Hey Jealousy: money, moms, and envy

When I decided nearly a decade ago that I really, really wanted to be a freelance writer – perhaps the world’s most envy-inducing occupation – I joined several writing communities both online and in real life for support and advice. The dynamics in these groups were often tense. We all liked each other, and really wanted the best for each other…but we also wanted to get our own great assignments, awards, and book deals, too. No matter how much I was rooting for a buddy of mine, it was hard – sometimes really hard – not to let jealousy and envy cloud my excitement when something great happened for her.

After a while I began to realize that I experienced several pretty distinct kinds of envy, depending on the person and situation. One kind of envy said “Wow, I’m so happy for her! I can get there one day if I try.” That kind of envy was actually pretty inspiring. It was a longing for something I knew I could get if I put my mind to it – because now I had proof via my peer’s success.

Another kind of envy seemed to say, “Wow, that’s great for her, but I really could have done that if I’d tried harder.” That was a more negative kind of envy; the envy of missed opportunities.

And then there was the third, worst kind of envy; the sort that sat like a heavy sickening ball in my stomach and made my shoulders tense up and my heart race in indignation. It sounded something like “She doesn’t deserve this, she’s not that talented, I could have done better, it’s not fair, this makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry and stab things, I HATE HER STUPID FACE!” Ever felt this way? It’s actually jealousy, not envy. The difference is subtle, but basically, envy is desiring an object (that car or book deal or house) that belongs to somebody else. Jealousy is feeling negatively toward the individual who has the thing you want. In both cases you feel discontented, but with jealousy, it’s personal, baby.

I’ve been thinking on my experiences with jealousy and envy since our discussion about keeping up (or not) with the Joneses last week, and while freelancing isn’t a perfect analogy, there are definitely some parallels. The good news is, envy and jealousy can – with some work and reflection and self-awareness and all that jazz – be contained, or even channeled for good. But before you can come up with strategies for squelching jealousy and muzzling envy, I think you have to know where it’s coming from. Some possibilities:

  • A fixed-pie mentality. The way you see the world, the more somebody else has, the less that’s left for you. No wonder you’re jealous!
  • “I should have that, too.” So why don’t you? I’m not asking to be flip, but simply to point out that there might be factors you aren’t considering. For example, maybe Mrs. Jones has to travel a few times a month to land her fantastic salary and you know that would make you miserable. Perhaps Mr. Jones went to college for twelve years, something neither you or your spouse were up for. Perhaps they work harder. Perhaps they just got lucky. Unpacking why the Joneses actually have what they have can help you get really clear about a) whether you actually want it, after all and b) how somebody might go about getting it.
  • Looking outward, instead of inward, to set your priorities and find your self-worth. ‘Nuff said.
  • A skewed idea of what is “normal”. Nicole – or was it Maggie? – said: “There are some psychological tricks that cause us to base our beliefs about what is average on things that are vivid rather than average. So the one really nice lawn sticks in our mind, the really nice car etc. (even if the person with the lawn doesn’t have the car).” Yes! This is heightened if we hang out mostly with people who have more than we do, no matter how nice and great they are. You start to think that‘s the normal, that everyone lives that way and you’re the only one who’s missing out.
  • Sometimes, people are just jerks. I don’t think that looking down on people who have more than you is a great strategy for getting past envy, or making friends for that matter, but let’s face it: sometimes, people really are just jerks. And yes, it is unfair when jerks get ahead. Especially when they can’t stop telling you about it. However, it’s also a waste of your time to worry about it, because they’re jerks, and that is its own punishment.

As a writer, I experience envy far less than I used to. Why is that? I think it’s because I’m so busy doing my own thing, I don’t really have time to worry about what anyone else is doing. I’ve been in the game long enough to see the way it works: sometimes you draw a great hand and are riding on top of the world, and other times, you can’t seem to get anyone’s attention and wonder what you’re doing wrong. It happens to everyone, even to those people who seem, on the surface, to have fabulous careers and perfect lives.

Tomorrow I’m going to post some of the strategies I’ve come up with for squashing jealousy and using envy as a tool for self-improvement. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: did any of the possible reasons above seem to apply to you? Do you believe that somebody else’s gain is your loss? Have you lost perspective on what’s normal because all your college friends drive brand-new cars and live in mansions while you’re clunking down the street in the car you got in college to your modest three-bedroom home (you know, the one that used to seem so big…) Or is there another reason for your envy or jealousy? Let’s talk!

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