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How to Deal with Envy: A Complex Emotion

How do you deal with an emotion that can control your every waking hour?


We can all recall a moment in time when we were envious. We saw someone, and they had something. Or they were something. And we didn't have that something. We weren't that something. And we wanted it. Badly.

It's at moments like this the green eyed monster rears its ugly head. And yes, it's ugly! No one wants to admit to envying someone for being or having something. Envy has got a bad rep. And that's not very surprising. In your average tv-show envy is used as an excuse for many inexcusable behaviours, such as theft, social exclusion, bullying, rape and murder. And that's just your average teen soap drama (I'm not kidding, it's bad). But there has to be more to envy than under 18s going batshit in Hollywood. And there is. Envy is actually an incredibly complex, secondary (as opposed to primary) emotion. Unlike the 6 primary emotions (disgust, sadness, happiness, surprise, anger and fear), we aren't born being able to display this emotion. This one is learned.



So what do you need to do to learn to be envious? Well, envy is triggered when you come up short. But to come up short, you need to have compared yourself to someone else first. This is known as social comparison. Social comparison is a very interesting topic, but it's terrible for most people. You will always be able to find someone who is better at something than you are (upward social comparison) and if you do this too often, you'll just feel sorry for yourself. Unsurprisingly, envy didn't develop as just another way for you to feel shit about yourself, it actually has an evolutionary purpose: we are herd animals and within a herd, there's a ranking. You need to figure out where you stand in that ranking. And if that position is too low, meaning that are more animals that can be deemed better than you on one or multiple attributes, you need to do something about that. Because the lower your ranking, the lower your chances of survival and procreation. Not good. So, what happens? Well, animal or not, we experience both animosity and anguish. Animosity to those better than us, anguish within our own (perceived) inferiority. The fact that we can so easily turn against someone else is the reason why envy is experienced as such an "ugly" emotion. But experiencing this feeling doesn't determine the ugliness of envy. No it's what comes next that defines us as people.



Within the English language, or in any Psychology for Dummies book you will find that envy is not a one-size-fits-all emotion. It's complexity is partly caused by how people deal with the emotion. It's the type of envy we (choose to) experience, how we choose to react, that makes this emotion complex. Envy comes in two types: benign and malicious. Or good and bad in simple English. Good envy is recognising that someone has/is something you want. The natural reaction to this type of envy is self-elevation. This you can do through actively pursuing what the other person has, without taking it away from them. So if they have a great physique and you want to also have that physique, the idea is that benign envy will motivate you to make the changes in your life to obtain this physique. So benign envy is making you change your diet, sign up to the gym (and actually go), leading a more generally active lifestyle, wearing clothes to fit your body type, and improve your grooming ritual (this is nicely gender neutral, I really tried). Sound like too much work to you? Another to way to self-elevate is to just focus on other aspects, such as sense of humor, wealth, intelligence etc. on which you will score better (outrank) the person you initially felt inferior to. Much less work. Malicious envy is having none of this. Malicious doesn't want you to improve your life. Malicious doesn't want you to self-elevate to feel better about yourself. Oh no. Someone made you feel inferior, now it's time to absolutely destroy them. This is Hollywood-batshit type of envy.


In order to neutralize this type of envy, you will have to diminish the source. Tear them down. This can be done mentally, a suffering-in-silence type of aesthetic. You just think mean things when they are in the vicinity. It can also be a lot louder. You can find like-minded people and start talking negatively about this person behind their back, socially exclude them and bully them. Whatever makes you feel better about yourself. If that all still seems too subtle to you, you can go full sabotage. Like the scene in the iconic Mean Girls, where Lindsay Lohan gives Rachel McAdams "Swedish" protein bars to lose weight. Turns out, those bars are used by wrestlers to gain weight. Oops.



To make sure we are absolutely clear here, let's distinguish benign and malicious envy with yet another example: you are envious of someone because they have a great partner. With benign envy you would improve yourself to be able to attract an equally great (or even greater) partner. Malicious envy is more Hollywood: you'd try breaking up the relationship, make sure one of them cheats (with you?), or just murder the partner. I know, I should just give up academia and become a soap writer.



The distinction between good and bad envy seems pretty damn clear. But the complexity can go one level deeper. Even benign envy can turn slightly batshit not to say completely sour. This happens when we start idealising. It's not the idealisation of the person (idolising them), but it's the rather toxic idea that if we had what they had, or were what they were, that we would be happier. That we could finally be happy with ourselves, that we could love ourselves, and that we would finally be deserving of other people's love. This idealisation coming from benign envy is toxic for two reasons. First, it shows an incredible lack of self-esteem that can only become worse if left alone. It shows a more fundamental issue than a lack of whatever it is we envy. Second, it's a vicious cycle. Even if we reach the goal objectively, meaning we now are equal or better than the person we were initially envious of, it won't register. If the motivation for behavioural change is toxic, the result will not be great. Don't get me wrong, if you became healthier, wealthier, smarter, etc. good for you. And that is something you should be proud of and feel good about. Issue is, it's likely that you won't. You were expecting to feel so much different. Better. Deserving. Finally loved by yourself and others. Issue is, changing your weight, wealth and intelligence to stop feeling envious cannot do that for you. Self-love, self-esteem and self-respect in their true forms are unconditional, and as such cannot come from a motivation driven by envy.


I'm not saying being motivated by benign envy is necessarily a bad thing, but it can turn bad. It's important to check with yourself, if you choose to change your ways (to improve if you will), why you are doing so. Don't chase the high of false promises of bliss and happiness you made to yourself.


So far, this article has been a massive downer. All forms of envy seem equally terrible and we are likely to all experience them. Especially with social media around, we can compare ourselves on an infinite number of characteristics against a plethora of people, whose lives we know virtually nothing about. It's maddening. There is a reason social media is driving so many mood and anxiety disorders. So, how do we actually deal with envy? Well, it's a 5 step program, if you ask me at least. This is not proven by anything academic.


  1. We need to recognise that we are feeling envy, it's not always obvious that we are. Somethimes we might just immediately be attracted to (idealisation) or hate (malicious) to someone.

  2. We need to identify what we are envious of, and why that is. Is it their success, what part of it? The wealth, the status? And why do we envy it? Do we want it for ourselves, or do we think we want it to make us more desirable to others?

  3. We need to reconcile within ourselves that envy is a learned, yet natural emotion to experience with an evolutionary purpose. We need to accept it as a signal, rather than repress it and let it fester.

  4. We need to decide what we want to do with the information we now have. What now? Change ourselves, improve ourselves? Do we really want to? Or should we just focus on something else that is good about ourselves, self-elevate and move on with our lives.

  5. We need to let it go. If we experienced benign envy, we probably already made ourselves a new 5 year plan, stuck to it and let it fade into the back of our minds. If we were experiencing malicious envy, we really need to let it go. Steps 1-4 should have given us a pretty decent indication of what's going on inside ourselves. The person you're envying is not to blame here. Figure out what you can learn from this experience, and let it go.

Envy is an emotion we will all experience, but it's up to us whether we turn it into a learning experience. Sometimes talking to someone about it can already help enormously. It can be cathartic and help you figure out steps 2-4. Whatever you do, don't go Hollywood batshit. It's ugly.