I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who didn’t feel envious. Not you, of course. You are a very kind, generous, loving person, and you are very content with what you have, very grateful, not boastful, all that good stuff. I even know that you are aware that even the most glamorous, successful, seemingly happy people have their troubles and woes, that the grass may always seem greener but really it isn’t, and all that. I know you remind yourself of this as much as possible, and you really try not to succumb. But face it—you feel envy, I know you do. We all do.
So look, a little envy—not a big deal. This one’s house, that one’s garden, car, job, kids, clothes, money, pool, friends, hair, abs, boobs, waist, golf handicap, biceps, all the other body parts, someone else’s spouse, someone else’s unmarried status … Don’t try to tell me that one of those things didn’t ring a bell. You know what I envy? People who don’t like sweets. In fact, I hate people who don’t like sweets. Not really … but sort of.
Why envy matters, and it really does, is that for some people, envy is what spoils everything. It’s as though they’ve got a Hank Williams-inspired bucket with their self-esteem in it—and their bucket’s got a hole in it. Nothing that goes in stays in—it’s empty the minute it gets filled. For this kind of person, it’s hard not to envy everyone and everything. What’s sad is that often, these people are admirable—competent, talented, generous. They can have so many good qualities, and even be recognized, praised and admired—and still, none of that stays with them. It’s almost as though their preferred self-state, their default, is the one that says I’m small, you’re big; I’m nothing, you’re something.
When someone has this kind of envy problem, it’s usually more complicated, because lurking behind the self-deprecation and envy, there is often a hidden sense of superiority and contempt of those they envy. And when those people they envy crash and burn, oh, the schadenfreude! “See?” we say? “All that money and beauty, and look what happened! Tsk tsk tsk. I’m glad we’re poor and homely looking, aren’t you?” Yeah, right.
Well, as Abe Lincoln once said, “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” We all have to work on dealing with envy. It’s good to realize how corrosive it can get, if you let it. The only cure for it, when it gets chronic, is to recognize that there is a conflict going on, one that isn’t clear. I see this quite often, in so many of the people I work with in therapy. The conflict is this: One part of you knows you are worth paying attention to, caring about, worthy of being respected, loved and cherished. Another part, that feels inadequate and without power, perhaps representing experiences of being belittled, is unfortunately working overtime to disagree, to hold on to feelings of worthlessness and shame.
If that conflict is not made conscious, it’s like you are forever straddling a fence—and we all know what that feels like. Aside from not choosing which side to stand on—are you worthy of love, care and respect, or not? Sitting on top of a fence hurts like the dickens. And that pain is what it feels like when the feeling is envy.
Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack and in New York City. He can be reached at (845) 548-2561 in Nyack and in NY City at (212) 581-6658, email@example.com or online at www.danielshawlcsw.com