I’ve always known what I wanted. When adequately motivated I have applied laser sharp focus on getting what I want, even if my efforts in doing so sometimes trumped reason and/or logic. As an 11-year-old blossoming young adult I wanted to appear mature, or rather be more developed. So I armed myself with platform shoes and well placed socks stuffed in bras (the latter of which, I must confess, often belonged to my mother). As an emotionally ravaged teenager I wanted attention and control, and by college I had added a slew of mental, physical and material wants that transformed themselves into needs.
Why did I choose these, and many other, specific things to focus on? Quite simple really – because I saw other people who had these characteristics and assets, and I wanted what they had. A womanly, slim figure, long, flowing locks, adoration,popularity, effortless charm, power, designer garments…you name it. I wanted it. So long as they had it.
At the end of it all I basically wanted to be what they appeared to be. I was drowning in envy. For the longest time I wasn’t even capable of seeing what I had or who I was because the only thing reverberating through my mind and controlling my actions was the endless list of all the things I didn’t have. And, because I could identify which individuals had what I wanted, my envy was supplemented with bubbling resentment that simmered quietly beneath the hood, capable of erupting at any second.
When was the last time you admitted publicly to feeling envy? Now when was the last time you actually felt it? If those two dates lie in close vicinity of each other then consider yourself a virtuous and exceptionally emotionally mature individual. Of course you’re still a sinner, like the rest of us, because envy is a cardinal, a (gasp) ‘deadly’ sin.
Yet try as we might Envy, her close cousin Jealousy, and their tag along companion Resentment, are emotions that are hard wired into our operating system.
As it stands, to survive we must compete (and therefore outperform), be it for food, shelter or a mate. To compete we must compare, and when comparing there will almost always be a ‘better than’ and a ‘lesser than’. A winner and a loser. A ‘good’ and a ‘great’. When we do find ourselves in the ‘better than’ side of things we are never quite 100 percent sure about what we have, or how long we can, or will, have it. To keep ourselves at ease and alleviate the anxiety, we look around at others to gauge where we are, to give us direction, to confirm things for us. It is during this looking around and confirmation stage that we bump right into envy. On the other hand, when we unfortunately find ourselves on the ‘lesser than’ scale of things we tumble headfirst into the outstretched arms of envy, usually without encountering any speed bumps along the way.
Envy is a precarious character, but her desires are straightforward – she wants what someone else has. She wholeheartedly believes that this ‘thing’ that she wants, be it looks, money, relationships or promotions, will make her, and thus you, feel happier in some way, shape or form. If she doesn’t get what she wants Envy makes sure both you and her feel diminished, undesirable and unworthy. She imagines how much better she would feel if that person didn’t have what she wants. Sometimes, when seeing that person go through a negative experience she rejoices, taking pleasure from that person’s failures.
Jealousy acts in similar ways to Envy with one big distinction – he is predominantly focused on loss, in particular, losing a relationship that is important to one’s sense of self. Jealousy can behave far more erratically than envy and as his desires, or rather the loss of that which he desires, are usually focused on a person, he can become very dangerous, very quickly.
And if this pair isn’t enough, they usually bring along Resentment for the ride. Resentment’s job is to keep asking why, why, why Envy and/or Jealousy don’t have what they rightfully deserve.
Resentment keeps everyone motivated, providing invigorating energy that is subtle enough so as not to overpower, yet strong and consistent enough to keep envy and jealousy on track. Bear in mind Resentment usually gets stronger, as he always exercises every single day (even when you don’t know he’s around). He can get very, very powerful if left to exercise by his own means for long enough.
So we have little choice but to live and deal with this troublesome threesome. What doesn’t make much sense is that while they are built into our operating system, and it feels terrible when they pay us a visit, they don’t actually seem to provide any value (unlike pain, for example, which feels awful but helps protect our bodies from the dangerous exterior world). So why do we carry Envy & Co. around? After all, we profit, albeit temporarily, from those other ‘deadly’ sins, lust, gluttony, and sloth, yet there is no pleasure associated with envy. Why do we torture ourselves?
