Jealousy and envy are two of the most common—yet negative and useless—emotions many of us have. For a long time, I let both of these destructive feelings overwhelm and poison me. Here’s how I finally gained control over them.
Jealousy and envy: A case study
It’s hard for me to admit these flaws (especially to thousands of strangers), but I’ve been learning that it takes a good hard look at your shortcomings to truly get past them. Maybe it’s because I had “middle child syndrome” or maybe it’s the competitive streak that I’m usually hiding, but jealousy—the feeling that someone is trying to take something you have—and envy—feeling resentful because someone has something you don’t—have both always come naturally to me.
My earliest memory of these ugly emotions is from one Christmas when I was about nine years old. My younger brother gave my older sister one of his treasured Transformers toys as a gift. (I believe it was Ratchet, the ambulance with its red crosses on the sides and gun station when it transformed into a robot.) All I got from him was a measly card—and I threw a fit. It was a full-on fit. I threw the toy at the wall, ripped the card, stomped up the stairs, and wailed into my pillow as loudly as I could. (I told you they’re ugly emotions.)
In later years, similar feelings would wash over me when a boyfriend would spend more time talking with one of our female friends than with me, when a co-worker would get praised for a job I was doing just as well at, or when people moved on to better and bigger things while I was left behind.
It’s like the opposite of schadenfreude, but just as petty: Instead of getting pleasure from others’ misfortunes, I felt torture at their successes. Behind that all was the belief that I was getting the short shrift, that the situation was unfair, and, sometimes, that I was inadequate.
How I moved from jealousy to generosity
My breakthrough was both accidental and gradual rather than one climactic, made-for-TV moment. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know the toll these feelings were having on me and my relationships or even realize that they were happening.
Several changes, though, I’ve been making over the last decade or so have helped me put things into a healthier perspective:
I started becoming more conscious of my feelings and thoughts
Jealousy and envy are gut feelings, but you can nip them in the bud when they rear their ugly heads. But first you have to realize it’s happening. The start of my self-improvement was taking up yoga a few years back, when the gym I was going to offered an exceptionally good class. The regular exercise alone probably seeped into other areas of my life: better sleep, a boost in confidence, and better overall well-being, but yoga is also meditation or mindfulness training in motion. I found myself labeling my negative feelings more and detaching myself from them. (Not just saying “I feel a pang of jealousy” but also “I’m feeling nervous” and everything else. In a way, I think people who often have other negative emotions, such as anger, could benefit from these tactics).
I learned the difference between competition and comparisons
The quote “comparisons are odious” has been credited to several esteemed authors. Basically it means that a comparison (especially of people) is repulsive. Jealousy and envy are all about comparisons—and tallying up the differences between one person and yourself, as if life were an accounting game, to make sure you’re not in the red. Competition, on the other hand, can be helpful—as long as we don’t take it too seriously and personally. My high school English teacher always used to say “Comparisons are odious” and I never understood it until I started realizing I was comparing myself to others and not merely competing (good sportswoman-like) with them.
I started practicing gratitude and happiness
Here’s another quote, from Harold Coffin: “Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.” When I was younger, I used to count my blessings, but somehow they made me feel guilty instead of lucky. I felt like I didn’t deserve the great world I was born into because I hadn’t earned it. Now, almost every morning, I practice gratitude for about ten minutes before I get out of bed. I started it when my daughter was born, because she was a long-time dream come true—and for once I felt my luck was deserved, rather than some happy accident to apologize for. Practicing gratitude has made me more generous, I think, not just with my time, but with my emotional energy as well. I’ve started celebrating other people’s wins. Before, I would often think in my head “that’s a great article” but not bother to tell the author, but now I realize it costs me nothing to honestly compliment someone else or at least click that “like” button. (Also, “silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”)
I learned praise isn’t a finite resource
I used to bristle when my parents would spend more time with one of my siblings (being a middle child is hard), but I realize now that sort of thing doesn’t detract from me. It’s not like people are rationing out their love, appreciation, or other good feelings like gas during a shortage (e.g., by saying “Hey Whitson I love your posts” they’re saying “Hey Melanie I hate yours”). I learned this while trying to explain to my daughter the concept of her having a sibling, but—don’t judge me for this—I also learned it long, long ago during an episode of Full House in which Bob Saget explains that his love is like an endless supply of water and his kids are all teacups, and the love is just overflowing. It just took me a while to understand and really accept that lesson.
All of the above have been efforts to improve myself, but they also ended up changing how I appreciate and interact with others. Do I still get jealous or envious every now and then? Hell yeah. But as I keep practicing to become a better person, I recognize when I’m starting to turn green and can control these feelings rather than let them control me.
This post was originally published in 2014 and updated Dec. 29, 2020 to add a new header photo, revise dead links, and align the content with current Lifehacker style.