The social genius of envy

Envy (and its partner jealousy) are treated badly in general, but envy is actually listed as one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic tradition.

We could say that the early Catholics meant to warn people against acting aggressively with their envy, but still, they called out a necessary human emotion as a sin. That’s not helpful.

Your envy is a vital social emotion that helps you understand your social world and create safety and security for yourself and others. It would be a sin not to have envy!

ENVY: Interactional Radar

GIFTS: Fairness ~ Generosity ~ Security ~ Access to resources ~ Proper recognition ~ Self-preservation

WHAT YOUR ENVY DOES: Envy arises to help you connect to security and equity in regard to resources and recognition. 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Discern whether you’re responding to fairness in social exchanges and check in with your self-regard and self-worth. Do you have healthy and appropriate access to resources and recognition? Does everyone else in the situation?

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What resources and security do I desire for myself and others? What inequalities must be made right?

The genius in envy

When your envy flows freely, you won’t appear openly envious or greedy; instead, your internal security will allow you to position yourself well in the world while you celebrate the gains and recognitions of others (even when they’re undeserved).

Meme for The Gifts of Envy with the text "Envy helps me see and want what's valuable, beautiful, fair, and necessary -- for myself and others."However, when you dishonor your envy, you may have trouble asking for what you need, or you may destabilize your relationships and social structures by grabbing everything you can get your hands on and actively working to take (or criticize) what others have.

Envy is similar to jealousy in that it contains a mixture of boundary-restoring anger and intuitive fear. The difference between these two emotions is that envy helps you establish and preserve your social position and your material security while jealousy focuses on the health and stability of your friendships and love relationships.

How envy works

Envy helps you understand and support the fair and equitable distribution of resources and recognition, and it responds to challenges (and threats) to your social position and your connection to resources (money, food, privilege, protection, belonging, and status).

Envy stands up for you in instances of unfairness or favoritism, or when resources have been (or seem to have been) pulled from you in deference to another.

Envy has been unfairly branded along with jealousy as a primitive and destructive emotion, but as it is with jealousy, the need for envy hasn’t decreased in any population since the beginning of humankind. We are a social species, which means that both jealousy and envy are needed to monitor our social connections, social pressures, and social positioning.

In the modern world, challenges and threats to our social position and our ability to gather resources haven’t decreased in any way whatsoever. We now require more money, more resources, more things, and more extensive infrastructures just to feed ourselves than our ancestors ever did.

This means that the power and intuition in envy – which help us connect to and monitor our sources of material and social security – are still incredibly necessary for our survival. Envy has a crucial protective function: it keeps us safely connected to the social structures and material support we need to live and flourish.

Thank you, envy!

Jealousy and envy in The Art of Empathy

In The Art of Empathy, I explore jealousy and envy in a number of areas, most particularly in the chapters on the development of empathy in children, and on the ways that jealousy and envy play out in the workplace.

Covers for the audio and book version of The Art of EmpathyWhat I notice with children especially is that jealousy and envy are basically not allowed. Children are usually told to to share their toys, their parents, their friends, and everything else, and not to want to keep things or people all to themselves. As such, most children grow up without much healthy experience of jealousy or envy. These two emotions often get shoved into the shadow, which causes a lot of trouble.

In the workplace (and in our everyday relationships), I find that jealousy and envy actually thrive, but they do so in the shadows, and especially in the informal communication process we call gossip. In this book, I’ve got a fun way to detoxify gossip and re-engage with the wisdom of jealousy and envy.

It’s called Ethical Empathic Gossip, and my work on this skill actually started here on this website. This is an awesome skill to share with your friends, family, and colleagues, and it’s especially wonderful to share with the currently unethical and unaware gossipers in your life.

Jealousy and envy have tremendous amounts of social information and wisdom to share with you, and Ethical Empathic Gossip is a safe and fun way to engage with these emotions, learn their language, and discover their gifts.

Thank you, jealousy and envy!


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