I asked a few people what they thought of when the word “envy” was mentioned and they said, “void”, “lack”, “draining energy”, and “shameful”. In the past, just hearing the word “envy” makes me reflexively shun myself and ask for forgiveness. It feels like a human defect, something we should all run from. And yet, it’s everywhere. It’s in the fast dart of our eyes when we glimpse that “perfect” family we wish we had. It gets served up when we hear “he” got the promotion at work (even if we didn’t go for it). Envy dances around us when we’re supposed to be happy for someone’s success, but her sly voice says, “who does she think she is?”. There are few places, groups or communities that envy doesn’t live.
Envy is defined as a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage. My guess is thinking about that definition right now, you have a skin-crawling feeling. But what if we decided envy wasn’t harmful, instead it was actually a powerful clue?
I’ve wrestled with my own envy all of my life in some pretty predictable and often misguided ways. Someone was always smarter, luckier, more attractive, more loved, had a better family or life (or so I thought).
But in the last year, I’ve been forced to look closer as my own envy blocked me from getting started on creating the life I wanted. Part of figuring out how I wanted to contribute in the world was researching countless people already doing exactly what I desired. But somewhere along the way, the more people I saw doing it, the more deflated I felt. It was like every beautifully branded website and YouTube video was a pin prick in my balloon. My inner voice defeatedly said, “well what’s the point in pursuing it then? Back to the drawing board Leah”.
That’s when I started questioning if envy really was my enemy. It had led me closer to what I truly wanted. I had asked for guidance and gotten it. Was it really meant to get me there so it could defeat me? I knew better than that.
A few days ago I was reading Gabrielle Bernstein’s guide on “10 Spiritual Ways to Succeed as an Entrepreneur”. In lesson 2, she talks about the perception of “enough” instead of scarcity. In the mindset of scarcity, we fear there is not enough of something for everyone. What became clear to me is envy coupled with a scarcity mindset is our danger zone.
Think about this simple example: Imagine you’re at a big dinner where your favorite dessert is ordered. The server inconveniently brings it to the opposite side of the table from you. You try to pretend you’re interested in what’s now become a boring discussion because you’re longingly eyeing that crème brulee. People seem to be taking inordinate amounts of it (leaving none for you). You see them licking their lips and imagine them enjoying the rich taste you may not get. You feel slight tension as you picture the ramekin showing up to your seat totally empty. You want to get up and grab it from the guy hogging it or yell down the table, “save enough for me!” At this point, you’re in a fearful, scarcity mindset.
This makes sense when it comes to food. It’s a basic human need and we are wired to crave it, consume it and protect it. As Hunter Gatherers, we needed that wiring. But at a restaurant, we know deep down we could just put in our own order if the crème brulee runs out.
However, we don’t carry that same certainty into other, more important areas of our lives. When we envy someone, we often couple the envy with some self-talk like, “I could never have that” or “that’d be too hard to achieve now, she started years ago”. We put ourselves deeper into disbelief instead of being certain we could just put in our own order. The truth is, there will ALWAYS be someone else doing what you want to do career-wise, in love with your dream partner, and getting your perfect doodle puppy.
But, before you proceed, examine your envy. Is it truly something you desire or are you “shoulding” yourself? If it’s really you, try exploring it. Here’s why: once we know our envy is authentic, it’s is a powerful guide because it gives us clues to our deep desires. And maybe some beliefs that are stopping us from going for it.
What’s amazing is when we decide that what we envy is possible to achieve, we can change our minds about the whole experience and get closer to our desire. A study in 2010 from Tilburg University in The Netherlands found that something called “benign envy” creates the same feelings as envy, except it’s coupled with believing that incremental steps could lead you to the same success you’re witnessing. Benign envy is actually linked to a desire for self-improvement. From this place we become inspired instead of ashamed!
Feeling like your envy is in the danger zone? Try this. Find 3 people who are doing what you want to be doing whether it’s learning how to play piano, start a business from scratch or live abroad. But don’t stop there- look back to the very, very beginning of their stories. Find their first Instagram posts, articles, videos, classes, you name it. Trace back to where they started! And get as close as you can to finding someone who feels like a mirror to you at the beginning of your journey. Don’t compare yourself to the “self-made” billionaire who started as a millionaire if you don’t have that in the bank now.
Now, does it feel so “green” to be envious? It can’t, because you’ve seen more than one person has created what you want and that it took incremental steps to get there. So…it’s possible!
The people we envy aren’t showing us that it can’t be done, they’re lighting our paths.
Once you’ve shifted your envy from dangerous to powerful, your power can move you into action. Each small action is like a puzzle piece as you slowly start to see the picture get clear. And when you’re clear, you’ll see you’ve always been able to create what you desire. But without befriending envy, you might not know what that is.