Harnessed properly, envy can help you refocus your goals, understand yourself better, and work smarter. Here's how to do it.
The dude on Instagram with a six pack who’s always chronicling his family’s fun adventures. That guy down the street with the Model X. The other parents at your kid’s preschool who always seem to have it together. No matter how much you have or how hard you work, there always seems to be someone who has it better than you. Or at least that’s what your envy tells you. But instead of trying to eliminate envy altogether — a nearly impossible feat — you can make it work for you.
Like many other less-than-desirable emotions, envy isn’t exactly easy to avoid. Society doles out gold stars for people with more, better, nicer things, so it’s easy to see nothing but striking contrast in your neighbor’s big, renovated house or your friend’s easier, better-paying job. And even if you don’t go out looking for them, the shiny parts of other people’s lives just happen to show up on social media.
Parenthood is especially ripe with opportunities for envy — there’s no official metric for deciding who’s a good parent and who’s not, so we’re forced to use meaningless things like fancy strollers and parenting strategies to decide who’s good enough. “That’s often how we locate ourselves among the pack and determine how worthy we are,” says Nick Bognar, a California-based therapist.
Regardless of how common it is to feel envy, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy response. Focusing on other people ultimately causes you to ignore something in yourself or your life, Bognar says. If you’re fixated on what the guy across the office or down the block has, you’ll miss opportunities to grow — and maybe even achieve those same things.
What’s more, it’s hard to be in a meaningful relationship with someone when you’re jealous of them. “If the person doesn’t know you’re envious, you’re in an inauthentic relationship, or if you’re both envious, then it’s a constant competition,” says Bognar.
Luckily, envy doesn’t have to be a drain on your well-being and relationships — and as long as you notice it and you’re willing to shift your perspective a bit, it can even help you grow. Here are four steps to leverage your envy for good, according to therapists.
1. Reorient Yourself
One of the most harmful things about envy, Bognar says, is that it snatches the focus away from the present moment, where you can learn and grow. If you notice yourself entertaining jealous thoughts or comparing yourself to someone else, it’s important to bring your thoughts back to you.
According to Texas-based marriage and family therapist Kathryn Gates, it can be helpful to acknowledge that your feelings probably aren’t about the other person at all. “Rather, jealousy is there to tell us what we are interested in pursuing for ourselves,” she says. Listen to what it says.
2. Ask Yourself What’s Beneath the Surface
Fixating on what someone else has is usually a pretty good indicator that there’s a part of you in need of attention, whether a false belief about yourself or an unaddressed goal. Try to figure out what part of you cares so much that your neighbor drives a Tesla. “If you really get down to it, you probably assume that person is great and it makes you feel less than,” he says. “Try to figure out the symbolism, then use it to help yourself.”
Of course, envy isn’t always linked to some big self-esteem issue; that only happens when you attach your identity to what someone else has. Gates says sometimes jealousy can signal your values and motivate you to make decisions more aligned with them.
For example, if you find yourself jealous of someone’s family vacation, you may have an unaddressed desire to have more fun with your family. If you’re envious of someone’s job, maybe you’re unhappy in your own and should consider a change. Either way, if you dig deep enough, you may find a new goal or growth area in your envy.
3. Question the Validity of Your Thoughts
Any bothersome emotion deserves to be doubted. Once you identify the belief beneath your jealousy—maybe it’s that your brother-in-law is successful and you’re not—double down on it. Is there actual, hard evidence that this person is objectively more valuable than you, or are you attaching symbolism to a meaningless piece of data? After you recognize your knee jerk-reaction could be wrong, Bognar says, it’s a whole lot easier to move on.
Gates says you can also ask yourself what might be problematic about having exactly what another person has. Maybe your buddy’s wife is more attentive than yours, but if she doesn’t share your interests like your wife does, you’d still be unhappy. And if that Tesla is still making you jealous, remind yourself that while a brand new car would be new and exciting, it might be pretty hard to have a high car payment or auto insurance premium.
4. Commit to Growth
The only way to move past your jealousy is to do something about it. Depending on the root of your envious feelings, commit yourself to taking action on your feelings. If you think your jealousy is linked to an insecurity, Bognar says self-validation can be a useful tool. “What you probably need to hear is that you’re good and lovable and worthwhile,” he says. When you recognize that, it’s easier to see what somebody else has or does just isn’t relevant to you.
And if you’ve recognized that your jealousy might be more linked to something you actually want to achieve? Whether your goals are related to your social life, work, hobbies, or something else, work on creating steps to achieve them. That way, when envious feelings arise, they won’t get the best of you—just remind yourself you’re working toward what you value, and that someone else’s success doesn’t have to detract from your own.
Either way, taking the time to address your feelings—uncomfortable as it can be—will only help you grow. “When we use the feeling of jealousy to help us narrow our focus to what it is we actually desire,” says Gates, “we can pursue a more appropriate version of it for ourselves.”
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