(As a side note – if it makes you, or us, feel better, we’re not the only species afflicted with Envy & Co. Monkeys have been shown to react negatively when they perceive a discrepancy between their own and another’s rewards. Feel better now?)
To understand how envy and jealousy work, we first have to understand how our operational systems – our brains – work. With so much data to process our brains split the task between two different processing headquarters. The first, known as the Rational brain (or the neo-cortex) excels in sorting through the excessive amount of information that comes in, analyzing all of it based on complicated algorithms, and compiling instant reports on what actions the rest of your body is to take.
The other processing center, the ancient Reptilian brain, is equally adept, but a little less complicated. It has one single mission – survival. In order to achieve this, while simultaneously processing excessive amounts of data,it learnt a long time ago the value of automating key functions. It does less analysing than the rational mind, and acts far quicker, without any significant reasoning, and often so far in the background we don’t even know it’s functioning.
What does all of this have to do with Envy & Co.? Turns out that these troublemakers are headquartered in the Reptilian brain. Furthermore they also happen to share an office with Physical Pain (i.e. the specific area of the brain that controls envy and jealousy is the same part that detects physical pain).
While Envy & Co constantly travel to the Rationale brain, they do a lot of their work at the Reptilian HQ. Which means that Envy is already at work, instructing the rest of your body to comply long before you’re aware of her presence.
And when they’re all doing their job successfully they are trying to let you know that some, or more, of your universal core needs (your, and all of our, need for physical well being, connection to others, peace of mind and meaning in your lives) are not being met. They are alerting you of some form of threat or danger that lies ahead.
Unfortunately for us this conclusion that Envy & Co. means that our needs are not being met is based on an incorrect premise – our innate sense of fairness and equality is how the world, and life, should work. But it doesn’t work that way.
Far from it, life is overwhelmingly unfair. Benefits, talents, wealth and health are not distributed fairly. And nor should they be. When you think about it, the achievements of the human race are really thanks to the brilliant ideas of a (very) small number of exceptional beings.
And society does, and needs to, reward those who keep the ball rolling for all of us. We can deny these rewards and endure the poverty and stagnation of a socialist system. Or we can accept life’s inequalities, continue to compete and do our very best to succeed.
That still leaves us with the pain that Envy & Co. induce and a weak response to value this provides to us individually.
Firstly, envy forces us to pay attention, paying attention forces us to notice details, and noticing details can work in our favor. Perhaps we might learn to emulate someone’s brilliant strategy, or we might pick up on a tiny detail that can sabotage them (not a honorable value, but a value nonetheless). Or envy may remind us just how much we care, be it for the right or wrong reasons. From this perspective envy can carry tinges of admiration, which can be just the motivation you need to achieve what you really want to achieve.
Most importantly envy forces us to open our eyes to our underlying needs and the opportunity to distinguish what may, or may not be true, what we think we want and what we’re really looking for. It maybe true that having a BMW like your neighbor will make you happy. Assuming that your neighbour is happy, and assuming that his happiness is due to his shiny car, and assuming that what makes him happy makes you happy. Or it may well be true that your life would change if you were taller and/or slimmer. But would it really?
I eventually managed to come up with my own strategies for dealing with Envy & Co without flaming their tempers. Firstly, I know that as they’re sent from the Reptilian brain they fail to take a lot of things in context, not to mention their complete lack of reasoning. Secondly, I’ve learnt how to acknowledge and then promptly ignore their chatter. I only act when it becomes impossible to ignore them, which is when they’re usually raising tantrums, at which point I force them into the Rationale brain for further processing and analyzing. That usually does the trick in diffusing them.
But when it doesn’t I go ahead and let them be, I covet what I don’t have, I desire other people’s possessions, qualities and lives, I picture these people failing miserably and I surrender to that wonderful feeling of possibly achieving what is rightfully mine.
And that’s ok because
a) I know I’m not alone,
b) when it doesn’t feel terribly painful it can, on occasion, be kind of (sinfully) fun and
c) I’m only human, aren’t I?