In his book, bright vicesDr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung defines envy as feeling bitter when others have it better. When I am envious, I feel my own lack or inferiority more strongly when I see others who have it better.
While many use “envy” and “jealousy” interchangeably, these are different ideas. Jealousy involves loving another person, or loving an object you have, while fearing that person will be lost or taken from you. Envy is different. When I am envious of another person, I don’t like their status or success because it makes me feel my own lack of status or success more acutely. I consider myself less. I’m bitter because they have it better.
symptoms of envy
There are several different symptoms of envy. Here is a partial list:
- Being offended by other people’s talents or good fortune.
- Selfish forms of competition or rivalry.
- Enjoy the anguish of others.
- Prejudice against those we consider inferior to us or who seem to think that we are inferior to them.
- Ridicule of others.
- Attributing false motives to others.
- Gossip, slander and bullying.
- Passive-aggressive stabbing.
- Make false accusations.
There are many more, but this helps us see some of the ways that envy can be active in our lives.
The envious feel less loved, less admirable and less worthy, because of who they are is missing. In many ways, then, envy is the enemy of love. In love, we rejoice in the good of others. In envy, we grieve for his sake. The envious cannot love others. They are bitter and want evil for themselves, and they want this to increase their own status. Truly loving another person would lower your own self-esteem, which is based on self-perceived status rather than true worth and worth. The envious do not have a secure self-esteem that helps them love. Your sense of self-worth is unstable, short-circuiting your ability to love others and rejoice with them. The love of others is simply a gift; it is not deserved. Envy sees love and worth as earned, even earned, rather than received.
As I reflect on envy, another problem comes to mind. Envy is counterproductive. Why?
There will always be someone who has it better than us. Several years ago I was reading about New York City’s super-rich, people who have more money than they know what to do with, who have risen to the top of what our society considers “successful.” The article described how if someone bought a new yacht that was three feet longer than another super-rich, that other person would feel compelled to buy a new yacht, one that would exceed the size of his rival’s yacht. The details don’t matter. It could be a multi-million dollar yacht, or just a newer car, a better smartphone, a promotion at work, etc. But if it is correct that someone else will always have it better, the best and wisest course of action includes giving up the race for status or honor. Ultimately, it is a race to nowhere.
What is the solution?
According to Konyndyk DeYoung, we must find a different basis for our self-esteem: “we need to work from a new vision of who we are, as unconditionally loved children of God” (p. 80). For those who do not share your religious beliefs, reflecting on our basic worth and dignity as human beings, and on others who deeply love us for who we are, can help us see our true self-worth.
There are several other things we can do to weaken envy in our hearts and lives:
- Reflect on whom we envy. This will tell us how we define our identity and where we feel vulnerable. Practice not comparing yourself to others as a way to build self-esteem. We can learn to appreciate excellence for its own sake, wherever we find it. We can celebrate the excellence created or exemplified by others, and focus less on trying to bolster a distorted sense of self-worth by feeling offended or belittled by their excellence.
- Participate in activities with shared assets. These goods are those that we share with others or experience with others, instead of beating others in competition. Friendship is a shared good. We can also enjoy nature, music or a good movie with others.
- Engaging in hidden acts of loving service. When we do something for the good of others, without anyone knowing about it, it undermines competitiveness and the temptation to make self-worth comparisons.
- The practice of gratitude. By intentionally focusing on the gifts and blessings we have every day, we can better see all the good we already have. Also, we care less about the goodness of others.
If we are intentional in these and other ways, we can avoid the vice of envy. Instead of feeling bitter when others have a better time, we can enjoy the good things we have and also be happy for others. Even if they have it better!