Three steps to dig yourself out of the envy hole
Using a personal journal as a way to emerge from the ruts in the road, e.g. envy
We talk about first world problems, like the fact that my car is a modest 10 year old sedan, not a modern computer on wheels that could drive itself. Or that my house is plain because I’m diverting salary to other, extremely important investments while colleagues and neighbors seem to have much better houses, at least on the outside. (Hey, the reality is that I am extremely fortunate to have what I have.)
Or that other people seem to get attention about their accomplishments that I feel might be misplaced and, hey, no one’s talking about my work enough?
And so on.
Even the modern day Stoic legend Marcus Aurelius must have suffered from jealousy, as a read of Meditations will suggest. I’m sure there were days when the Buddha probably didn’t enjoy the harder parts of his life and yearned for some ease, at least temporarily. And, as blasphemous as this may seem, a couple of millennia ago a certain young itinerant preacher in the Middle East probably envied people whose limbs weren’t being nailed into wooden beams, if only for a microsecond.
My point is that envy and jealousy are parts of the human experience, the result of millions of years of evolution. It’s pretty normal to covet something another person has and to have (or invent) reasons why the other person doesn’t deserve what they have. Sometimes, though, you wind up stuck in an envy hole where you wallow in negative feelings. And the hole’s decor is solid green.
The question is: what do you do about this?
In the absence of a therapist, a close friend, a family member or an anonymous cleric that you can bare your soul to, one method that I’ve used to process these negative feelings involves journaling. I tried it recently and it seemed to help although I caution you that I make no guarantees that this will be effective for everyone and if you have a serious mental or emotional problem then oh-my-god stop reading this newsletter and make use of the professional medical resources that you can access.
If your feelings seem to be limited to what I’d consider to be normal human experience without any extreme urges for revenge, then the following exercise might be useful to you.
This three step method involves the following:
You’ll want a pen and notebook and some private time to devote to this exercise. I think you’d better set aside at least a couple of hours to work through this and you might need to take a break in the middle.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Confession is similar to what you might do if you’re writing morning pages, the method of freewriting popularized by Julia Cameron. In Cameron’s method you write whatever comes to mind for at least three handwritten pages. For confession, you should write, in as much detail as possible, about your feelings of jealous and envy:
who or what do you envy
what accomplishment or characteristic about them is driving you batty
why do you envy them: what is it about their accomplishment or characteristic that makes you jealous
how this makes you feel: if you feel that someone is committing a major injustice, then list that out
My advice to you is to get it out, put it all on paper and don’t hold back any thoughts or feelings. Alternately, you could record audio files of yourself kvetching about your object of envy but you must have full control over these audio files so that they don’t actually get sent out or heard by any other living soul. If you do this exercise on paper then you’re obviously not going to send handwritten pages by text or email: just can’t happen.
I have spent 3 - 4 handwritten pages on this kind of confession. I call it confession because you are working to tell yourself the truth about this situation.
Document every single injustice, unfairness, gripe, worry, sore feeling, and complaint. If you consider yourself to be a religious person then imagine that you’ve gone into a private vestibule where you’re confessing. Spew that negative energy on the page and use words, letters and punctuation to give it shape. Dig as deep as you can and then go deeper. Make your case.
Hopefully your furious journaling about this negative situation has brought your emotions to a peak and the process of writing everything down in detail will burn up enough energy that you’ll need to take a break from feeling these intense feelings.
Also I trust that this hasn’t made you physically or emotionally violent, that’s not my purpose here.
If your negative feelings don’t abate even a little bit then once again consider seeking professional help! For many grievances, though, I believe that taking some time to think, feel and describe the situation will lead you to some temporary calm, or at least some fatigue. The idea is to create some emotional distance from the situation that is vexing you. If necessary take a break and go for a walk if you can.
Now, after creating some space between your mind and this negativity, read through your thoughts and feelings about the situation. You are trying (and yes, this could be very trying) to look objectively at the situation that’s bothering you. As you reflect on each point you raised in your writing, consider the following:
Are your feelings of unfairness possibly based on a narrow read of the situation? Is your amygdala hijack causing your to oversimplify a situation and not fully consider its complexities?
Is the object of your jealousy benefitting from some unfair advantage?
Has the object of your jealousy worked hard to achieve what they’ve achieved?
Here’s something really important to consider: is the object of your jealousy paying some price for their success that you aren’t paying?
These are some opening questions to consider. You may find other questions whose answers are important pieces of the puzzle.
If you are a blogger, Web writer or newsletter writer/publisher then you might be able to identify with the following scenario:
Let’s say that you’ve been working your butt off writing the best essays, articles, reviews, critiques, etc. that you can for months, even years and you think you’re getting better but you don’t seem to be attracting the attention or prestige that you feel someone else is achieving. Worse still, you see people who seem to achieve fame and prestige in a much shorter time than you think is fair. Maybe the people who seem to be succeeding much more quickly than you may already have experience in writing and publishing online so it seems like they have an unfair advantage because they came to a platform with some reputation. Your indignation subroutines will be fully engaged and you feel like the situation is completely unjust, that this person is just coasting along, riding the momentum of their previous success.
