The Envy Trap
In my awkward college years, my roommate and I had what I’ll call a “style crush” on one of our classmates. She was (and still is) graceful, poised, and has the most perfect sheath dress and blazer combination for any occasion. My roommate and I processed our feelings of envy over beers at our local bar—how did she look so great all the time?
We would shop together, holding up garments and asking “would X wear this?” If the answer was yes, then we’d buy it. I will credit this phase for the awesome interview outfit that helped land me my first job out of college. But, it soon became a negative comparison trap: I began to do everything I could to imitate this woman’s style. (Guess what I didn’t do? Actually get to know her beyond her impeccable style. Nice one, Emily.)
I used my envy of this person to change the clothing I bought and wore—to try and change who I was. I said goodbye to my favorite floral boots and pink pants, all in the name of maintaining a style standard that was not my own. I wore no-nonsense business casual button-downs from Express that made me feel like an imposter in my own body.
The ultimate shame is that it wasn’t actually the sheath dresses and perfect blazers that I envied: it was the confidence that she sported alongside each outfit. As much as I’d like it to be true, it turns out you can’t put on a well-structured blazer and call it confidence.
Using Envy As A Creative Tool
So how can we stop this madness?
I don’t believe it’s possible to be a person on the internet these days and not feel some twinge of envy. (If you’ve figured out how to avoid it, please tell me your secrets!) So, I’m trying something new: I’m using envy as a divining tool to determine what projects are calling me. For example, my current “I wish I could do that” envious energy centers around illustration and photography. So I tried my hand at some sketching, and I was terrible at it—but I enjoyed it and I think I’ll keep trying. And I keep taking pictures, even when the exposure is off and I can get the edits quite right.
It is possible to use this negative emotion to create a positive outcome. I even let my envy of people with morning routines help me create my own morning routine. Instead of comparing myself to others and falling short, I’m changing my language and seeing qualities I admire and work to emulate them. Envy, when I'm constructive with it, helps me to follow my whims.
It's like a radar screen: whenever a little blip of envy comes into range, I try to move towards it with curiosity rather than hostility. No one is judging me because I’m not doing what someone else is doing. Instead, I’m using feelings of envy to direct myself towards something that will take me to the next level. It’s not that I need to go paddle boarding off the Amalfi Coast like I saw on Instagram. Maybe that envy is inviting me to try something new, like surfing, or skiing, or even just checking out a new café.
Using envy thoughtfully is about changing our “I wish I could’s” into “I am going to’s” and not dwelling on where we come up lacking.
Keeping The Envy Spiral At Bay
Many times, though, I do get consumed by envy without challenging myself or moderating my own consumption. The envy spiral that ensues ends up taking me further away from my goals.
It usually happens when I’m already in a self-destructive mood, so I try to avoid social media in general during those times. Instead, I nurture myself by journaling or walking through my neighborhood. (Or drinking a tall glass of water since I'm forever under-hydrated and it makes me grumpy).
Oh, and never underestimate the power of a nap.
Here are a couple of other ways I’m trying to keep envy in check and avoid the envy spiral:
I unfollow anyone on social that directly—or indirectly—makes me feel like I’m not enough. You can still follow people you admire, but stay vigilant about the way their messaging affects you. Does it build you up? Are you excited and challenged by their content? Ditch anyone that makes you question your own self worth.
If you feel a twinge of envy about someone’s work, life, or relationship, take action. Do your version of what it is that you're envious about. If you start to feel inauthentic along the way, pause and reevaluate. It’s okay to not do what everyone else is doing if you don’t want to do it.
I ask myself: “do I actually want this for myself?” If the answer is yes, I make note of it in my journal or contemplate it on my commute. I boil it down to the essentials, craft it into a goal, and then come up with steps towards achieving that goal.
If the answer to the previous question is “no, I don’t actually want this for myself right now”, change your language. I’m working on the habit of saying “I’m happy for them” and moving on. I do this for things like new babies or houses in the suburbs—neither are things I want right now, but I love when my peers get to experience them.
Have you been able to use envy as a constructive tool? Share in the comments below!
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!