Letting Go of Envy

Woman screaming wrapped in tape with red letters that read "Fragile" - the shame that is part of our vulnerability and can lead to anger and envy

Envy Versus Jealousy

Most of the authors I’ve read who write about envy start by explaining the difference between it and jealousy. In Emma Varvaloucas’ introduction to the topic in Tricycle magazine, for instance, we read that jealousy arises out of the fear of losing something we have. Envy is fueled by desire and longing, a wish to have something that is not ours. [1]

When I think of envy, though, I think of more than that flicker of desire that arises when a friend receives some award I wish I could have or lives a life I want to enjoy. This is a fleeting emotion, one that passes as I find within my heart the capacity to be glad for my friend. I suspect most of us experience such twinges, but quickly get over them.

But envy doesn’t stop at longing. Not only does envy want what someone else has, but it begrudges it them. As Patricia Polledri writes, “. . . envy occurs when one person feels they lack what another person has and wishes that the other person did not have it.” [2] To keep that person from experiencing happiness, the envious person will go to great lengths to destroy the object of his anger. He will discredit or devalue it, thus assuring himself that he is above such things. [3] At times, the one who harbors envy will talk himself into such a hatred that he will destroy the person he envies. In the process, he destroys himself, but this he does not notice.

Woman screaming wrapped in tape with red letters that read "Fragile" - the shame that is part of our vulnerability and can lead to anger and envy

The What and the Why

Louise Penny, in the mystery, Still Life, writes a scene in which she describes what envy is. A young woman betrayed a friend who was about to be married to the man she loved. With a single act, she guaranteed that the wedding would never take place. Years later, another friend wondered why the woman, who had become a famous poet, would have done such a thing.

“There’s something about her,” she said, “something bitter that resents happiness in others and needs to ruin it.” [4]

That is the what of envy, a condition that festers within us, often without our realizing it. In our ignorance, we become envious of anything or anyone who dares to find happiness where we find dust and emptiness.

Why We Envy

What about the why?

In Penny’s novel, the friend suspected the why of envy was the woman’s own suffering, a lifetime of pain that she wove into rich and startling insights, poems of beauty. “She gathers suffering to her,” the friend explained, “collects it, and sometimes creates it.” [5]

Yet just because we suffer does not mean we will be a great poet. Nor does suffering always lead to envy and cruelty. Something else must be there as well, something that turns our innocent yearnings into the seething rage of envy.

Polledri tells us that at the core of envy lies shame.

Ignoring Our Shame

Envy is a secondary emotion. Infants feel happiness, sadness, and anger, but do not experience emotions as complex as envy, guilt, and embarrassment. [6] It takes time to develop the capacity to resent those who have what we want, but that we do not know how to find. Before envy can bubble up and overwhelm us, we must experience sadness, anger, bitterness, shame.

Even that is not enough to leave us churning with negativity. We must also weave a story of unfairness, of a world that condemns us to failure and rejection through no fault of our own. Telling a tale of a bad world and of bad people, we justify our rage, hatred, and envy.

Why do we do this? Because we feel ashamed. Unable to tolerate this painful emotion, we crave relief. We may numb ourselves with addictions, protect ourselves with violence, or deflect the truth of who we are by spinning a tale of envy.

Yet this doesn’t make the shame go away. It settles within us, Polledri explains, an internal tension that fills us with an excruciating sense of inferiority. It feels worse than it might because, coupled with it, is a desperate desire to see ourselves as good. If we are good, we will be loved and nurtured. If we are good, we will survive.

The Core of Our Shame

Yet in that subconscious place in our brains, we fear that our survival is threatened if others have what we want. If someone else wins the prize, we have failed. We are not good enough. Because we think love is something to be parceled out, a fragile and finite thing, we cannot stand to see someone else receive the approval we think should go to us. When shame rules us, we conclude that there is never enough love to go around.