Let’s assume that you’ve chronicled your unhappiness on a few pages and you feel a bit better and calmer after releasing these emotions in this simple way. Now reflection can start.
Are your feelings based on a narrow read of the situation? In the case of an established “name” or prestigious writer, they probably have a body of work and a track record of doing good work when needed. Even for the less well known you might not have seen what they've already accomplished. Are you fully aware of what they may have done to deserve the thing that you covet? Do your research, learn about their accomplishments as much as you can to have a more complete and balanced view of what this person may have done to, possibly, earn the right to what they have achieved.
Is the object of your jealousy profiting from some unfair advantage? This may be a tough call to make. If your rival/nemesis is clearly plagiarizing your work and parroting it as their own then, by damn, you have a right to feel jealous and more power to you in combatting an obvious injustice. If it looks like they have gotten a position of prestige and exposure through exploiting personal relationships, then this may be different. Here’s the problem: most people earn the relationships they make with other people by doing good work, being dependable and earning trust and respect. It’s only natural for people to make use of the talented people that they know and respect. Nepotism is a sticky situation, of course: favoring friends and family members is always risky and may seem unfair but sometimes these people are the most trustworthy. Trust is everything.
Has the object of your jealousy worked hard to achieve what they have achieved? You really must have a good understanding of the time and effort that your rival has put in to achieve what they’ve achieved. Do you know how many other articles/essays/ critiques they’ve written elsewhere, often for free or minimal remuneration? Do you know how many hours they’ve sat in their chair, writing and rewriting and revising and editing their work to publish a good piece of writing? Do you know how many hours they’ve spent in research and educating themselves so that they can write with conviction and understanding of their subject matter? Do you know how much effort they put into submitting work, making connections, doing favors and developing good working relationships - learning the business, in effect? Do you know how hard they’ve worked to improve their skills? You really owe it to yourself to assess this. And, by the way, have you put in similar efforts?
Note: you don’t necessarily have to approve of the work that they’ve done but you should at least acknowledge that they put in the time and effort.
Is the object of your jealousy paying some price for their success that you aren’t paying? Do you know what sacrifices they are making to create good work and get that recognition? Do they only get a few hours of sleep per night because of the demands of their craft (and these are probably self-imposed demands)? Are their personal lives a mess because they aren’t devoting the time needed for personal relationships, personal health, home maintenance, etc.? Do they frequently suffer anxiety and/or depression due to impossible standards they put on themselves to be as good as they are? Are they frequently sick? Do they have any free time? Are they broke because they have to pour an inordinate amount of money into the tools they need to be successful and to acquire necessary knowledge, especially in the pursuit of graduate and post-graduate education? Worse still, do they have to endure abuse, criticism and other negativity just because they are getting recognition for the time and effort they’ve put into their work?
You may legitimately go through the reflection exercise and decide that, yes, some charlatan is getting unwarranted attention. But, more likely than not, you may have to admit that this successful person probably deserved at least some of their success and that their life might not be as easy as you thought. And if you’re going to form a strong opinion and let that shape your approach to things, you should be really sure that it’s a fair opinion. If you’re going to invest the time and effort in envy then hopefully you’re really, really sure that envy makes sense (note: most of the time it probably doesn’t).
After confession and reflection the final step is resolution: what are you going to do about your feelings after going through these exercises? There are certainly a wide range of opportunities available to most of us on how to tackle any problem but you should resolve your opinions on the following:
Did the person put in the time and effort to achieve their success? If so, can you acknowledge and accept that?
Did you work as hard as they did at trying to improve your own work? If so, are you prepared to keep working that hard, if not harder?
If not, are you wasting your time feeling mad? Should you should find some better use of your time, like learning from their example or else finding something more productive and achievable?
Or, if you have a legitimate reason for resenting their success, are you able to accept that and move on, knowing that there are more productive things you can do? Or are you prepared to go the distance, call them out and pursue justice?
The choice, ultimately, is yours. I just think it makes sense to be as informed as possible before taking your next step. This includes understanding your own thoughts and feelings and whether or not you have the information you need to back them up.
Act with intention and care.
By the way, I wrote this for my benefit as much as anyone else’s.
If you do Google searches on topics like journaling therapy you’ll probably see some other references of the types of exercises that I’ve mentioned above. I didn’t do a lot of research about these techniques but I feel certain that I’m just building on work that other people have probably done.
But one concrete example of writing exercises to help redirect your thinking and your life can be found in this Fast Company article talking about Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect as well as the work of James Pennebaker.
One final caveat: this method is not guaranteed by any means and, as I’ve said before, it’s not a replacement for professional help if you can get it. Anne Theriault’s essay on mental health and journaling is definitely worth a read.
Over to you: how do you handle feelings of envy or jealousy? Are you paralyzed and frustrated or do you use your energy as fuel to beat your competition? Or do you take a more productive approach, as Thibaut (whoever Thibaut is) apparently said: “Don’t be envious. Be inspired”.
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This is a word I work hard to avoid using in my life.
The word I could have used here is b!tc# but this isn’t prison. Not formally.