The “Green Feeling”: Envy, is it Friend, or Foe?

“Then the queen was shocked and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour, whenever she looked at Snow White, her heart heaved in her breast, she hated the girl so much. And envy and pride grew higher and higher in her heart like a weed, so that she had no peace day or night.”

We all probably remember the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from our childhood. In the story, the evil stepmother becomes so envious of Snow White’s beauty, that she is ready to kill her to be the most beautiful of the kingdom again. At the end of the story the evil, envious stepmother gets what she deserves, and suffers a painful death.

But if we take a closer look at this highly unpleasant feeling, envy, we can all recognize having felt it in our hearts on occasions of our lives. In her column published in Helsingin Sanomat, psychotherapist Maaret Kallio eases our minds by explaining, “each one of us feels envy from time to time”. “Envy is just a feeling, it comes and goes, but we have to carry the responsibility for it”, she concludes. Envy is a common negative emotion that arises from an individual’s experience of lacking something in comparison to others. When someone has something we don’t have – a material thing, a quality, a skill, or for example a relationship – we might feel inexplicably upset by it and wish for loss of such things for them. This green feeling can simply hinder our ability to feel happy for other people, but it can also lead to bad deeds or sabotaging others’ success. We tend to disguise our envy as talking badly about the target of our envy behind their backs.

Despite the fact that envy is a common and perfectly human feeling that all of us have faced at some point in our lives, it is often kept hidden. Growing up as members of our surrounding society and communities, we have learned to repress our green feelings or at least avoid speaking about them openly. As kids, our parents and other people taking part in our upbringing discouraged us to take action caused by envy. Religion and its weight in shaping our social reality may also have taken a part in defining envy as ´bad´ since it’s one of the seven deadly sins defined by the Catholic Church.

Why do we feel envious?

According to professionals, envy often arises from low self-esteem and feeling of inferiority. People who feel strongly envious on a daily basis might have also experienced neglect and underestimation in their childhood. We often mix up envy with its equally inconvenient sibling, jealousy, but these two are not the same: jealousy is caused by the experience of threat of loss of something one already has, whilst envy arises from the experience of lacking possession of something. Researchers have also distinguished envy’s nature into malicious and benign kinds. While malicious envy focuses on the ill will towards the envied, benign envy is a motivator for the pursuit of the envied quality or thing.

Why should we embrace it?

So could we actually harness feelings of envy to teach us an important lesson about ourselves? Yes, since envy can expose us to some of our deepest desires that we didn’t even realize having, and drive us towards such things. Kallio explains, “Envy shouldn’t be avoided and resented, but rather looked towards with warmth”. “The feeling of envy and actions motivated by it should be taken a closer look at. The bravest dares to stop to observe the pain when envy occurs”, wrote the expert. Kallio also invites us to reflect and ask ourselves “what does the envy tell about what I am lacking myself? How could I move towards it better?”

There is no denying that envy can feel intoxicating and unbearable. Once the envious feelings occur, it is vital to recognize and allow them to come. It is not easy to face our unwanted, dark feelings. Fortunately, there is an antidote that can help to overcome envy. It is gratitude for the things that we already have. Another powerful way to relieve envy is compassion towards both the target of our envy and ourselves.

So whenever we find ourselves in the evil stepmother’s place, the weed of envy growing in our hearts, let’s choose to face the one staring back at the mirror and do it with kindness, understanding, and self-reflection.

Emmi Rissanen


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