This assumption arises out of our childhood. Instead of appropriate mirroring and bonding, we will have received “an unreflecting look in the mother’s eyes.” As infants, we need to be seen by our parents. When they, or a close substitute, cannot sustain eye contact with us, “cannot hold feeling,” do not show delight in our existence or gaze at us and smile, we come to believe we are unlovable. [7] That is the core of our shame.

This wounding occurs before language develops. That could be why envy can be unconscious, because we can’t recall the initial hurt that allowed it to fester.

Yet shame is not only experienced pre-verbally. Too often, the shame of an infant is reinforced with words as a child gets older. Then she told that she is worthless, a failure, and should never have been born. This teaching is so painful, we may repress it.

“Envy uses disguises to cover up the core issue, which is toxic shame,” writes Polledri. [8] Instead of seeing cruelty in ourselves, we project it onto others. We react to “deep-seated feelings of inadequacy” by envying those around us. Beneath our anger, we hide our vulnerable self, the one who feels ashamed. [9]

What We Can See, We Can Stop

We may try to cover up our shame with the plotting of envy, but we also tend to feel ashamed when we experience envy. Thus we hide it. We pretend to be kind and generous and caring, while all the while we await a moment when we can strike and destroy that which we convince ourselves has harmed us.

Take Cain’s killing of Abel. He pretends to be his brother’s friend, then murders him without warning. Jacob steals the blessing his father is about to give his older brother Esau. Joseph, best beloved of his father, is tricked by his brothers and sold into slavery. In these Bible stories, the envious lure the innocent into complacency and erupt into action, often violent action.

Though the literature on envy suggests we aren’t aware of feeling it, if we plot a friend’s downfall, surely we know what we’re doing? If so, we are fortunate, for what we can see, we can stop.

According to Buddhist teachings, we become envious, or desirous, because we forget our essential nature. We identify with our bodies and our egos. Material wealth, fame, symbols of success and admiration matter to us because we think we are nothing more than our concrete form. When we age, we become sad. If we lose our jobs, we get upset. Envy is just one more way we roil with discontent.

If instead, we embrace our deep connections with all that exists, if we find pleasure in simple foods and loving touch, we will be far happier than if we scramble for worldly gain.

Chasing After Wind

This is the message of Ecclesiastes 4. “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 4:4 NRSV).

How confusing the Bible can be. Do we toil and practice our craft simply because we envy those who do better than we? Is hard work and talent really nothing but vanity? Can we not take pleasure in improving our ability because we like to practice? Does hard work not feel good in and of itself? Must our efforts always be about competition or envy?

The biblical passage is talking about our belief that we must make something of ourselves, be someone important, prove our excellence, earn respect. Insecure, we wear ourselves out trying to buy a bigger home, a better car, a greener yard than our neighbor. This is the vanity, the chasing after wind. If we live our lives this way, we will never be good enough. Wind always outruns us.

Finding Balance

Therefore, we must find balance. Yes, work can be rewarding. We can enjoy our talents. Yet even these are empty promises. When day is done, they mean nothing. It is who we love and how we treat the vulnerable that matter.

If this is so, why envy anyone? Why lust after something someone else has, unless perhaps it is peace of mind?

Joseph Epstein, in his book about envy, talks about envying faith. [10] Those who have a deep and abiding faith feel confident in who they are. They know what matters. Trusting in the will of the divine, or in the rightness of the universe, helps them feel safe. They move quietly and confidently in the world. Because they know that whatever comes next, it will be all right, they can face death with equanimity.

Envying the Faithful

Is it envy to want such a thing? Perhaps, if we become so desperate for a comfortable and comforting faith that we would try to take away the faith of another. On the other hand, repressed envy might lead us to ridicule or dismiss such a faith. So I suppose it’s possible.

How ironic, though, to be angry with another for being faithful. In our effort to find a belief that will fill us with joy, we destroy our souls by becoming bitter and vengeful. If we do this, faith will ever elude us.

