- Your Town
Envy is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins, whatever that means. It is a condition where we negatively compare ourselves to others and dwell on the injustice that others may have done to us by receiving or achieving something we desire. The something can be a specific thing like a date for the prom. We were turned down and some loser got the date. It can also be general; a lot of people may be smarter, richer, more attractive, or have better jobs or better grades in school. For many people this means lowered self-esteem, stress, anger and a burning desire to get even. In the real world, this will always be the case. Is there anyone who has it all?
The sin part, if that’s what you call it, is how we respond to feeling ‘less than’ to others. Some shrug and say, ‘oh well, sometimes life is tough’. Others allow each invidious comparison to eat away at their ego. They often blame others because they were lucky, and tell themselves, ‘I never have any luck’. Some go into depression telling themselves they are inferior and will never amount to anything. Even the god of luck doesn’t like them. Others seek revenge for their humiliation by violence, sabotage and psychological attacks. These actions are called malicious envy.
Benign envy is a different approach. If you weren’t good enough to get the prom date, get the promotion, or get the scholarship, the response is ‘What do I have to do to be good enough next time? They go for beauty and charm treatments, work harder and maybe suck up to the boss, or study and train night and day to be better or best. This state of mind has its positive side in that individuals can be better persons by seriously competing with those who are easily successful. The down side is that some drive themselves into a narrow view of life in which being the best, the prettiest, the handsomest, or the richest is their goal in life, and they lose much of their personality, and probably life satisfaction.
What about people who have no envy at all? They can go about their lives without regard to the successes and triumphs of others. “I heard that Joe won the lottery the other day.”
“Good for him. I may try it myself sometime.”
These kinds of responses often mean the non-envious individual has little or no sense of competition. Some may have high goals they set for themselves and the discipline to achieve them, but many coast along in low gear and don’t develop a competitive edge and never achieve what they’re capable of. Is this a greater sin than resenting the success of others?
An important factor in malicious envy is weak self-control. Individuals with such a trait will tend to let the envy run wild and do violent and disruptive things when they don’t get what they think they deserve. This can range from attacking the one who bested them, screaming at the referees when the game is lost, bullying individuals who seem to have it together better, or sometimes damaging their property. Others, as I noted, turn against themselves with negative self-talk and self-injury such as cutting, damaging their own property, or destroying friendships because they have convinced themselves that they are unworthy.
The key to envy response is self-control and self-discipline. It is best if it is taught at an early age, but some children are resistant to learning self-control either internally or externally. It is through self-discipline that both children and adults learn to control resentful impulses. Punishment of the envious by themselves or others is not the key. If they have a wart on their nose or their personality, they must learn to accept it or learn to how to remove it, rather than cast anger at others or themselves. To avoid the worst effects of envy we have to learn how to look at both the inside world and the outside world. Perhaps for those totally without envy, an interest in the success of others and what that means to them could be a motivator. Accept what we can change and live with what we can’t. For more on envy see Scientific American Mind, December 2013 issue.