Envy is a powerful emotion that keeps you in an emotional and spiritual fog. When it descends, you can suddenly find yourself in a dark place. You start to feel awful about yourself and resentful of other people. Everyone needs to know how to deal with envy. The problem is that most people try to get rid of it by pretending it’s not there. But, you can’t find your way through a dark fog if you don’t first acknowledge you’re in it!
Consider this idea: What if instead of denying your envy, you got curious about it instead?
Stay with me on this.
If you want to know how to deal with envy, you’ll have to befriend it.
I’m not discounting the havoc that envy can wreak. However, in order to keep envy from ruining your soul and your relationships, you have to get to know it. Like any emotion, envy needs your attention and care. Let’s first look at the benefits, dangers, needs, and fears related to envy. Then, I’ll walk you through a short exercise in getting curious about envy and the desires that lie underneath it.
How to Deal with Envy: Benefits, Dangers, Needs, and Fears
Think of envy as a signpost, pointing you to areas of your life that need your attention. The presence of envy gives you clues about the state of your soul and alerts you to growth opportunities. Like all other emotions, your envy only festers when shoved aside. Instead, look at envy as an opportunity to say “yes” to deeper growth and healing. Envy can:
- lead you to longings you’ve ignored or denied.
- alert you to a part of your soul that might be feeling neglected.
- help you face limitations honestly so you can move forward with realistic goals.
- reveal unrealized potential within you.
- help you learn from the successes of others.
Envy will express itself. The question is how to deal with envy when it surfaces. It will cause terrible damage in your relationships and in your own soul if you don’t learn how to face it. When envy turns toxic, it leads to:
- petty attitudes, anger, bullying, or hatred toward other people
- attempts or desires to thwart other people’s happiness
- stealing and cheating
- distraction from your own life’s purpose
- failure to acknowledge legitimate desires
- isolation and missed opportunities to serve others and build community
To stay within healthy boundary lines, envy needs your attention and care as you:
- notice it without judgment and gain perspective on it.
- shift your focus away from the other person and onto what envy is telling you about yourself.
- offer your resentment open-handedly to God.
- learn to trust yourself with God’s help to honor and steward your desires.
Envy masks a lot of fear, so it’s important to get to know it. Examples of those fears may be:
- I don’t have what it takes.
- My desires don’t matter.
- I’ll always be looked over.
- What if they are better than me?
The bottom line is this: getting curious about your envy brings you into contact with your deepest desires beneath it. These desires are a double-edged sword: They can remind you of missed opportunities, leading you down a path of regret. But, facing desire can also drive you to pursue a better way forward, one small “yes” at a time.
I discovered a vivid example of regret through a group I help lead for ex-prisoners. When asked about the hardest thing to overcome in putting their lives back together, they said facing any one of the following:
- wasted time
- unrealized potential
- selling myself short
- missing out on who I could have been or what I might have accomplished
- spending too much time trying to be someone I’m not
Envy keeps you stuck in each of these forms of regret. Don’t stay lost in it. Instead, get curious about your envy, and face your desires. As you take small steps each day to honor God-given desires, you will start to see big change.
How to Deal with Envy: An Exercise in Curiosity
Envy wants you to fixate on someone else. Yet, it ultimately reveals deeper truths about you. When you notice envy, work through these questions.
1.) What specifically do you envy about this person?
Make a list without judging or censoring yourself. Often, you’ll start to notice that what you envy isn’t what it might seem. For example, it may not be their wealth that you envy. It may be the freedom that they have to live spontaneously. Or, it might not be their success, but their willingness to put themselves out there.
2.) What longing does the list stir up inside of you?
Shift your attention from the other person and toward what is happening inside of you. At this point, you may notice desire along with frustration, sadness, or regret. It may be that you feel like you can’t attain what you want most. For example, you might notice:
- I wish I could have that kind of job; but I’m too old.
- I long for a loving relationship like she has; but it’s too late.
- I want his life; but I don’t have the money to make it happen.
3.) Divide your list into two lists: Desires and Obstacles.
It’s normal to experience desire along with a huge list of obstacles. And, those obstacles may well be real. But, for now, separate out the “I want” part of your list from the “I can’t” part of your list. Notice what you experience inside when you read through the list of desires by itself.
Next, reflect on the list of obstacles prayerfully before God. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are feelings or beliefs that simply aren’t true?
- What are real obstacles that are out of my control?
Talk over these desires and obstacles with God, a trusted adviser or friend. Sift through the desires until you land on one or two that you would like to honor.
4.) Identify a “yes” you can say.
You can’t move toward a desire if you tell yourself it’s not yours to have. You may not be able to make it happen right here, right now. But, you can honor a desire with yourself and with God. What are small steps you can take to honor that desire? For example, you might say “yes” to trying online dating or “yes” to taking a writing class. You might say “yes” to meeting with a financial adviser to help you get out of debt.
This exercise is not magic. Most things worth having don’t come without focused attention. But, it will help you gain clarity about the longings of your heart before God. You’ll stop focusing all your attention on the other person, and start looking inside instead. You’ll notice the areas where you can take action, and you’ll gain compassion for yourself where you can’t.
The solution to envy is to face the desires hiding in the deepest part of your soul. You may not be able to bring them into fruition immediately, but you can say “yes” to small steps. As you honor your desire, you’ll gain freedom from the resentment you’ve carried. You’ll build trust internally and with God. Instead of focusing on all that is greener out there, you’ll start caring for your own lawn.
Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
*Benefits, Dangers, Needs, Fears section adapted from Chapter 12 of Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Feelings into Your Greatest Allies by Alison Cook, PhD and Kimberly Miller, MTh, LMFT