Real Talk Time: Feeling Envy Is OK (and This Is Why)


Envy is one of the “forbidden” emotions. We all experience feeling envy from time to time (I certainly do), but we’re unlikely to admit it—even to ourselves, let alone to other people. This is because envy isn’t an acceptable emotion in our culture. Admiration, celebration, gratitude: all of those things live in the light and are the feelings we’re more likely to discuss (they can also become an “envy bypass,” the safe experiences we turn to and name when it’s too uncomfortable to admit we feel envious).

But the reality is we can feel those things and also feel envious. We can be happy for someone’s engagement and still feel a pang of envy about the seemingly happy and stable relationship we long for ourselves. We can see someone get promoted, get published, win an award, and be happy for them, and still feel a longing for that kind of recognition and visibility ourselves. We can see someone’s holiday snaps on Facebook, enjoy the beauty of them, and still wish we had the opportunity for more peace in our hectic lives.

And that’s OK. As long as we respond appropriately. The uncomfortable piece that comes with feeling envy is another thought riding alongside those dual emotions “… and if I can’t have those things, I don’t want that person to have them either.” This is where feeling envy becomes no bueno, and what we’ll explore in this post.

Feeling envy is a neutral occurrence. It’s what you do next that makes or breaks the situation.

Before we get to that, if you’ve been telling yourself you shouldn’t feel envy because envy is bad, here’s the reality:

Envy is hard-wired. It’s an evolutionary mechanism for survival. When our ancestors saw a fellow caveman with an antelope they didn’t have, they felt envy. As a result, they either deferred to the other caveman as someone who possessed superior hunting skills, found a way to get rid of him and keep the antelope for themselves, or were spurred on to get an antelope of their own. Envy is part of the reason you and I are here today!

Like it or not, envy is an emotion and emotion drives action.

And this is where we need to be mindful.

Envy can absolutely be destructive as I mentioned. The dark side of envy is that thought: If I can’t have this, no one else should be able to either. Unchecked, it can lead us to want to tear people down, to try to take away what we think they have. It leads to nasty gossip behind someone’s back, it leads to doing things that try to keep the object of our envy small.

Envy can absolutely be a driving force for good too when we recognise and accept it for what it is and make the conscious decision to respond appropriately. Recognising we are feeling envious can lead to fruitful self-exploration: what is it this person has I want? (Hint: this is usually less about material goods and achievements and more about our needs and what those things represent to us). How do I imagine I’ll feel when I have it? Where am I denying myself this thing right now? In what ways am I keeping it out of my life? And how can I meet this need in the future?

Jill is listening to Bob talk about his glorious two weeks in the Bahamas and recognises a creeping sense of envy. As she pauses and asks herself the questions above, she realises the source of her envy isn’t Bob’s holiday to the Bahamas, but what she imagines is the experience behind it. She yearns for a greater sense of freedom in her life, and imagines Bob has the freedom allowing him to take such a trip without stressing about finances. As she explores it further, Jill also realises she envies the quality time she imagines Bob having with his significant other on his trip. She craves that kind of time with her partner, which is difficult with their hectic schedules. With these two core needs—freedom and connection—identified, Jill thinks about where she might keep these things out of her life, and where she has opportunities to allow herself to experience more of these things. She resolves to make time to explore all the different ways she could experience more freedom in her life, and to talk to her partner about spending more quality time together and planning something for them both to look forward to in the future.

This example shows envy isn’t the forbidden fruit we make it out to be. In fact it can be good—with the enormous caveat it’s good when we put that energy and drive to good use.

What’s not a good use? Writing nasty things about people online. Shaming someone for having more than we do. Downplaying people’s wins and successes because they feel threatening. Trying to undermine someone else because we perceive them to be more successful, smarter, more attractive, or more whatever than us. Good use includes (but isn’t limited to) identifying what’s provoking envy: the need, the desire, the longing. Is it for love? To be seen? To feel like we matter? To feel useful? To feel worthy of taking up space? And using that envy to renew our focus on our own patch of grass, on our own actions; looking at what’s missing and how we’re keeping it out.

The counter-intuitive thing about feeling envy is it’s nothing to do with the other person. It’s a reflection of our own feelings about ourselves and our lives.

If you’d like to explore the roots of your envy in more depth, here are a few writing prompts you can use:

1. When was the last time you remember feeling envy?
2. What was the situation? Write the facts, leaving your interpretation out for now.
3. What was the story you told yourself at the time?
4. Getting as specific as possible: what provoked the envy? This is usually not something tangible, but more of a core need (you can use this list to help).
5. What is impeding you meeting more of this need in your life?
6. How are you getting in the way of you meeting more of this need in your life?
7. What is one thing you can do differently going forward to meet more of this need in your life?

Have you ever had something positive come out of feeling envy? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Further reading: A discussion of the book 'Envy' by Helmut Schoek & tired of feeling creative envy? Read this.

Feeling envy is something we all experience. Although envy is often spoken of as a "bad" emotion, it can actually be useful. Click the image to find out how |