Excerpt from Hoggart’s wonderful book shaming round robin letters designed to invoke envy
Everyone experiences jealousy or envy… well everyone except me. I’m not joking. For years I’ve been baffled by envy, what it is and why other people feel it when I don’t seem to. Recently I’ve understood that I DO feel it, it’s just that those feelings so quickly transform into positive information that I barely notice them. I’m not trying to make you jealous. Here’s how to do it.
The truth is, listening to what our envy is trying to tell us can be the key to unlocking our lives. Jealousy or envy are messengers, just like anger is. The quicker you get the message, and act on it, the quicker the unpleasant sensations that come with these emotions evaporate.
Anger tells us about something we don’t want – behaviour towards us or others, injustice in the world, unfairness, inconsideration, aggression. Envy (and lets focus on envy rather than jealousy) tells us about something we do want, specifically when we see that someone else has it, and we feel “discontented or resentful longing” as a result.
This is as far as most people get, but did you know that envy occurs when we see someone who has something that we ourselves could bring into our lives? It tells us about something we do want, but are failing to pursue. In this way, envy is a gift: it lets us know what our desires look like, through someone else. It puts our eye on the prize. Envy alerts me to wherever I’m blatantly failing to notice an opportunity, or desire: “Oh, I didn’t know I wanted that. Best reach out and grab it.”
Unfortunately most people never get this message. They feel envy, but couple it with a statement such as “I’ll never get what they have”, and therefore take no action. The envy continues unabated, gnawing at them for years.
To unlock the healing, transformative power of envy is simple: listen to what it’s telling you, then take positive action.
At its simplest level, the process can be summarised through the “I wish I’d ordered that” phenomenon. At a restaurant, envy occurs when you see what your friend ordered and say “I wish I’d ordered that!” They ask you, “Then why didn’t you order it?” Of course you respond, “I didn’t know I wanted it till I saw it!”
Great, you’ve got the message. Now you can take negative action: eschew the restaurant forevermore, never order it, never eat it, be nasty to your friend, try to steal their food. Or you can take positive action and say, “Hey, I’ll have the pistachio ice cream next time. Thanks for showing me that it exists so I could find out I want it.”
Often, a resolve to order it next time makes you feel ok about this time. Your friend, instead of being alienated by the force of your envy, will have a better time with you and might even share with you (although that shouldn’t be your motivation of course).
Ask yourself, “What do I want that she/he has, and where in my life can I take positive action towards it?” You’ll be able to tell when you’ve hit the nail on the head, because all negative feelings will dissipate. If you believe you’ve got it because you feel motivated towards your goal, but underneath you’re muttering “Screw them! I’ll show them next time, and rub it in their face! ”… then you haven’t really got it.
To go into more detail on how to get the message from your envy, first, let’s distinguish it from “admiration” and “awe”.
Admiration is when we think someone’s great, but we don’t feel bad as a result. It doesn’t bother us that they are great. They may even have achieved exactly what we’d like to achieve, but knowing that gives a us warm fuzzy glow inside.
Have you noticed that someone having what you want doesn’t automatically result in envy? That’s because there’s no message to deliver. You’re cool with wanting what they have; you’re already working towards having it some day too. You’re in touch with what you desire! Envy serves to identify blocked desire.
Awe too is good. We don’t need to do anything about it – it’s already positive. I’m in awe of professional dancers. I’m inspired by their discipline. What they do is like magic to me. But, whilst I might say to myself “I wish I could dance”, I don’t feel upset that I can’t. I’ve no desire to rehearse for 10hrs a day either, so I think we can safely say I’m in awe of dancers, rather than envious of them.
The funny thing is, we often don’t feel jealousy for something if it’s totally way out of the realms of our lives, it has to be much closer to home.
I’ll give you a very literal example from when I last felt envious. For about 6 months, I’d been trying to get a gig in the UK which paid enough to justify travelling from France for it. I’d created a pitch, approached venues: no joy. Then one day a UK friend told me they’d been offered a gig in France, with such a good fee they couldn’t turn it down, but were complaining about the hassle of travelling. Straightaway I told them, “I’m so jealous. I’m TRYING to get a gig just like that, whilst you’re complaining that you have one!”.
My feelings of envy quickly evaporated when I remembered that I hadn’t been trying. I’d given up months ago. Immediately I sent out emails to the same venues as before. Guess what…not one, but three of them said “YES”.
Ok that’s a very literal example, but what about something more difficult to decode? What about feeling envious of someone who’s won a prize for example, or the lottery? After all, you can’t plan those things, or take action towards getting them yourself.
Again it’s likely that feelings of envy are highlighting something which is both close to home, and that you can take immediate action on. In the case of the lottery, you might covet financial security, and this feeling could alert you to a financial issue you can easily address.
A prize shows that someone is recognised for their merits by an esteemed body. Envy could indicate where you feel unacknowledged, perhaps within your own family, and give you the impetus to talk to them about it. Alternatively it could be a feeling that you’ve let yourself down in areas which might have otherwise landed you the prize. Strangely, once you start to put effort into those areas, it probably won’t matter to you at all whether you’re given an award for doing so.
Interestingly we tend to project skewed images of those we envy. For example, the lottery winner may not be feeling financially secure, but thinking “Oh no, I’ve got all this money and I bet I’m going to fritter it away and be skint again in no time.” Likewise, the prize winner might not experience a warm sense of acceptance from their peers but feel embarrassed and pressured. This is how we know that envy is a messenger for our own desires, because it does not consider our victim’s true feelings, only how we imagine we’d feel if we had what they have.
This final point is very important. It’s easy to think that if we had what they have we would be happy. But, buy the car they bought, the clothes they wear and find out it’s not true. This is of course, how advertising works: look how happy that family are eating breakfast cereal together!
It’s very important to focus in on how we imagine we would feel if we had what they had. Would we feel content, loved, secure, grateful, appreciated? Whichever it is, envy is telling us to look for actions we can take that would bring us more of that feeling.
The Minimalists have a great example which they use in their talks. Ryan had a domestic cleaning job with his dad and he noticed that the people who’s houses they cleaned seemed really happy. I have no idea if he felt envy, but nontheless he found out how much they earned, $50k p/y, and decided to make that income his number 1 goal. When he reached it, the penny dropped: happiness didn’t come as standard with $50k. In fact, it turns out it the penny didn’t fully drop there, since Ryan assumed the problem was inflation, but that’s another story.
To recap, if you experience envy, here’s what to do. Ask yourself:
- How would I feel if I had what that person has?
- Would I feel like that if I too had what they had?
- If yes, is having what they have the only way I could feel like that?
- If no, what would make me feel that way?
- What actions can I take to bring more of that feeling into my life?
Hope you’ve enjoyed this article and find the process useful. I’m afraid it’s not referenced as I haven’t read about this process, it’s just the one I use myself. Please let me know if you find any existing literature that relates to it. For me, the actions I take as a result of listening to my envy tend to be the most exciting breakthroughs of my life, like a dam breaking. Why? Because there was a block I didn’t notice and envy pointed it out.
Also check out the Symphony For Happines Vlog
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