Envy is one of those complicated emotions; it can sneak up and slap you in the face, stalk you stealthily, or slowly simmer for years. Often it demands to be hidden, and brings along its friends doubt, shame and worthlessness. Something about envy has the impulsive feeling of a small child’s cry, “I WANT!”, while the adult in us may look on asking why, and wonder what will soothe this want. Envy has regular haunts – social media, for example, is a favorite hang-out – and often seems to want to emphasize our separateness or distance from others. It compares, contrasts, measures.
I often find it useful to consider where an emotion is felt in my body; perhaps in the pit of my stomach, in the tightness or droop of my shoulders, in my clenched fists or shaking knees, or hovering in my chest breathlessly. These somatic responses provide helpful clues for understanding more about my emotions. If envy lies coiled in my stomach, is there fear and hunger connected with it? If in my clenched fists, is it connected somehow with anger? If envy makes my shoulders droop, is there a feeling of hopelessness along with it?
Envy alone does not inspire, but it can motivate. While envy’s language is the primal “I want”, “I lack”, “I need”, it isn’t simply those states alone. Another clue! Envy itself demonstrates that emotionally we’ve grown up enough to add the aspect of self-inhibition. We no longer simply move from ‘want’ directly into grasping, with little thought between. The want exists, but we hold back. Clearly this in many ways is a positive social development, however if it also means inhibiting awareness of our want it may be self-harming. Hidden in the dark, envy is able to coerce and dominate us without our knowledge. Envy is not a pleasant feeling, and we therefore often shun it, run it out of town before asking where it came from. When greeted openly and without judgement, envy will likely be able to tell us things we didn’t realize before, help us to identify parts of ourselves that need attention and nurturing.
Envy, when partnered with more sophisticated friends such as acceptance, gentleness, and compassion, becomes transformed. In this transformed state, envy may even spur us into positive action. Through such compassionate reflection we strengthen our own agency, our ability to act in the world and to understand and meet our own needs, balanced with those of others.
I’m reminded here of quote from Rainer Maria Rilke which seems to perfectly capture the paradox of envy:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” ― Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Perhaps, indeed, we can learn to greet envy as a helpful acquaintance able to point us towards unrealized paths in our lives.
Natalie Cargill, MA, MFT and Art Therapy Intern, has two decades of professional experience with children, adolescents, and families, and is passionate about helping them thrive. As a therapist, Natalie works with clients of all ages, approaching therapy with both individuals and families through relational models, seeking to understand attachment patterns, and the systems that impact them.