Understand how Envy hurts your soul

Posted by on Apr 25, 2023 in Blog | 0 comments



In my youth, envy leered at me from all the dark corners. The hearty apparition of envy is a legacy of my ambitious, competitive parents. Ted and Klarese followed the cultural maxim that to succeed, you compete. Competition and comparison go together. Who is up, and who is down?

Once, I joined a watercolor class with several friends. The purple haired experienced teacher looked over my shoulder at my work and smiled. My friend beside me inadvertently flinched as her face showed envy souring her creative experience. In the same class, on a table in front of us, a man’s luminous watercolor outshone all the other paintings. My stomach tightened in envy momentarily, paralleling my friend’s response.

Envy is harsh.  Envy hurts our souls. It de-centers us. To be envied, therefore somewhat despised, or to envy others distances people. On both sides of envy, receiving or experiencing envy is like swallowing a bit of acid. Envy is not the same as jealousy, for jealousy is a relational emotion. One person is jealous of another’s sweetheart or friendship. Envy arises from wanting what someone else possesses in material goods, experiences, or status. One person is envious of another person’s beauty, car, or vacation in Spain.

Cautionary tales of envy’s potential to cause emotional harm or violence are widespread crossculturally and throughout history. In the Middle East, porcelain images of an eye hang in a window or on the mirrors of cars to ward off envy. In some cultures, people cover their babies’ faces to keep the malignant energy of envy from being focused on the vulnerable, innocent.

In mid-life, as an adjunct professor in psychology at Seattle University, I joined a group of researchers to study envy among the leaders of corporations. Such people are in highly stressful environments where competition is fierce and prevalent. We aimed to understand the experience and essence of envy through qualitative research. So, we each interviewed a leader and eventually paired what we’d heard for them into themes as a group. We discovered that, generally, immersion in envy is toxic. Envy suggests a lack. We can easily shift into seeing others as the enemy and dehumanizing them. Sometimes there is a silver lining to envying. We may be inspired and motivated to grow or reach a goal we witnessed achieved by another person.

Our capitalist consumer society depends on longing. Dissatisfaction sells products. Fewer wrinkles or a new car will bring us happiness and self-worth and elevate our social status. But no, acquiring things or positions isn’t gratifying in the long run—a true sense of fulfillment springs from meaning, values, and connection. Cooperation, bonding, and belonging uplift us, which is why more communal or “we” rather than “me” centered families., communities, and cultures are the most contented.