Seeing Green? Let's Talk About Envy.

With St. Patrick's Day right around the corner, the color green is on the brain. Back in the day, the ancient Greeks believed that jealousy and envy lead to an overproduction of bile thus creating a green cast in the skin. Hence the idiom "green with envy".

There is a difference between envy and jealousy. Jealousy stems from a fear of being replaced, where envy refers to wanting something that someone else has. Both are painful emotions, and both are emotions we hate to acknowledge.

Yet they persist, nonetheless.

A few years ago, I read Ghandi's autobiography. I remember feeling shocked as I read about jealousy and insecurity he experienced as a young man. Yet, of course he did! Ghandi was as human as the rest of us, and jealousy and envy are most certainly a part of the universal human experience.

I'm sure you can call to mind the feelings that come with jealousy or envy. They are feelings of pain. In fact, neuroscientists have used fMRIs to isolate the areas of the brain that light up when experiencing envy. These areas correspond to the same regions of the brain that light up when physical pain is experienced (Takahasi et al., 2009).

Jealousy and envy often boil down to a game of comparison. We look at ourselves, and then we look at someone else, and begin dissecting. We compare our jobs, our status, our education, our looks, our partners, our cars, etc. and it leaves us feeling depressed, empty, and discontented.

Comparison results from the (false) stories we have told ourselves.

If you find yourself envious of a wealthy friend, are you telling yourself that having wealth makes you more worthwhile human being? Do you assume everything in their life is easier than it is in yours because of money?

When you find yourself envious of a person’s outward appearance, are you defining your own value by how you look?

When you feel jealous of someone, is it because you fear that you are replaceable?

To combat jealousy and envy, we need to drill down to the core belief that is being evoked.

Once we are there, we need to ask ourselves if that belief is really true. We can start to dissipate the pain that comes with jealousy or envy by first recognizing it and then getting curious about it.

Our initial gut reaction is often to undermine the person we are jealous or envious of. We put them down (at least in our heads) to make ourselves feel better. It’s the mechanics of bullying at work. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve done this with people that I am envious of. In my head, I may shoot holes in their education or their job, to somehow elevate my own status. This never works, and only results in feeling worse, because now you are being judgmental to boot.

It’s OK to have these feelings – we are only human, after all. My challenge is for us to get curious and introspective when those feelings creep up. What is that pang of envy really saying about us, about our own insecurties? Are the things we are placing external value on congruent with our internal values?

How can we limit feelings of jealousy and envy in the first place?

  1. Pay attention to who you spend time with and what their values are. When we spend time with people who frequently talk about status and material gain, we find ourselves putting more importance on the superficial.

  2. Be mindful of what you consume. Similar to who you spend time with, when we read, listen, and watch things that are hyperfocused on things like making money, achieving success, etc. we become hyper focused on those things. This is the slippery slope of self-improvement. While I'm not advocating for complacency, I am suggesting that we take a closer look at the values that are driving our "self-improvement".

  3. Reframe. This is perhaps the hardest tool and takes the most practice. Reframing refers to shifting your perspective. When you find yourself envious of someone, a reframe would be finding inspiration from that person. Rather than thinking, "I wish I could be as successful as them," realize that they too had to start from somewhere. Use their journey and their story for inspiration rather than a source of discontentment.

Want to learn more about the culture of comparison? Check out Bea Arthur's (sadly, not the Golden Girl actress) short TED Talk below:

When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude. HIDEHIKO TAKAHASHI, MOTOICHIRO KATO, MASATO MATSUURA, DEAN MOBBS, TETSUYA SUHARA, YOSHIRO OKUBO. SCIENCE13 FEB 2009 : 937-939

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial  911.