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The Poison That Is Envy

I suffer from envy, and it's ruining my life.

Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash
Source: Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash

I suffer from envy.

It courses through my veins, sour and poisonous, spoiling any joy I might feel for others’ joys and for my own. It needles me incessantly, pointing out how much more others have of everything—more fun, more money, more friends, more travel, more talent, more success. More, more, more for them and less, less, less for me. I am a glass-half-full person while it seems like everyone else’s glass overfloweth.

I am not proud of this, but the fact of it has been chewing on my brain for a long time. Envy is spoiling my life, and I want desperately to cure myself of it. (And you do know, I hope, the difference between jealousy and envy: Jealousy is when you fear something you love will be taken away, while envy is when you covet something someone else has.)

Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy”—a quote that predates the psychological theory of social comparison, which is what we do every time we scroll through Facebook or Instagram and compare our insides to other people’s outsides.

Does this have anything to do with introversion? Often my envy is over others’ peopleful lives—the big family holidays (I have very little family), the parties I’m not invited to, the happy smiling faces around restaurant tables. Look! I have lots of friends and family! We are having fun! You are not here!

Never mind that even when I do get together with friends, I’m rarely motivated to post photos of the occasion. I’m not sure what that would accomplish, other than proving to people that I have friends—and perhaps making someone else who suffers from envy or loneliness feel lesser. I don’t accuse others of this motivation, but it’s the turn my mind takes because envy is my poison and it seeps into everything.

The funny thing is, of course, I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy doing all those things that other people do. So I envy them for even wanting to do them.

And I think the risk of rumination that we introverts face, spending so much time inside our own heads, may also make us susceptible to envy. Many of us suffer from FOMO even when we know, realistically, that we would rather MO.

In addition, working alone as I do, I get a lot of my social interaction via social media, a big ol’ envy machine that churns up my poison daily.

My very smart and compassionate friend Jean Fain recently posted something on Facebook that I took a screenshot of and saved because it was a lightbulb moment for me. She wrote: Self-compassion is recognizing envy for what it is: self-criticism.

Yes. Yes. Of course. Thank you, Jean.

In reading up on envy, searching for a cure, I’ve learned that there are two kinds: malicious and benign. Malicious envy is when you don’t think the other person deserves the riches they have. Benign envy inspires self-improvement; you see something you envy and are motivated to take steps to achieve it.

At least I don’t suffer from malicious envy. I never imagine people don’t deserve what they have. Quite the opposite: I believe they deserve everything they have, and I deserve none of it. I tell myself I can’t have these things because I don’t want to work that hard (it’s true), or because I’m not talented enough, or friendly enough, or because I’ve made poor choices in my life.

Envy rarely motivates me towards self-improvement because the self-criticism is too loud to work through. It is paralyzing. Envy only motivates me to hide people from my Facebook feed when they are posting fabulous vacation photos, or exulting in a run of success, or even working at things I feel I should be doing.

This is churlish and childish, but self-protective. Although then, of course, the guilt over being churlish and childish sends me into a whole new spiral of self-criticism. I've considered getting off Facebook altogether to save myself, but wouldn't that be allowing a negative emotion to control me? (Also, I'm addicted to Facebook.)

I don’t know what the cure for envy is. Yes, self-improvement, but let’s face it: I will never accomplish everything I envy in others. I’m only human and there’s just one of me and only so many hours in a day. And some things are simply out of my reach. I will never be wealthy. Writing is just not that kind of career for 99.9 percent of writers. I will also not be young again, no matter how much I envy the dewy faces of youth.

Simply thinking about my envy, in my introvertish way, does not seem to have moved me towards curing it. And so I expose myself here, in the hope that naming the problem and putting it out in the open will move me towards a cure. Perhaps lancing the boil will spill the poison. Perhaps you’ll share your experience of envy and help me feel less freakish about it.

I’d like to take Jean’s wisdom to heart and find the self-compassion that will make my benign envy even more benign, direct me towards motivation rather than self-loathing in cases where I can accomplish more, and help me let go of things I realistically don’t want or couldn’t accomplish if I tried.

Those of you who never suffer from envy, please don’t tell me about it. I’ll only envy you for your strength of character.