Have you had the experience of having something wonderful happen to you but suddenly finding a change in your good friend? She no longer wants to have much to do with you and even throws some sarcastic comments your way when you do meet! You may have found it puzzling and also very hurtful. What you have been facing is "hostile envy". Then, on the other hand, have you had the experience of your mood becoming suddenly low after you go on face book and see the wonderful pictures some "friends" have posted about their holidays or achievements? You are experiencing "depressive envy". Envy is part of human nature but it is not something we like to admit to and nor is it associated with a good feeling. Typically it is associated with negative emotions like anger, irritability, hostility, anxiety, and sadness. Whether you are being envious or you are being envied, it is clear that it is an experience that is toxic in more ways than one.
When envy is associated with a low mood, the related thoughts would typically be that of being deficient in comparison to the persons you envy. What you envy about them is also viewed as being impossible to attain for yourself. It is very likely that a skewed pattern of thinking is operating where you focus only on all that others have and none of what you have. Closer exploration of the situation often indicates that you are not as deficient as you think and nor are those fortunate experiences impossible for you. Sometimes it is also possible that you don't really want to be in that exact position or even want what the other person has.
A young man I was seeing in therapy sounded low and anxious when he talked about himself in a self-critical manner and expressed fears about receiving a bad evaluation at work. His low and anxious mood was triggered after his colleague gave an excellent presentation at work for which he was commended by their boss. Further exploring indicated that he was also recognized as a good employee and given several good presentations and received praise for them. The likelihood of him losing out in any way as a result of his friend's good performance did not seem valid. It was clear that his colleague's good performance had no bearing on him and had more to do with what lay deeper -- an underlying assumption about having to be the best at all times to safeguard the good opinion people have of him and an underlying core belief about not being competent.
Hostile Envy and Benign Envy
The dousing comments in response to shared joyous news, the strange reticence by certain "friends" after good fortune smiles on you and the ugly comments by trolls on twitter are all examples of hostile envy. People who experience hostile envy frequently come across as disgruntled people who complain and criticize excessively. Often their hostility "leaks out" in passive aggressive ways that are less overt.
Hostile envy has been found to arise much more when the other person's good fortune is viewed as being undeserved and unfair. This would probably be the case especially when the person has not been particularly nice to you. Envy can be benign too and manifests as admiration. This occurs more when the good fortune is viewed as being deserved. What can one do so that envy emerges more often as a benign motivating force that powers your dreams to realization and how do you deal with negative envy directed at you?
Fighting the Green-eyed Monster within You:
• It starts with the recognition of the "monster" within and a desire to slay it because of the havoc it wrecks with your emotions and life experiences.
• It has been found that when one is envious of someone there is a tendency to pay more attention to the person. This can manifest as active seeking of information about the persons one envies. It is probably not surprising that studies have found that heavy face book users experience high levels of envy and sadness and often reported their lives as being less fulfilled as compared to the lives of others. This would suggest that paying a lot of attention to others for no real purpose other than curiosity and to compare/contrast would not be a good idea.
• Check whether the thoughts about yourself and the person you envy is valid. As Parul Sehgal said eloquently in her TED talk "We tell ourselves a story about other people's lives and these stories make us feel terrible because they're designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience, we know just what details to include, to dig that knife in."
• Put away the measuring stick with the comparison metric. Work instead on building one's self worth. One good way to do this would be to dwell consciously on all the experiences that indicate one's worth. This will help one to be more balanced in one's perception of others' good fortune and experiences.
• Self-reflection to develop clarity on one's prioritized values, life goals and envisioning the kind of life one would like to live would be beneficial since they would act like a grounding homing device. It would move one to examine if what others have or experience is aligned with what we want for ourselves and then learning from them so we can reach our own personal goals aligned with our values.
Dealing with the Green-eyed monster in others:
• Recognizing it for what it is will help. Growing up I often did not understand when people displayed envious hostility in passive aggressive ways. I recall as a young girl two 'friends' talking about how much they disliked long hair as I sat feeling uncomfortable and even ashamed of my long hair which many people had complimented!
• Often people who are experiencing envy are people who are hurting because of painful experiences and low self-worth. Understanding their pain and its source will allow you to either ignore their behavior or interact with them with less anger and hurt.
• Remember to not over share and to be sensitive to others. Talking about your good fortune to people who are going through difficulties and/or not in a position to have similar experiences is bound to invite envy.
• When the envy translates into disrespect and hostility, effective assertive communication is what will help.
• It is no fun to be around envious, hostile or passive aggressive friends. Minimizing unhealthy connections and building a healthy and positive social network is imperative for your own wellbeing.
The world is full of people who have qualities, possessions and experiences that are better than what one has. This does not mean that one has to go through life being eaten up with envy and nor should one be the helpless target of envious people. The good news is that you can move to a better place where the envy does not eat you up and erode your emotional well-being from within or without. So pick up the tools and begin the work. It can be done!
Suma Chand, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry, Saint Louis University School of Medicine. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and a member of the Public Education Committee of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).