The price of envy

20 October 2020 | Columns

Octavia Tsibes

What is it about people that makes it hard for us sometimes to feel happy for others? We want to be good friends, good neighbours, good citizens, but every once in a while someone we care about might win a big award or receive a wonderful gift and, instead of swelling with happiness, we feel punctured. We hope we have the grace and manners to suppress this feeling, or at least hide it. We might smile and say, “Congratulations!” But what we feel inside is thorny and dark.

Even when we try to hide our envy, it usually shows through. Most of us know what it is like to have something great happen and realise that someone we care about feels resentful. This happened to me when I was in eighth grade.

I won a big award at my primary school for being the best cricket player and some of my closest friends could not hide how upset they were. They even made little digs at me and insinuated I did not deserve that title. At the time, I felt hurt and angry and confused. I had worked really hard for that award and I was proud of myself for winning it. I could not believe that doing so might cost me my friendships. That should not be the price of success.

Since that experience, I have thought a lot about envy, and I have tried to remember times in the past when I felt envious of others. Envy is not fun for anyone, but I think there are some steps we can take to manage it.

The first is to simply admit that we are sometimes envious. This does not mean we are bad or weak or petty. It means we are normal. Envy was probably once useful to our survival. Back when we lived in caves, the person who caught the biggest fish or speared the biggest boar was the one most likely to survive. Our envy would have driven us to fish longer, hunt harder, and maybe even to steal from the cave next-door, but all of this would have been in the service of staying alive. Today, we still have the same impulses. But without the threat of death, these impulses are triggered over hair colour and designer bags and middle school awards.

The second step after admitting that we sometimes feel envious is recognising when we actually do feel that way. If we know we are feeling envious, we can identify the stories envy is telling us in our head, stories like, “She doesn’t deserve that award,” or, “Everything good always happens to him,” or, “Because something good happened to her, it means that nothing good will ever happen to me.” These stories are ridiculous. And if we realise that, we won’t believe them.

The third step is to imagine the experience from the other person’s point of view. When something good happens to someone else, we should take a minute to think about what it means to them and how it feels for them and what it might be like for them if we let our own feelings interfere with their happiness. This also means that when it’s our turn in the spotlight, we try to understand that others might be feeling disappointed or discouraged. And even though these negative feelings might be directed at us, they really are not about us at all.

There are probably some people who are able to resist envy entirely. For most of us, though, it is just a reality. Sometimes it is going to come at us and sometimes it is going to come from us. But if we are mindful and careful and considerate of each other’s feelings, envy doesn’t have to cost us.

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