What to Do About Envy

Including but not limited to Facebook…

Which is easier, finding someone to share your pain or someone to share your joy? If you think it’s the latter, it’s not just you and it’s not just humans either. A new study finds that a monkey will topple another monkey’s table of food if the first monkey thinks the second monkey got more. This, of course, suggests that the roots of punishing envy are more deeply embedded in our psyches than we may know.

There was a time when we might have completely denied that we ever envied anyone. ‘Who me? I’m not like that. Why would I be?’ Now that’s all changed. Maybe not as much for boomers, let’s say, many of whom may still insist they have nothing whatsoever to do with that particular emotion, but more for the younger set anyway. Enter Facebook. For them envy is not only an epidemic but has morphed itself into a social norm. Now it’s okay to feel envy of other people’s achievements, vacations, social connections… Now it’s okay to feel that life just isn’t fair when others have more. Some people just get sad, some get mad, and some get mad enough to punish. The punishments may be less blatantly obnoxious than throwing someone else’s food on the floor; sometimes the envious may just try to topple the reputations of those they envy instead. Gossip is good for this. Or mess with their self esteem. Shunning is good for that. But does anyone really think that envy does anyone any substantive good – when study after study suggests that envy tends to backfire in depleting one’s own satisfaction with one’s own life.

So is there any kind of envy that can do any good? Actually there is. Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” A working, single mother (we’ll call her Nancy)* once told me, in a rather disagreeable tone, how upset she felt when she noticed my nice new car in the lot. I asked her what my new car represented to her that she wished she had more of in her own life. “Security and Stability,” she replied. Nancy and I worked together in that space between her envy and her punishing behavior to find her freedom and growth. By the end of our work together, Nancy had used this new awareness to find herself both a new job she enjoyed and a loving marriage to go with it. As with other emotions, envy can be useful information if we use it that way.

Nancy is a fine example of how we can use envy constructively when we notice it in ourselves. What to do when we feel it from others? For this, we choose very carefully how and with whom we spend our time, including but not limited to Facebook browsing time. Notice your responses, and spend more time where and with whom you feel nourished and inspired, and less time where you don’t. Envy in any direction can be painfully depleting. Too much time in the faces of envious others is not good for you – and not good for them either. I know, it’s true, sometimes these people live and work with us, so for that we take replenishment breaks. Nourish yourself. Refine your self-talk. Allow yourself to see that in this very moment you and your life may be just fine. Thoughts are not facts; they are creations of our minds. If we are creating them in a not so hopeful and helpful way, we can recreate them in another better way. This takes practice. Practice, practice, practice…

For help with this or something else, call or write for an appointment today:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:  202.617.0821

Kristin L. Leimgruber et al. Capuchin monkeys punish those who have more, Evolution and Human Behavior (2015). DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.12.002

*Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2016. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.



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