How do I overcome envy?

by Apr 1, 2019Life & Money Q&As

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‘How can you overcome your envy of people who are your age but are far more successful?’

Take responsibility for overcoming envy.
It is only by taking decisive action that society
will heal itself of the wounds dealt by envy.

Why is overcoming envy of other people’s success so tricky? The answer, I believe, is that it is built into the human psyche. As long ago as the fourth century BC, Aristotle recognised the importance of overcoming envy. He defined envy as the pain arising from another’s good fortune. Resentment, Aristotle suggested, was sharpened by the sight of those who have what we think we ought to have.

Fearing its impact on both the individual and society, Pope Gregory listed it as one of the seven deadly sins. It wasn’t that Gregory was being a spoil-sport by proscribing human behaviours such as envy, greed and lust. He saw these as forces that could lead to a breakdown in society. Envy, for instance, could inhibit generosity and compassion in the envious. It could, potentially, lead to theft, hate and violence.

Envy in the digital world

Arguably, envy remains dominant today. The activities of individuals and organisations on social media promote resentment and give it the power to flourish. Social media provides individuals with a platform to read with envy about their ‘friends’ who would never have dreamt of expressing themselves so publicly in the past. Further, they can do so while remaining well removed from the impact their posts have on others.

Ethan Kross, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, studies the impact of social media on our wellbeing. He comments that “envy is being taken to an extreme”. We are constantly bombarded by “Photoshopped lives”, he says, “and that exerts a toll on us the likes of which we have never experienced (before).” In a masterful understatement, Kross comments that ‘it is not particularly pleasant’.

I am a life coach and financial coach. I know how money can generate envy, and I have seen its impact. Money jealousy stifles generosity and compassion. It creates anger, bitterness and self-centeredness and can be the most destructive emotion. I urge clients to take responsibility for overcoming envy. It is only by us each taking decisive action to do so that society as a whole will heal itself of the wounds dealt by jealousy.

I believe there are three ways of overcoming envy at the level of the individual.

Overcoming envy by letting go

The first approach relies on the assumption that your primary measure of success is financial. Sure, status plays its part, but in the main, you probably measure the success of others through their wealth, and especially their visible trappings of wealth. I am not saying this is right or wrong. I merely state it is as fact.

So the first approach to overcoming envy of anyone else’s success is to let go. Remember that there will always be someone richer than you and someone poorer.

You may have developed deep envy of your neighbour. He drives round in a flashy red sports car and doesn’t seem inclined to give you the time of day. It’s driving you crazy. However, even if he were to fall flat on his face tomorrow, having lost everything, there are still many who have more than you. But you are probably not envious of them, just because they remain unknown to you.

It is easier to let go of your envy if you keep in mind that there will always be someone richer and someone poorer than you. Letting go is the key to overcoming envy. It is so powerful the Greeks even had a word for it. ‘Kenosis’ simply means an emptying of yourself. Karen Armstrong, albeit in a slightly more spiritual context, describes it as an ‘emptying of yourself of the greed, selfishness and preoccupation that, perhaps inevitably, are engrained in our thoughts and behaviours but are also the source of much of our pain’.

Armstrong goes on to say that ‘once you give up the nervous craving to promote yourself, denigrate others, draw attention to your unique and special qualities and ensure you are the first in the pecking order, you experience an immense peace.’

Define your own success

Everyone makes their own success. Comparisons are odious. You are your own person. Everyone else is different. Your definition of success will be different from that of others. Keep your eyes on yourself and don’t compare yourself to others.

And indeed the second approach to overcoming envy is to define what success looks like to you. This will inform your own aspirations, lifestyle and uniqueness. If someone else’s success does not conform to your vision, then so what. It doesn’t matter.

Your relationship with money becomes a powerful driver of your own vision of your own success. The process of defining your success starts with determining your values, then your aspirations and goals. Again, avoid the influence of others in setting values and expectations. Your success does not have to be measured in financial terms. In fact, its probably better if you don’t run with the crowd on this one. Be unique.

Know yourself

Self-awareness is possibly the most fundamental approach to overcoming envy. Self-awareness matters. This is because the decisions and actions you take are influenced by where you stand on the spectrum between self-delusion and self-awareness. If you are experiencing envy, you are definitely in the realms of self-delusion.

Self-awareness goes deeper than just defining your own success. It involves exploring and understanding your core values. In turn, these drive your aspirations and expectations of your life. Envy has less of a place in your heart when you do this. And that means you will probably be more successful in your day-to-day living, loving, work and play.

When you are envious of someone, you indulge in self-delusion. You delude yourself into thinking of yourself as that other person, which you are definitely not. Self-delusion brought on by envy ensures your own view of the world bears little relation to reality. It will, therefore, result in poor decisions, stress and ultimately, failure.

When you know yourself, you can play to your values, your strengths and your weaknesses. In turn, this means you are more likely to live a life of integrity, to maximise your potential, to do no harm and to be a force for good. In other words, knowing yourself is fundamental to overcoming envy.

Fortunately, self-awareness is rising up the personal development agenda, and researchers and commentators such as Dan Gallagher, Tasha Eurich and Brené Brown have much to teach you on the subject.

It’s worth looking at what they have to say because self-awareness leads to growth and development. And because it is a precursor to overcoming envy, it helps you become a different and better person than you were.

Overcoming envy

In conclusion, envy is a dangerous and self-destructive emotion. As a life planner, I would urge you to control and overcome envy. Doing so will lead to a more fruitful, fulfilled life and to greater personal integrity. It will, most importantly, leave you well positioned to make a positive impact in the world and to bring about change for good.

References and acknowledgements

Armstrong, Karen, The Case for God, Vintage 2009, p29
Photo by David Papillon on Unsplash

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