Depending on how we use it, envy will either eat us whole or nourish us.
Every so often, I’ll be online and see something for sale and ask “Why didn’t I think of that?”. When I taught yoga, I often felt this. I would see other yoga teachers and feel a tinge of envy towards how they were selling their version of yoga. When I was 23, I decided to train as a primary teacher. I worked at it for ten years, and those ten years are tinged with a lot of destructive envy. Envy fuelled a sense of lack in who I was as a person. I especially felt it when I met college friends from when I studied business, who were working in a career they expressed passion about. Envy, which is rooted in a sense of inferiority, comes from our ignorance, or lack of belief in, our own gifts, according to Canadian philosopher, Jean Vanier.
I was keenly aware of a feeling that I was not living up to my potential. Aristotle wrote, “Envy is pain at the good fortune of others”. On one hand, I was happy for my friends, on the other, I was sad at my perceived lack of good fortune.
However, when I left my teaching career, envy remained. All I could find were gaping holes in my talents and knowledge, there was a relentless whirlwind of comparison sucking me in.
In his essay “On Envy”, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “Of all other affections, it is the most importune and continual. For of other affections there is occasion given but now and then; and therefore it was well said, “Invidia festos dies non agit”…” Envy keeps no holidays.
Envy is a sneaky emotion. It can be hard to notice, as I found myself in denial when it came up. I flipped envy into judgement. I tried to mask my less than feeling of another person to prove that I was better than the said person. The reason envy never goes on holidays is that comparison culture has been handed to us on a plate thanks to social media. Women forging ahead in their own unique, creative careers were my new focus of comparison.
Underneath my envy and judgement of others, lay deep insecurity. These women had gone ahead and done something I had dreamed of doing since I was a child. Instead of letting myself be inspired by these women, I convinced myself they were my competition. A 2009 study showed that the brain registers envy as pain. The study also pointed out that envy is about Me Vs You. A lot of our self-worth comes from our community and peer-group. And a common question is Are we better off or worse off than them? I realised that I had become, in some small part, addicted to the pain of envy.
How could I move from begrudging someone’s success? This was not the type of person I wanted to be.
A claim of mindfulness is that it gives us space and perspective to see things differently. Mindfulness showed me the insecurities and helped me disentangle from them. With this wisdom, I was able to bridge a gap that let me take the small steps I needed.
Mindfulness has also shown me that I can’t choose what I think or feel, but I can choose how to understand my thoughts and feeling. And this self-understanding can alter and change those thoughts and feelings. Envy and judgement included.
When that pang of envy comes up now, I acknowledge that it is there but I don’t let myself be drawn into the arena.
A Practice to Recognise Envy
All emotions show up in our body as sensations. And with mindful awareness of the feelings and sensations of the body, you can learn to recognise their warning signs.
Bring to mind a person who you have compared yourself to in the past, on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being least intense and 10 being a high intense feeling, choose a person who brings you to a level 3 or 4.
Notice the sensations that come up in your body. Your jaw might clench. You might feel sweaty, a tightening of your throat. Notice these sensations. Learn how your body reacts to this emotion of envy.
A Practice to Quieten Envy
Tune into self-compassion. Now that you know the sensations that envy activates, begin to ground yourself. Take five long, purposeful breaths, in and out your nostrils. Place your hands where you feel the sensations and imagine you are breathing into those spaces. Stay with this practice until the sensations begin to ease.
Now, bring to mind the person once again, and keeping with your breathing, wish them well. Wherever you are right now, I wish you all the best.
What do you notice?
The more we tune into the sensations that emotions bring up, the more attuned to ourselves we become. It takes practice and consistency.
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