Your Grass Is Pretty Green, Too: How to Stop Feeling Envy

Young woman looks back at laughing, happy couple with distressed and envious expressionEnvy is that thing that can happen when your coworker gets the promotion you were angling for, or a friend finds the “perfect” new relationship while you’re feeling lonely. It’s essentially a comparison in which you find your life or circumstances lacking. Envy, in Western culture, can get confusing in that it’s easy to mix up with the American dream of striving for more. After all, wanting to improve is a great motivator, right? But what about when it spills over into resentment and never feeling satisfied?

We are the epitome of the “grass is always greener” society. We’re conditioned by the media and advertisers to always want a bigger toy, a more tricked-out mansion. Here are some warning signs: you go out with friends and find yourself paying more attention to their clothes and shoes than to their conversations; you see other couples out to dinner and automatically assume their conversations are funnier and more fulfilling than yours; or you can’t be happy with an A-minus because someone else in class got an A.

If you recognize those situations, you may be stuck in the envy trap.

Think of solving envy like refocusing a camera lens from far away to a close-up. Instead of gazing on the vista from miles away (which looks so pretty partly because you can’t make out any details), you zoom in on the scene within a 10-foot radius. You’re changing from a dreamy, idealized vision to a clear, intimate one, where there might be more flaws but everything is also within reach. When we stay in our lives instead of looking at other people’s, we’re in reality, which is a great place to take stock and either enjoy or make changes.

Here are five basic suggestions for how to begin changing this focus and reducing your envy:

1. Know You’re Not Seeing the Whole Picture

It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and assume they’re doing much better than we are—and this tendency is only amplified by social media. We see vacation photos on Instagram or filtered head shots on Tinder and think, “This person has it all.” A 2014 study examining the tendency of people to get depressed after looking at Facebook calls the phenomenon “social comparisons,” meaning the more we look at idealized versions of other people, the more we see our own lives as second-rate.

Instead of deleting all our social media accounts, however, another way to approach social comparisons is to be aware we’re doing it, to be conscious that what we see online is distorted (the study calls our friends’ Facebook pages their “highlight reels”) and to limit our time scrolling. Look at others with realism and remind yourself that no one knows what goes on behind closed doors, and that most peoples’ lives are roughly equivalent. Everyone suffers, and everyone goes through good times only to experience struggles later.

Anytime we want to change our thoughts, the rule of thumb is to identify the problematic thought, figure out a replacement thought we believe in, and start practicing the exchange. So if you often look at others and think, “They’re happier/smarter/better than me,” decide on another thought that feels better. Perhaps it’s, “Everyone has problems, even if I can’t see them.” Or, “It’s pointless to compare when I have no idea how they really live.” Then start the long process of repeating the new phrase. If you’ve spent years putting energy into feeling envious, it may take an equal amount of energy to change the thoughts.

2. Practice Kindness

When we look at life as a competition, we’re stuck seeing other people as rivals. This is a lonely place to be—it ruins our chances of feeling connected. When we use compassion, however, we can try to be happy for their successes, aware of their faults, and sympathetic for the other stuff in their lives that might not be going perfectly. Suddenly, our coworkers are not manipulative so-and-sos after our jobs, but rather trying to do the best they can and protect their families, just like us.

Kindness also works when we point it toward ourselves. Sure, we’re bummed that we’re having money troubles, but we don’t have to compound the pain by blaming ourselves and comparing ourselves unfavorably to the neighbors. If you find yourself walking into a party and thinking everyone else has better clothes, or feeling embarrassed by your old car when you park it next to a new Lexus, give yourself a break. By setting sensible expectations and celebrating small victories, you can be gentler on yourself.

3. Accept That Life Isn’t Fair

Let’s ask the hard questions: Who said everyone was supposed to get everything equally? Who promised us we’d have the exact same luck and privilege as everyone else? And why should we be the lucky ones? Whether there’s a plan for our struggle or it’s just the randomness of life, it’s unproductive to look at anyone else’s lot. All we have is our own journey, the cards we were dealt, and what we do with them now.

These are essentially existential questions, and many people find solace in religious or spiritual answers. However you make sense of the world and create meaning of it, it’s important to find a way to accept that we’re not fully in control of what happens to us and others, and to feel okay with that reality.

