Envy: from Flaw to Field Guide

Ever felt envious of someone? Of a promotion or award?  Of some praise that someone else received? Or maybe just some else’s life in general? I’d be really surprised if you’ve never felt envious.

So, thinking back, how did it make you feel?

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Envy usually drags us down — we are sad because, at that moment, someone else has something that we wish we had.

ENVY: a feeling of discontented or resentful longing

aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.

No matter your spiritual grounding, you have likely heard that you should NOT be envious. In Christianity, it is one of the seven deadly sins. And from Buddha, we are told: “do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.” And the philosopher Socrates said “envy is the ulcer of the soul.”

Is there a silver lining to this dark cloud of sadness? Is there something to be learned?

Envy can be consuming

In “Care of the Soul,” Thomas Moore acknowledges that “envy can be consuming. It can crowd out every other thought and emotion … it’s the longing that is so bitter.” But Moore’s book is about how we might care for the soul, and also how the soul cares for us. Envy could be one way that the soul is trying to tell us something important – it could be our field guide rather than our flaw.

Moore says that envy is made up of two parts: “On the one hand, envy is a desire for something, and on the other, it is a resistance to what the heart actually wants.”

So what is your envy really telling you?

Let me offer an example: Jane is envious of her colleague Patty whose business career is progressing at a rapid pace. In a few short years, Patty has eclipsed Jane and is now two managerial levels up. Jane is envious. But perhaps Jane’s envy is telling her something. What if Jane followed Moore’s advice and invited envy in to “hear what it has to say”? Looking closely at her choices that have led to her position today, Jane is reminded of the thoughtful choices she made in the past. She:

  • took time off work to care for her children
  • returned to work on a different career path to avoid travel for work

These insights let Jane see that her work position is one of choice — not because she is less capable than Patty — but because she’s on a different path. But the envy is also a chance for Jane to reflect, and make her decisions anew:

  • Does she want the career that Patty has — with the demands and the travel?
  • How might she put herself back on that track?
  • When will she be ready to do that?
  • What can she do now to move her in that direction?

So, envy is Jane’s guide, drawing her to reflect on her career — and make her choices.

It’s the same with any number of career and lifestyle choices that we make. Are we happiest working as a consultant or do we want to work for an established company? Do we want to stay in the same city, or are we willing to travel or even move homes for our work? Do we want a bigger/nicer home and are we willing to put in the work and sacrifices needed to achieve that level of financial success, or is something else more important?

Envy is a guide — and a good one — that can help us reflect on why something we covet is important. What are we yearning for? And what are we willing to give up to achieve it?

So, don’t let envy consume your thoughts, but likewise, don’t shun it — invite it in, reflect on it, and make your choices anew, whether you stay on the same path or choose another one.