My Twitter feed informed me that a writer whose work has been published in many of the same Internet corners as mine was up for an award. It then clued me into the fact that three writer acquaintances were signing book deals the same week.
I sent sincere congratulations, excited to see the names of people I either knew as friends or whose work I followed as a fan moving up in the world of words.
I also felt the ugly E-word I had been taught to fear since my childhood days in Sunday School: Envy. Satisfied with my own place in the freelance writing world, there was still no denying that the recognition of others made me catch a breath.
I didn’t do what I was taught to when the big E-word hit. Instead of pretending I didn’t feel it, shaming myself for the feeling, or being disgusted by my own shallowness, I sat with that envy and let it be my teacher.
Science says that may be a good idea for all of us, including our kids.
The two kinds of envy
English limits envy to one word, one definition, and people understand that definition as one that denotes envy as an undesirable feeling that should be banished. Many other languages have more than one word to describe envy, and the Dutch language probably makes the clearest distinction. The translations of the two words connected to envy define one as malicious and the other as benign.
Even those of us who speak English and are only familiar with the one definition know the experience of feeling both kinds of envy. Malicious envy is dangerous because it hopes for the person who is being envied to fail or to be harmed in some way. Malicious envy makes us have strong negative feelings that draw us deeper into a hole of dislike for a person. It’s toxic.
Those experiencing benign envy can enhance their existence by asking important questions about why it exists. Benign envy doesn’t wish anyone harm. It’s simply a longing, wanting something we don’t have that feels important to us, whether it is an accomplishment or a way of life. After pouring over research, writer Maria Konnikova found that benign envy can be a “driver of change for the better.”
Questions to ask
Susan Cain, bestselling author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, recognizes benign envy as a valuable emotion when people choose jobs. As a lawyer, she didn’t envy other lawyers when they were promoted, and this helped her realize she was in the wrong career.
Instead, she envied writers and psychologists, and this realization helped her leave a perfectly good career to pursue her passion. Had she not listened to that voice, people everywhere would likely know much less about the power of introversion.
Learning to address benign envy and teaching our kids to do the same is important. Benign envy can serve as a guide as opposed to a roadblock. Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, says asking the right questions helps us unlock truths that move us forward, and we can ask these of our kids as well when they feel envy, questions such as:
What is it that I envy?
Is it a certain career or more free time? A particular accomplishment or a way of life? Benign envy is an indicator of what we want. Knowing what we envy helps us understand our true desires. Saying what we envy is so much more important than pretending envy doesn’t exist.
Why do I feel this envy?
Is our life super busy, so we envy our friend who always seems to have time for quality over quantity? Have we spread ourselves so thin that we aren’t focusing on our true goals, so when a friend lands that dream job we realize we weren’t even working to attain the skills we needed to apply?
I felt envy because I have unmet writing goals, and instead of putting them front and center I push them back to tackle on another day. They are hard goals to achieve. They take work, and it’s been easier to make excuses than make time. Addressing benign envy helps me acknowledge that.
What can I do to achieve what I want?
This is where addressing envy can be life changing. Knowing what I envy and why I envy, I can now figure out what I want to do about it. How do I make my life, not a reflection of someone else’s, but the best that I want it to be? What work can I do to move closer to accomplishing my own goals?
When malicious envy exists
Benign envy is easy enough to break down and benefit from, but what about when we feel the dreaded malicious envy? How do we help our kids deal with this toxic form of coveting, and how do we deal with it ourselves?
Malicious envy is difficult because it often comes with feelings of deep dislike for the person we envy. We convince ourselves that they don’t deserve all they’ve been given, and that we have no control over making our own lives what we want them to be.
A study by psychologist Niels van de Ven found that people who feel malicious envy complain about the recipient of what they see as undeserved bounty, but they don’t make positive changes in their own lives. Who wants to confess to just feeling nasty towards someone? Shouldn’t we just bury these emotions?
As ugly as this type of envy can be, dealing with it is still key, and we need to let our kids know that. We want our kids to discuss their feelings, not hide them, so we need to be able to do the same and walk them through the process.
When anyone in our home experiences malicious envy, we still need to ask questions: What is the underlying issue that makes you want this person to fail or view them negatively based on their accomplishment? Is this about envying their accomplishment or just disliking them?
These are the questions that uncover the deeper issues underneath the surface of malicious envy. Once addressed, we can work to teach our kids and ourselves how to move past them.
Envy, even benign envy, is uncomfortable, which is why most of us are fine with the advice to pretend it doesn’t happen and move on. But in refusing to address it, we lose the opportunity to evaluate our own choices, and we teach our kids to do the same.
Living consciously, even if it means being aware of uncomfortable feelings, is better than sweeping issues under the rug. Parents and children who know how to dig deeper to understand the motives behind their envy stand a better chance of creating the lives they desire.