Envy - An Ugly Emotion

April 10, 2023

The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself - Helmut Schoeck

Have you ever felt that ugly sense of anger or inferiority when you learnt that a colleague got promoted or that a friend got admitted to a school that you got rejected from? All of us have undoubtedly felt such feelings in the course of our lives. These feelings result from a comparison of ourselves to others which leads us to be envious of them. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to envy is to wish that you had something that another person has.

Comparison starts from an early age. Some research suggests that by the age of 4 months, a baby begins to compare bits of information which is evident when an infant cries when she sees a stranger's face that's different from the parents' faces. As we go on to formal school, we start to compare ourselves with our friends. Does she have more friends? Did he get higher scores? Can she sing better than me at Nativity? Also, our schools graded us on a scale, with one person getting the highest rank. Medals, certificates e.t.c were given to recognize those who excelled in math or swimming or other activities. In our families too, we compared ourselves to our siblings - there was the smarter one, the talented one or maybe even the prettier one. Our parents may have also exacerbated those comparisons through the way they showed affection to us. The smarter one probably got more gifts than others and so on. As we grew older, many of us have come to believe that external validation or valuation is what makes us worthy. As adults, we continue to compare ourselves to others constantly. We crave for the validation that comes in the form of promotions, awards or Instagram likes. Social media has supercharged our comparisons. Every second, we see the filtered "best life now" of our friends or family leaving us feeling unhappy with who we are and what we have.

In the workplace, envy can cause us to devalue other people's work or make us feel inferior in our work. Some research by Tanya Menon while studying people in organizations showed how people actually devalued the ideas of their collagues even when they reluctantly admitted they were good ideas but still found ways to put them down. These people were probably driven by fear i.e if other people were recognized for their ideas, what would happen to their own. This fear then leads to envy. They were worried about how they would compare to their colleagues, their own abilities and their place in the world. But this envy is generally an ugly, counterproductive and irrational emotion. It makes us feel unhappy about the success of someone else or about what they have, secretly feeling inferior. It can make it harder to focus and do our own good work. You may find yourself wishing that the other person would lose quality or possession of what they have in order to make things seem fair.

So how do we deal with this unpleasant emotion? First, remind yourself that it is human to feel emotions and so you should not feel bad about feeling envy. It's how we choose to act on those feelings that matters. Next, write down those feelings without judgement and give yourself time to feel the emotion mindfully. Then reason over it. Convince yourself why comparing yourself to someone else doesn't make sense as your journey in life is unique and different from anyone else's. There are things that you have in life that others don't and vice versa. This will always be the case in life. The reality is that there will always be someone smarter, better, stronger or more wealthy. That person could be you or someone else. Maybe you'll never get to the level that the person you're envious of got to and you should stop sitting there and ruminating about it. Finally, remind yourself that regardless of your awards, likes, promotions, YOUR value comes from within. As Raji notes in Daring to be Different, affirm to yourself that you are ENOUGH. You do good work, you try to be and ARE a good human. You have different abilities, talents and skills that you have developed over the years. You have had challenges and you have conquered or survived through them. That constantly comparing ourselves to others can hurt our emotional wellbeing and can affect our work and our day-to-day. It can even cause pain. Researchers in Japan found that when people are experiencing envy, the pain centers in their brain go off.

Freeing yourself from the control of envy will take time but you will get better with practice. If you find yourself triggered by certain situations like seeing some of your friends' posts on social media, feel free to unfollow them and give yourself compassion as you work on your self-esteem and self-affirmation. Even if it looks like benign envy whereby you admire the achievements of others and would like to emulate the same and work towards achieving the same achievements for yourself, be careful when you start to feel bad about yourself or fixating on why someone else seems better and instead focus on improving yourself daily. Next time you learn about your colleague's promotion or the graduation of your friend's daughter or the wedding of your high school friend when you have not achieved any of these but really desired them, applaud them without having a negative reaction and be happy for them. Recognize that we're all on a journey to become the best versions of ourselves.