- About Us
Avoid the Envy Trap
We were sitting around a table, talking about someone we all know, who is very successful in our field. Instinctively, I started in. "He's incredibly full of himself," I said. "And kind of a phony." One of my colleagues, a great mimic, did a spot-on imitation of the way this fellow speaks. We laughed uproariously. The Greek chorus chimed in and piled on. A dig here. A jab there. In minutes, we had taken this competitor down to size, made mincemeat of him. We felt clever, bonded, and if truth be told, superior.
Except that when I left the room, something didn't feel quite right, which was surprising. Over the years, I've had hundreds, maybe even thousands of these conversations, with scores of friends and colleagues. They're so commonplace I rarely give them a second thought.
But on this day, I unexpectedly found myself wondering about the competitor we had trashed, and how he might have felt if he heard our exchange. At a minimum, he would have been stung, and so would I, if others said those things about me, as they surely have. Then I started thinking about whether I actually believed what I'd said. I realized I actually had a broader and more nuanced set of feelings about him, including admiration.
I put down this competitor so I could feel better about myself — raised myself up at his expense. To avoid feeling "less than," I defended myself by moving to "more than." I assumed a false position of power — not just this time, but on countless previous occasions — to ward off some experience of inadequacy. I covered up my feeling of weakness with a thin gloss of strength. Above all else, I was careless.
Envy, I'm abashed to say, lay at the heart of it. For more than two decades as a journalist, envy was a steady hum in my life that sometimes turned into a roar. No matter what I wrote — even a bestselling book — it never felt good enough and neither did I. The feeling is endemic among writers, as I suspect it is in many professions. "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little," Gore Vidal once famously remarked. Speaking of his fellow writers, the novelist Pete Dexter took it a step further: "Jealousy is the wrong word for what I usually feel. It's closer to hoping they get hit by a car."
Funny, yes, but also kind of horrifying, and toxic. When I finally left journalism, it was in large part to escape these feelings. But wherever you go, there they are. We've all felt them. Not smart enough, not accomplished enough, not thin enough, not rich enough, not admired enough. At the most primitive level, it's the feeling that we're still living in the savanna, fighting for our survival in a world of scarcity. If you get yours, then I won't get mine. The war over food has evolved into one for self-worth. The problem is it's a zero sum game you can't win. Constantly compare yourself, and no matter how good you are, eventually you're going to come up short.
The truth is I've had enough of not enough and I've also had enough of the smug superiority I've sometimes inadvertently assumed as a shield against feeling the opposite.
The first step has been to raise my awareness. That means noticing these feelings when they arise — both "not enough" and "better than," which, after all, are just two sides of the same coin. It helps a lot, I'm finding, to simply observe my feelings, rather than getting lost in them, or compelled to share them.
Two questions strike me as helpful here. When you're feeling "less than", the question is, "What do I truly appreciate about myself?" Or, as the family therapist Terrence Real puts it more lyrically, "How do I hold myself in warm regard, despite my imperfections?" When you find yourself beginning to feel "better than," the question is, "What do I truly appreciate in this other person?" Or as Real says, "How can I hold this person in warm regard, despite his/her imperfections?"
Sheryl Crow gets this just right in "Soak up the Sun":
"It's not having what you want
It's wanting what you've got
I'm gonna tell everyone
To lighten up
I'm gonna tell 'em that
I've got no one to blame
for every time I feel lame."
In Buddhism, the Second Noble Truth is that all suffering is caused by craving. I've never interpreted that to mean we should let go of desire, which is quintessentially and inescapably human. Rather, we need to hold desire more gently, so we can acknowledge it, and conjure with it, and even enjoy it, without feeling consumed by it, or dependent on its being satisfied.
Leave a comment
What a wonderful insight. Self-reflection like this doesn't seem to be the norm when in the end, it gets to the root of many daily dysfunctional thoughts and actions. These daily occurrences lead to such larger issues and failures. Thank you for this article.
by Robyn Gritz
@ 2013/04/03 06:08:15 AM
Excellent article - very human striving for more peace with oneself and the world. Coz its envy at the heart of all wrongdoings...
@ 2013/03/19 07:55:27 AM
When I feel jealous about another person, I often ask myself - "what do I want - connection or separation?" Wanting connection means that I need to let go of comparison, judgment (to myself and others); separation is to hold on jealousy and feel lousy about myself. If I can remember to ask that question, the answer is always clear :)
@ 2013/02/21 05:05:07 PM
This is a wonderful post, Tony. I appreciate the nuances you've described of the feeling...something I've also felt many times with the same actions/reactions. Two reasons I admire you so much: your honesty and integrity. Keep up the good work. We need leaders like you.
by Ellen McCrea
@ 2013/02/21 04:28:08 PM
When the chord of jealousy is strung within us, it can happen almost instantaneously even upon seeing another person for a total of just 5 seconds. Within these 5 seconds we are able to 1, become jealous, and 2. Naysay or bring down that person. In just 5 seconds, we can speak nastily, when we don't know anything about the person except appearance. Point being we can be envious of someone we see across the street because he has a hot girlfriend. Well, what if that girl has been cheating on that man for over a month. We were just "bad mouthing" the man, however if anything he should be pitied for having a cheating girlfriend. The problem lies within ourselves for being shallow, thinking that the only pressing matter is his hot girlfriend, and our lack of girlfriend so we say "F*** you"? That's why it's good to ask the question, "What do I truly appreciate about myself?" Because honestly, should we lose our cool over seeing a lucky guy? This article offers wisdom! Thank you
by Michael Coritsidis
@ 2013/02/11 10:50:12 AM
It's hard for me to understand that all suffering is caused by craving. What about the suffering when our loved ones are ill or dying, for example.
@ 2013/02/11 10:34:43 AM
This is a thoughtful and honest post, something I certainly deal with as well. As Tony notes about observing this set of feelings, I had a wise friend who told me "Observe yourself, you can learn so much." I am sometimes surprised by the force of these feelings; I'm not blazingly successful but I am accomplished enough and mature enough to be comfortable in my own skin. The is an element of fear (yes, maybe from the old, old times of being always on the alert for predators) that I feel underlying my feelings of envy. I look for the element in the other person's accomplishments calls forth my fear, and I look for some lesson about my most vulnerable self. The two questions offered are most helpful in dealing with these feelings without judging our envious (fearful) selves.
by Jamie Sue
@ 2013/02/10 12:41:06 PM
I'm both amazed and encouraged by Tony displaying such vulnerability and telling a story which paints him in an envious light. Thank you! This story resonates because you were brave enough to articulate what many of us feel. I also love that you conclude with questions so I have a tool that allows me to apply the lessons the next time envy creeps up.
by Greg Dinkin
@ 2013/02/07 04:49:04 PM
Thank you for your honesty. This is so true, but few of us do the work to see what is lurking under the surface. Love it!
by Isabella McBride
@ 2013/02/07 01:15:48 PM
I love this message. I have often succumbed to the insidious effect of "not enough" thinking, and my coaching clients frequently drive themselves more out of this "not-enoughness" than from a true desire to succeed, contribute or serve. I will be sharing this message with others often and will re-visit it myself. A word I've come to love lately is "compassion." When we feel compassion for ourselves and others there is no room for comparison and envy. Namaste.
@ 2013/02/07 01:09:41 PM
Appreciate the transparency, authenticity, and all these great traits that go with honest leadership. As much as it seems like jr. high mental mindset, at that age we typically don't have the self-awareness to address it within our conscience, and escape the sabotage reality until later in life, as is being done right now. A great gut check for all of us reading this:)
@ 2013/02/05 12:42:03 PM