Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others.
He who envies others does not achieve peace.
It’s not every day I find myself in disagreement with the Buddha. Today’s one of those days. I’m okay with it.
We’ve all felt those twinges of envy at one time or another, right?
…Envy of those who are doing better financially than we are with their businesses, despite how hard we’re working.
…Envy of those who have huge, loyal audiences but who don’t seem as genuinely kind or honest as we are.
…Envy of people for whom writing seems to come so much more easily than it does for us, or who have more time to do it.
…Envy of those who seem to have it all together with their lives, while we’re still facing a struggle.
I use the word twinge, but I know that it can range from a nagging little gnat in our ear to a full-blown can’t-get-it-out-of-my-mind obsession that follows us around all day.
Author Anne Lamott has a hilariously thoughtful examination of how she felt about—and dealt with—an experience of envy in her book Bird by Bird. It’s one of those rare passages so life-altering for me that I can almost recite it from memory. In it, she’s dealing with her feelings about a writer friend who is constantly telling Anne about her great successes, at a time when she and her young son are struggling mightily.
Sometimes I would get off the phone and cry.
After a while I started asking people for help.
One person reminded me of what Jean Rhys once wrote, that all of us writers are little rivers running into one lake, that what is good for one is good for all, that we all collectively share in one another’s success and acclaim. I said, “You are a very, very angry person.”
My therapist said that jealousy is a secondary emotion, that it is born out of feeling excluded and deprived, and that if I worked on those age-old feelings, I would probably break through the jealousy. I tried to get her to give me a prescription for Prozac, but she said that this other writer was in my life to help me heal my past. […] She said to go ahead and feel the feelings. I did. They felt like shit.
It took many, many years for me to “feel the feelings” and even longer to find the startling gift that envy comes with.
Frankly, envy/jealousy has always felt terrible to me on every level, but I couldn’t seem to dodge it, especially when I was first building my business and deciding what to do with my life. I created services that people needed, did the networking, wrote like a madwoman, but still, I wasn’t getting any traction.
In particular, the exhaustion of trying to survive the move from a stable, auto-deposit paycheck to the uncertainty of self-employment was far harder than I’d thought it would be. There were many times I went to sleep knowing that the next morning I’d give up and get a job again. And the next morning I didn’t.
Envy was dreadful then (though I’d never call it a ‘deadly sin’…whose idea was that?) When I’d meet someone who’d enjoyed immediate success because a family member had bankrolled a huge marketing budget, or who’d enjoyed a burst of media exposure before they’d had to even work very hard, envy would sometimes sit in my belly like a stone.
The solution for me came from a place where lots of great solutions originate: My journal.
I don’t journal daily, but I do it regularly. I capture where I am with life, what I’m seeing and feeling and working on, and what I want to do next. Flipping back through my journals one winter’s evening, I started to notice how envy would creep into my writing. It was like one of those optical illusion posters—one minute it’s a blob, the next minute it’s Abraham Lincoln, clear as day.
I started counting the number of times I grumpily used certain words and phrases: “I wish…” “Some day…” Fortunate and rich and lucky break popped up too.
Maybe it was the wine I was drinking. Or maybe my too-tired-to-argue creative brain just decided to flip on that light switch for me: I was looking at a road map to what I wanted out of my livelihood, right there in my own handwritten self-pity and jealousy.
I wanted to have more financial peace of mind.
I wanted to feel really, really good at what I did.
I wanted to be valued by more people for what I brought to their lives.
I wanted the superpower of being able to tell at a glance which actions would bring me closer to my best life, and which were taking me further away.
I didn’t want what others had. I actually didn’t give a damn what they did.
But I wanted to feel a certainty: That if I cultivated the right attention, resources, and skills, I could find my OWN way to my OWN brand of happiness. That it was in my control.
That was the year I started paying attention to the tool—the gift—of envy.
I got some help identifying what life I wanted to move toward, and then broke it down into a hundred bite-sized actions and changes. Getting smart about the financial side of my business. Becoming a better communicator. Seeing where I was wasting time, love, and tenderness. Finally embracing the “D word” (discipline).
And things started to happen. Things that made me a different person. . . a person I actually loved, trusted, and respected without reservation.
Envy—watching it unfold, feeling it in my body, understanding what it was trying to teach me—changed everything for me.
If I’d stuck with all the psychobabble tricks to ignore it, fight it, accept it, or chase it out of my mind, I never would have received that gift. And it’s a gift that I can never put a price on. There simply wasn’t any other way I could’ve flown under the radar of my own resistance.
Do I still find myself feeling envy? You bet. I have a long way to go before I’m immune to it, but nowadays I pour a cup of tea and sit with it to learn what it’s trying to tell me.
I’ll leave you with this: Are there people, things, situations that you feel a twinge of envy toward? Don’t vilify it or belittle it or try to rise above it—just be completely open and honest with yourself for a second.
What’s at the core of it? What is someone else doing/enjoying that you’re not (yet)?
Freedom to live/work anywhere?
Not being up all night worrying about money & retirement?
The respect they see reflecting in the eyes of others?
The ability make a good living by doing what they love?
Time to be with family? Time to think?
Of your list, what’s one thing that—if you already had it in your life—would have inoculated you against that twinge of envy toward someone else?
And, if you are willing to play: What are 10 or 20 (or even 100) bite-sized steps that would help you realize that in your life? Suspend your disbelief and write them down.
And schedule the very first one on your calendar. Even if it’s just a half-hour alone over a perfect cup of coffee as you write down a conversation with your own envy.
There’s power in envy. Grab it for yourself.
What do you find yourself envying?
What have you convinced yourself you can never have, because you’re not enough X or there’s just too much Y in your life? Drop me a line and let’s talk about it. I think you’d be surprised what’s possible if a) you get clear about what you want, and b) you break down the path to “there” into bite-sized, teeny-tiny steps.
*This is one of several questionable translations of a quote ascribed to the Buddha. The meaning changes slightly with each version, but in my context it doesn’t matter, because I’m not entirely there with the round man on this anyway. Envy is in no way attractive, but it’s a valuable thing to observe.