Envy is eating me alive

I can't enjoy what others have because I compare it to what I have.

Published February 23, 2007 10:31AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I feel like my happiness is being destroyed by jealousy. I'm happily married to a wonderful man, have a career doing something I love, have a close and loving family, and am generally healthy.

And yet, all I seem to focus on is what other people have that I don't. I am absolutely in love with my husband, but he doesn't make any money. He's back in college right now in order to pursue a new career, and I've been the one paying all the bills for about three years ... and I don't make a lot. While we both discussed this in depth and are both in agreement that he should change careers, this has been harder than I thought it would be and all I can see are my friends and family with their houses (we live in an apartment), kids (we're childless right now, due to finances and lack of space), travel (we rarely are able to go anywhere), and high-paying careers (we're both in a low-paying profession).

This makes it difficult for me to enjoy spending time with anyone, unless they are struggling as much as we are. Our friends and family are supportive and kind, but I'm so embarrassed that we're so "behind" everyone else that I avoid socializing entirely. Why would I want to hang out in someone's beautiful house when all we have to go home to is a one-bedroom apartment? Why should I visit with friends and their children when we (at this rate) may never have children of our own?

Last time we went out with friends they showed up in a new car, and were all excited to show it to us. I smiled and said all the right things, but then excused myself and went into the restaurant's bathroom and cried. Another time I was at a baby shower for a friend who is expecting twins; I felt physically ill from jealousy and ended up calling in sick to work the next day because I felt so depressed ... and I haven't done that since maybe I was 17 years old.

My husband tries to keep me positive, but frankly I avoid discussing my feelings with him because I'm afraid he'll blame himself for my unhappiness. He notices that I'm unhappy, but I just blame it on stress ... which is true, but obviously only part of the story. My jealousy is beginning to feel like an obsession ... I constantly weigh what we have against what others have, and it's been affecting my sleep, health and work. I know this is wrong, and certainly not helpful. How can I stop caring so much about other people, or comparing our lives negatively with others? What is wrong with me?

Jealous in Jersey

Dear Jealous in Jersey,

In order to focus precisely on your problem, we should properly say that it is envy rather than jealousy that afflicts you. Jealousy is more particularly that emotion that involves fear of a rival, although the two are often used interchangeably, and Webster's does allow that "jealous" can mean "resentfully envious."

As Aristotle put it with admirable simplicity, "Envy is pain at the good fortune of others." According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, it is "a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another's advantages, possessions, etc. Resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires." And also, lest we forget, envy is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism. In Dante's "Purgatory," according to the Wikepedia entry on the seven deadly sins, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire, because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low."

In your case, it is clearly the good fortune of others that is causing you pain. Immanuel Kant in "The Metaphysics of Morals" said that envy is "a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one's own. [It is] a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another's because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others. [Envy] aims, at least in terms of one's wishes, at destroying others' good fortune."

I think Kant gets to the heart of it there. You must find some way to recover and celebrate the intrinsic worth of your own well-being. One way to do this, as Dr. Phil suggests, is to get up every morning for a week and make a list of 100 "blessings" in your life, and mail the list to Dr. Phil. (Watch the little slide show for what he tells his guest "Erin." -- it's Slide No. 5.) It couldn't hurt. But more important, I believe that you have to find out what this feeling of envy means in your own life. There are many components to it.

Philosophers have rightly asked whether envy might arise with a sense of injustice, and thus have an element of right complaint to it. That is, if you feel that the social and economic system that results in the unequal distribution of goods is the cause of the disparity in wealth between you and your friends, then you must examine the implications of such a belief. If it is the system that you genuinely believe is at fault, then you are more or less compelled to turn your attentions to working to change the system. That is because in order to be happy you must find some alignment between your beliefs and your actions.

But perhaps what you really feel is that your friends do not deserve all that they have, that they have been lazy or duplicitous or untrue to themselves in acquiring these things. If so, then there is, in your envy, a component of personal disapproval and disdain. If that is the case then the source of your pain is disapproval of your friends, and you must take that up. You must either engage your friends in honest debate about values, or find some new friends.

There may also be a psychological component to this. Perhaps you believe that this inequality is proof of some historical fact about you, that it confirms some sad fate or destiny that is painful -- that it is a matter of self-esteem so to speak. It may echo of past wrongs, past painful desertions, abandonments, the feeling of being overlooked or not getting what you want or being disappointed or misunderstood.

So you see the vast area you must traverse in order to find out what this envy means. And indeed what you believe may turn out to be a combination of things. And it may resonate through the past. It may be that you resent the society that does not distribute its treasure in accordance with your values and you may also have been going through this all your life, pursuing what you believe to be the the right course but being insufficiently praised and rewarded for it, watching others who have chosen easier and more mundane tasks being lavishly rewarded for their minimal accomplishments, and getting little or no support for your own endeavors. You may see in this pattern a society that itself is organized to entrench and perpetuate such rewards.

Also, let us not discount the possibility that while these feelings are triggered and heightened when you see your friends, perhaps a feeling of genuine deprivation is a reality for you: You want a house and kids and you think you can't have them yet and this causes you pain. You may have self-defeating assumptions about the order in which things must occur. You think you can't have kids yet because you don't have all the stuff yet. Well, if you really want to raise some kids, you don't have to wait until you're rich to do it. People have been raising kids for a long time without being rich. So you might consider taking a shortcut: If you want to have kids, have kids.

In other words, to think your way out of this, first you must find out what you really believe. Do you believe that you deserve these goods? If you want these goods, you can have them. No one will prevent you from acquiring them. But you would have to make the choice to do what is necessary to attain them. That might mean changing professions. So implicit in your choice of profession may be a rejection of these goods. That is something you need to face squarely. If you have chosen a profession for its intrinsic value, then you have implicitly denied yourself these goods you now covet. You made a choice.

You can make other choices. Each choice has consequences. You deserve to be happy. You do not have to live up to some abstract value if living up to it is killing you. You don't have to be poor to do good work in the world. You need to first of all take care of yourself. So ask yourself whether these things you covet so painfully are things that perhaps you actually do need. If so, perhaps you need to change professions.

That doesn't mean you can't have kids. If you can love and feed and clothe the kids, what's to stop you? Have some kids.

There is one practical thing I wanted to mention. When I have friends who have more than I do, I like to enjoy what they have. I am a little like a kid that way. If they have a big-screen TV and a new car, I like to ride in the new car and watch the TV. I like to sit on the comfortable couch and look out the window. There are great advantages to enjoying other people's stuff. You don't have to pay for it.

One last thing: How do you find out what your assumptions are? That is the crux of all this, but it is seldom easy to find out what we believe. You may have to write honestly in a journal in order to find your beliefs. There may be little voices in your head that you have not listened to closely and objectively before. What are those little voices? Can you write them down? They may be saying things that you have ignored. Do not ignore them any longer. They may contain clues to what you actually believe.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Coupling Family Since You Asked