoiding envy’s negative effects is something you learn to do gradually over time. Something you have to keep practicing.
There are a few practices to try. See what works for you.
A great way to finish up your day is to note What Went Well (WWW). I’m not much for journaling. But I’ve found it easy to take a couple of minutes before I go to bed and jot down three things that went well that day. This helps me close off the day in a positive mood and feel grateful for the good things in my life. I’ll tend to go to sleep more quickly, less anxious about tomorrow.
You can keep a little notebook beside your bed if you want. I like to use the journal app Day One on my phone. I don’t use the rest of its journaling functions, but I set a reminder on the app. It helps me remember it’s time to write today’s WWW. And time to go to bed!
I’ve discussed meditation’s benefits and apps that help you meditate elsewhere. Calming the mind is a great way to train yourself to let go of negative emotions like envy that can spiral out of control.
A meditation series I like for this purpose is Acceptance on Headspace. A key element of this pack is to ask yourself, “Who or what are you resisting in your life right now?” One of the teachings is that you tend to resist someone or something that reminds you of a quality you don’t like about yourself. Lots of learning to uncover here.
It sounds selfish, even narcissistic. But if you’re slipping from envy into feeling isolated and inferior, you’ll benefit from reminding yourself of your strengths. You can start by listing stuff you’re good at.
Your list can include whatever you want. Maybe you’re a spreadsheet whiz. Maybe you’re good at helping events run smoothly by taking care of things others don’t notice. Or you make a great mojito. If you’re okay sharing your list with someone else, ask your spouse or friend to help you add to it. They may notice something you take for granted.
You might enjoy using a self-assessment tool like StrengthsFinder. The exercise of identifying your abilities in this way can even help you discover strengths you didn’t know you had. Or things you “just do” that you didn’t realize were actually strengths.
Turning your attention to someone else can do wonders for your experience of envy. Focusing on another person’s needs can give you a completely different perspective on your own problems and inadequacies. You can join an organization as a volunteer, or look for ways to serve the people right around you. Helping others will end up helping you, too.
Break the cycle of envy: own your own journey
It’s hard to resist comparing yourself to others. Sometimes it looks like we’re on the same journey, only one of us is making better progress. But even if our destinations are similar, our paths are distinct.
You’re on your journey; I’m on mine. Our paths may overlap, but each of us arrived where we are now via different experiences. And neither of us can foresee individual twists and turns that lie ahead.
Right now, I may want your journey. But things could change. Or my perceptions might be inaccurate – maybe if I knew the truth, I wouldn’t want your journey at all.
Life’s complicated enough. It’s best for me to focus on my own path. Not to wonder if I’d be better off on yours.
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