Envy and What to Do about It

Recently, Pastor Gavin Ortlund shared some brief reflections on the subject of envy. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as this is something that has been on my mind lately. I liked what he had to say, and thought I’d write down some of my own feelings on the topic.

Jealousy Wears Many Hats

I like to think I have myself mostly pulled together when it comes to the usual vices. But envy is one of those pernicious little nagging vices that is so easy to fall into. It likes to show up in contexts that are otherwise worthy—self-awareness, self-improvement, and healthy competition—muddying what could be clear waters.

Envy can arise in a few different flavors… such as envy of that which:

  • you couldn’t likely have — in terms of logistics, probability
  • you feel you ought to have — on a range of bewildered to smugly entitled
  • you desire but have chosen not to have — due to other priorities or principles
  • you want to be (i.e. someone else)
  • you have been or have possessed in the past

If that wasn’t bad enough, envy is not only a standalone ill but it can morph into other evils.

Combating Envy of Others

While I think gratitude meditations can help (as Ortlund suggests), sometimes I find I just need to jolt myself out of my pea-brained perspective. You can take a two-pronged approach by leaning into both positives and negatives. This might look like:

  • Giving yourself space to appreciate what you have or who you are. If you’re envious of someone else’s accomplishments, when’s the last time you took a tally of your own? Have you tried to seek out feedback from peers or mentors, or do you just wait for it to magically appear? Do you ever grab opportunities to take a risk and do something outside your comfort zone? The list goes on, but you get the idea…
  • Stop with the “grass is greener” thinking and look the other direction. You can spend so much time thinking about people who “have it better” and forget to consider the people who have it a lot worse. Read some memoirs or watch documentaries about people who have experienced great hardships in times of war or oppression. You start to notice more the beautiful little details in your life—like that cup of coffee you take for granted in the morning, or the ability to call your loved ones whenever you want.
  • Restate or reassess your priorities. There is no point in wanting a job you have no intention of applying for, or being jealous of a lifestyle that would cross your personal boundaries. If you feel your priorities are solid but the envy still remains, it’s worth exploring it in depth, maybe with some journalling or talking to a mentor.

Combating Envy of Being

What I am calling “envy of being” is one of those weird paradoxes by which you can actually feel envy about yourself, especially in the sense of some mythical version of yourself or your life which you believe (either consciously or subconsciously) you are entitled to.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to this one—at least, I find it a particularly egregious temptation. What could help, perhaps, is striving to prayerfully contextualize your reality within a greater reality. The minute the world stops orbiting yourself is when you can actually see yourself clearly. And when you are anchored in healthy humility (i.e. not mere self-deprecation) then this kind of jealousy just starts to seem nonsensical and a waste of energy.

Another thing that can help here is to value variety in the world. We could find a lot more joy in our unique personalities and our sundry journeys through life if we appreciate them as variety, instead of bemoaning how we differ from some theoretical “perfect” version of ourselves.

A Postscript on Grief

I do not recommend a “man up, bucko” approach nor the use of self-guilt as tactics against envy. On the contrary, it’s important to validate your experiences and sufferings and not beat yourself up further. Likewise, you ought to be able to learn about other people’s hardships without guilt-tripping yourself.

There is a need to try to compartmentalize this as much as possible. I must make space to grieve losses and to confront hardship in my life. Grief can take up as much space in my psyche as it needs in order to heal.

It need not, however, not be paired with envy or bitterness. Envy has no place in grieving. It is a poison that redirects your energies into a cyclical, spiraling web of nastiness. It just adds another cut on top of your wounds.

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