How to Overcome Envy: 3 Simple Strategies
What can you do when someone has what you want?
A guide to overcoming envy
Earlier this year, when I learned my new co-worker owned a rescue dog, my first reaction was excitement. I had adopted my own, a sweet but traumatized one-eyed dachshund mix named Belle, only a year and a half before. In my colleague I thought I’d find an empathetic ear—someone who would relate to the difficult task of raising a rescue; instead, she raved about the ease of caring for her pup. Whereas Belle took several weeks just to learn to sit, and barks at every child and senior she passes, my colleague’s dog adjusted almost immediately to her new home, accepting pets and pats from any and all passersby.
I burned with envy, resenting my co-worker, if only momentarily, for having it easier than I did. As the day wore on, my mind spiralled: Did I simply not have what it takes to care for another living being? If I had kids, would I end up emotionally stunting them with my lack of patience?
Experiencing envy can send us reeling with a sense of deprivation and non-fulfillment while we neglect to appreciate our own unique circumstances. Although these uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy and covetousness can seem impossible to overcome, here are a few practical strategies to get beyond them.
Recognize your envy
Identifying that you’re envious at all is the first step, Vancouver personal and professional development coach Charina Cruz tells me. Often, she sees clients who come in with feelings of anger, frustration and sadness, but don’t know why. “They feel lost or confused by what they’re experiencing,” Cruz says. And although people never like to admit they are coveting what another person has, after a little digging she finds that envy is sometimes at the root of these difficult emotions.
If you suspect that your stress might actually be envy, Cruz recommends an exercise called the “five layers of why” to help understand the deeper reason for it. It’s simple: Ask yourself why you feel how you do, and then question your response with another “why,” and so on. Five layers in, Cruz says, you’ll typically get to the core of the issue—why, for instance, your sibling’s career success has made you unhappy, or why you resent your friend for buying a new home. As I discovered, my dog envy was, in fact, rooted in a deeper desire for validation that I’d some day be a competent parent.
According to Toronto psychotherapist Elaine Smookler, awareness of your envy is an important first step. “Recognition is liberation,” she says, adding that simply identifying a feeling can help reduce its power. Like Cruz, she suggests exploring the emotion—if not with a trained professional then in a journal, where you can write down your feelings to try and make sense of what you actually want.
“Through writing, you can begin to parse out and engage with [envy],” Smookler says. “It’s about noticing what you feel and think, and letting go of it.”
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Try empathy instead
Since envy causes us to feel inadequate next to someone who has what we don’t, it can have the unfortunate side effect of putting stress on important relationships. Of course, what that person has doesn’t actually threaten our well-being—we’ve only convinced ourselves of that—so one way to manage envy is to integrate a polar opposite emotion: empathy.
When we empathize with someone, our focus moves from our own perspective to someone else’s. That alone can be powerful, says Smookler. “When we’re self-referential—thinking we’re the star of our own movie—anything that feels like that’s being taken away from us can trigger us,” she says. On the other hand, when we wish another person well, that act itself can make us feel better about ourselves, a confidence boost that helps us regain the perspective that everyone has their own unique abilities.
Reframing things in this way can be crucial for overcoming envy in the workplace. A 2018 study for the American Psychological Association cites envy as the most common reaction to colleague accomplishments, which can lead employees to withdraw from their work—and become more likely to gossip or ostracize others in the office.
To counter this, researchers suggest managers create environments that nurture empathy by elevating the value of collaboration and teamwork over individual success. Or, if one employee must be celebrated, making it clear how others can achieve similar accomplishments will allow them to be happy for their co-worker.
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Even if it’s an unpleasant feeling, envy can help us recognize our desire for self-improvement or a change in lifestyle. Your friend with a cottage can inspire you to spend less and save for your own. Or your partner’s talent for public speaking can be an impetus to overcome your fear of it.
A 2011 paper by researchers from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University even reported that benign envy—where the coveted trait leads one towards inspiration rather than self-destruction—is a more effective motivating force than admiration. In fact, students experiencing this feeling towards others who performed better than they did were more than three times as likely to increase their study hours as those who looked at their peers reverently. Envy, the study’s authors concluded, causes more frustration, which in turn propels people to make an active change.
Jamie Gruman, a founding member of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, suggests being realistic when comparing yourself to others whom you aspire to be like. Setting unreasonable goals, he says, doesn’t allow envy to move into motivation. “Silver medallists can compare themselves to gold medallists, for instance,” he says. “But it doesn’t make sense for an everyday person to envy them.”
As for my dog-rearing self-esteem, Belle continues to growl at strangers on the sidewalk, and it’s easy to slip back into feeling inadequate—and consequently resentful towards rescue parents who have had a painless transition. But I do my best to combat it: reminding myself to be glad for my colleague, and that Belle’s progress is unique from other dogs—she may simply require more work than others.
If that familiar feeling of envy still bubbles up, I think of a simple suggestion from Gruman—“Be happy where you are”—and then shift my focus to gratefulness for what I do have rather than worry about what I don’t.
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