4. Be in the Moment

Looking back is often steeped in regret; looking forward often means wishful thinking. Both are fantasies and unrealistic expectations of perfection. When we’re living in the present, however, we can not only accept what’s true and right in front of us (our beautiful kids, for example, or today’s lovely weather), but also shield ourselves from wanting more.

Looking back is often steeped in regret; looking forward often means wishful thinking.

Zen Buddhism teaches that this moment has everything it needs to be perfect. This can be a little hard to accept if this moment is full of health problems or money fears, but if we believe even a fraction of the idea is true, there’s plenty to be grateful for. One quick exercise to increase the sense of being present: sit, take a deep breath, and look around. Name five colors you see, four items you can touch, three sounds you can hear, two scents you can smell, and one taste in your mouth. By zoning in on our senses, we instantly anchor ourselves in the moment, and for at least a few seconds we can forget there’s anything else to worry about. Practicing this sort of mindfulness daily can help you soothe your anxieties and stop competitive thinking.

5. Live from Your Values

When we get swept up in feelings that are uncomfortable, it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m doing (comparing, shaming, criticizing, etc.) something I value?” If you value, as many people do, kindness and fairness, then remembering those higher standards can knock you out of the resentful feelings of jealousy and anger.

If this seems like a lofty idea, start small. List three values you live by (there are hundreds to consider, but honesty, generosity, positivity, compassion, or wisdom are where many people begin). To envy someone is to judge them and yourself; the likelihood is the values you’ve listed don’t leave much room for judgments. So by thinking more about the morals you want to live by, you’ll be able to put envy in perspective, and rise above it.

Unlike determination, which allows us to try our best and hope to improve, envy is painful. It tells us we’re never good enough. Worse, it puts the emphasis and attention on everyone else, instead of where it belongs: on our lives, our accomplishments, and our friends and family. By turning the lens back to what matters to us, in this moment, in a realistic and balanced way, we can take the first steps toward self-acceptance and contentment.

Reference:

Walton, A. G. (2015, April 8). New Study Links Facebook To Depression: But Now We Actually Understand Why. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/04/08/new-study-links-facebook-to-depression-but-now-we-actually-understand-why/

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Tarzana, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
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  • alecia m

    alecia m

    May 24th, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    What a wonderful reminder that I needed to day. I have always been so busy looking at what other people have that I never once stopped to be appreciative of all that I have too. Sure, it might not be much but it is mine and I have worked hard for it, and so what should I envy what another person has? It may not be something that I needed in the end anyway.

  • Pete

    Pete

    May 24th, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    Life is not always fair, you are right, but I think that learning that little lesson is a lot easier once you have a little bit of age on you. That isn’t something that most of us still want to face when we are younger, because we want to be able to have what others have.

  • Jessa

    Jessa

    May 25th, 2016 at 8:49 AM

    their lives could be just as messy as yours
    they are only allowing you to see the good parts, but there are likely the same issues there as what the rest of us have

  • Maggie

    Maggie

    May 27th, 2016 at 9:45 AM

    It is only since I have gotten a little older that I started to realize just how much of my time I have wasted wanting what others have and never being satisfied with the things that I do have. I want to have more but I think that for a period of time I just felt entitled to those things, never quite understanding that these are things that I will have to work for and earn. Sure it would be a lot easier if someone would just give me things, but in the end I know that I would feel much better about it all if I just accomplished it for myself.

  • carson

    carson

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:10 AM

    I really do adhere to the fact that so much of life is what you make of it, you want something different then go out and make something different.

  • Tanner

    Tanner

    May 28th, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    Take it from me, keeping up with the Jonses isn’t always what it is cracked up to be.

  • Tee L

    Tee L

    May 29th, 2016 at 10:00 AM

    I grew up with pretty much the bare minimum so when I went to school and got old enough to recognize that most people had a whole lot more than I did, that was a tough lesson to learn. I wanted what they had and I know that I made my family feel pretty bad about not being able to provide that for me. I know they loved me and would have done it if they could, and for years I dreamed and coveted and envied, and it made me a bad person because of that.
    I am still learning, still growing, still trying to appreciate the things in life that I do have, but coming fro a a background of having nothing, it can still be hard at times to be content.

  • tess

    tess

    May 30th, 2016 at 9:53 AM

    I have to believe that there is someone out there who only wishes that they have all the good things that I do.

  • irene m

    irene m

    December 9th, 2017 at 8:24 AM

    Go forward, do your best now, and do not perseverate on things that happened and brought you down. You were a different person then.

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