Yet few of us cling to desire so desperately that we betray or destroy those who have more than we do, even if the more they have is merely an honest, comforting, and abiding faith. Why should we wish ill of another, just because she is happy? Doesn’t her happiness increase our own? If we envy her, if we try to make her suffer, her misery will make our lives worse, because then someone we care about will be hurt and because that much more pain will have spilled into the world.

Why Explore Envy?

If we are not the envying type, though, why bother learning about it?

Those of us who live with peace, whose lives are full of love and contentment, or at least those of us who appear to be so fortunate, may at some time find ourselves being envied by others. Epstein talks about this.

For instance, those who make subtle, but hurtful jokes may be envious. So may the ones who criticize us with unnecessary cruelty in the name of honesty or helpfulness. Though we often see through such a person, sometimes we become confused, for when we confront him, he denies feeling resentment or anger. He insists he meant no harm. If we are wounded by his innocent words, then there is something wrong with us. Learning about envy can help us spot such manipulations and avoid those who use them.

Epstein also describes the person whose envy is hidden behind admiration. He suggests we “watch the eyes of those who bow the lowest,” for envious friends and colleagues may shower us with excessive praise. [11] Like an abuser who grooms his prey with humor, kindness, and generosity, the one who envies may trap us with sweetness so subtle we do not recognize it until it is too late. When the one who envies no longer needs to pretend, she will strike. Understanding how envy works may save us from the worst betrayals and assassinations.

But there’s another reason to explore envy.

Noticing Envy

All of us experience some shame. We all experience a measure of emptiness inside and long to fill it with things and ideas and fame. If we pay close attention, we may notice now and then that a burning resentment has crept into our loving hearts. Envy can be unconscious. Thus, we need to stay mindful. What is that trembling sensation in our bellies, that murmur in our chests? Do we feel ashamed that we can experience something as hideous as envy, or do we feel tender toward ourselves when such misery surfaces?

If we love the little one inside us who was left and lost, we can start to heal our shame. Then we can heal the emptiness that leads to envy. Fill that space with courage, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness. When we spread salve on our own wounds, and when we stop picking at the scabs, new and supple skin may grow. We may become transformed. Then we may find we no longer wish to hurt others.

Probably you don’t want to destroy your friends, even when they get the promotion you’d hoped for or win the award you thought would go to you. Yet you might feel that sting of envy that reminds you that your heart is not completely filled. A hole exists there, still.

Healing Our Wounds

That is okay. We are not perfect, nor are we meant to be. All our lives, we will wrestle with desire. All is “vanity and a chasing after wind.” Nothing lasts; not us, not the universe. Dust will turn to dust, and stars to ashes. What matters so much that we should envy it in someone else?

We sail on this blue and green ship through the cosmos, and we sail on it together. There is no ego. That is an illusion. When we come face to face with our deaths, it won’t matter whether or not we got promoted. We won’t be counting our awards. Heal the wounds that prick your heart, hold onto who you really are. Success is not measured by how much we earn or who we beat at golf, but by how much we love and who we serve.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Varvaloucas, Emma, “Jealousy and Envy,” Tricycle, Fall 2015, https://tricycle.org/magazine/jealousy-envy/, accessed 3/1/19.
  2. Polledri, Patricia, Envy in Everyday Life, London: Clink Street Publishing, 2016, 14.
  3. Oliver, Joan Duncan, “Friendvy,” Tricycle, Fall 2015, https://tricycle.org/magazine/friendvy/, accessed 3/1/19.
  4. Penny, Louise, Still Life, Macmillan Audio, Part 6, Chapter 10.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ninivaggi, Frank J., “Emotions as a Second Language – Or Should They Be First?,” Psychology Today, February 20, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/envy/201502/emotions-second-language-or-should-they-be-our-first, accessed 3/2/19.
  7. Polledri 25.
  8. Ibid 25.
  9. Ibid 26.
  10. Epstein, Joesph, Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, 28.
  11. Ibid 33.

Photo by Morgan Basham on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved