Can Envy and Jealousy Ever be Useful?

How to use negative emotions to our advantage

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Who hasn’t ever felt envious or jealous of peers?

The more we compare ourselves to others and peg our sense of self-worth to what they think of us, the more vulnerable we are to envy and jealousy. While the two are often used as synonyms, they aren’t quite the same.

Envy is the painful and resentful desire to enjoy the same advantages as our peers; we don’t only want what they have but we feel entitled to it, too. And we’re sometimes angry we don’t have it, whatever it is.

Jealousy, meanwhile, is envy on steroids, coveting so intense it involves a form of dutiful vigilance that can consume us if left unchecked.

Envy and jealousy stir a deep yearning within us for advantages other than the ones we already enjoy. Both emotions occur when we’re unable to muster gratitude or appreciation for what we already have. What’s more, many of us are conditioned from birth to always want better and more.

This is how a capitalistic culture that quantifies human worth in dollars primes us to keep consuming. And this is how individualism endures, pitching humans against one another as if life were a constant competition.

Although neither envy nor jealousy paint us in our best light, acknowledging them can help us know ourselves better.

Feel everything and sit with it for a while.

The minute a negative emotion happens, many of us are wont to either repress or dismiss it without asking ourselves why it cropped up in the first place.

Our sudden lack of magnanimity embarrasses us; we tend to hold ourselves in high regard and are proud of our empathy and generosity. The sudden appearance of envy and jealousy is therefore a jab to the ego, an unwelcome proof we’re not quite who we thought we were so we tend to shut them down.

This is a grave mistake that doesn’t just hinder personal growth but leaves us adrift, dissatisfied, and restless. Refusal to address emotions — be they good or bad — gives them free rein; some of them can and will colonize our every thought and skew our perception of reality if we let them fester.

Jealousy is one such emotion, a form of focus that infuses everything with lingering ill will toward one or several persons. In extreme cases, it can destroy relationships and not just romantic ones. Jealous siblings can become estranged; business partners can end up unable of collaborating. And lovers can end up killing each other in what French law refers to as crimes passionnels, whereby the jealous party loses their mind.

Look within for the source of jealousy and you might find that it comes from an unacknowledged feeling of inadequacy. We do not believe ourselves to be as competent or capable as those we’re jealous of because we can’t help comparing ourselves to them.

While the need to feel superior and win is central to how many of us live under the yoke of individualism, it’s surprisingly easy to shed.

When we accept all human lives have equal value and everyone has something to teach us, jealousy becomes redundant. Better still, it can make way for respect and even admiration.

But can a smidge of envy ever be a good thing?

If comparison is a habit so deeply ingrained we can’t quite lose it yet, we might as well use it for our own good.

What if envy were a clue that can show us not just what we want but often also what we need? What if envy were clue about what we value and what matters to us?

Here again, the trick to turning it into an action trigger is a little introspection.

Asking ourselves why we’re envious can inform the steps we need to take to achieve the same results. For example, envying someone’s promotion at work can beget curiosity. Instead of stewing in resentment we can look into what it took for our colleague to earn such an advantage.

Once we’ve identified those steps, we can emulate them provided we’re prepared to put in the work and if we’re smart, we can even ask our colleague how they did it. By engaging with them, we open up a dialogue that can lead to collaboration instead of competition.

Everything changes.

The person with a promotion is no longer an enemy but an equal with the potential to inspire us to do and be better, someone whose example can empower us. And someone who may even mentor us if we ask kindly.

Because knowledge and creativity are for sharing, not hoarding; look no further than Wikipedia for the perfect example of this.

The more self-aware we are, the less likely we are to fall prey to envy or jealousy and the easier developing a collaboration mindset becomes.

Because embracing all that makes us us without shying away from our dark side isn’t just the key to self-actualization but to making society a more tolerant and tolerable place for all.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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