Envy Can Teach You Why You’re Dissatisfied with Yourself

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“To cure jealousy is to see it for what it is: a dissatisfaction with self.” ~Joan Didion

For a few years in the late 90s, I had a date with the green-eyed monster every other Monday at 6:00 PM on the dot.

That was when my women artists support group met in my friend Anne's studio.

For those three hours, like clockwork, the envy monster took over my body, mind, and spirit.

Oh, how I wanted a studio like Anne's! Wide open space for her to paint, high ceilings, natural light through clerestory windows, a small office for her computer off the main room.

My own “studio” was a tiny bedroom, so small it was a miracle my drafting table even fit inside. Where Anne had spacious shelves and flat files to store her supplies, a sofa for visitors, and still had plenty of space left over to spread out and paint, I barely had space to turn around.

It wasn't just her studio that I envied, either. Unlike me, Anne seemed to have a happy, functioning marriage. And her house was gorgeous, an old bungalow in pristine condition, with the kinds of details you just don't find in newer construction: old hardwood floors, a fireplace with hand-made tiles, built-in glass cabinets in the living and dining rooms.

In expensive Silicon Valley, houses like this—even tiny ones—don't come cheap, and I seethed with envy, wishing I could afford a place like Anne's.

It takes a two-income family to afford such a home in my town, though, and with my marriage falling apart, I was soon to enter the ranks of the single-income—and a limited income, at that.

Face it, with her well-paying design work, her (also well-paid) husband, her beautiful house, and her to-die-for studio, Anne represented everything I wanted and did not have.

Hence that bi-monthly date with the green-eyed monster.

I should note that I didn’t begrudge Anne all of her riches. I was glad for her.

I knew from reading Betsy Cohen’s book The Snow White Syndrome that envy could be a great tool, a gauge to discover your own deepest longings.

I didn’t want Anne’s studio, house, and husband; I just wanted the equivalent for myself. And that wanting burned me up inside. Life would be so much better, I just knew it, if I had what Anne had!

As my marriage disintegrated and my husband and I eventually filed for divorce, I found myself without a studio altogether. I moved into a one-bedroom apartment and moved my drafting table into the living room. With no separation between my work- and living spaces, I was surrounded by constant chaos.

It was a challenging time: I was desperately sad and confused from the “failure” of my marriage, anxious from dealing with being single again for the first time in eleven years, and under the gun to make my “hobby” art business actually pay the bills.

My little apartment, with its windows overlooking asphalt, was a big step down from the house I’d lived in with my husband. You’d think the bi-monthly treks to Anne’s studio would be harder than ever.

In fact, to my great surprise, I found just the opposite: almost overnight, my envy dissolved.

I didn’t have high ceilings, spill-proof cement floors, and space to spread out, like Anne. I didn’t have a solid relationship, or a beautiful bungalow with hardwood floors and a craftsman fireplace.

I was in the middle of a divorce, living in a tiny, cramped apartment, with no yard, no dishwasher, and no studio, yet I stopped being plagued by the green-eyed monster at our Monday meetings—what was going on?

True, my apartment was plain, and way too small, but it was mine. And for the first time I realized that my life was mine as well.

When I met my husband at age 21, my identity was still unformed, my path as yet uncharted. Without realizing it, in my youthful naiveté, my wants and needs evolved to mold around his wants and needs.

In short, I never truly developed my own identity.

It took my marriage ending for me to “find myself,” and once I did, the lacks that I felt—and the resultant envy—didn’t abrade as much.

I remember, during that awful summer of my divorce, a surprising sense of glee and hopefulness about the life I was creating. I remember walking down my tiny little carpeted hallway, thinking to myself (or even exclaiming out loud), “I love my little apartment! I love my apartment!”

It wasn’t a big studio I needed, it turned out; it was comfort with who I was and where I was going.

My date with the green-eyed monster was really a clue that it was myself I was dissatisfied with, not my surroundings, relationship, or possessions. I just had to realize that my envy was there to be my teacher—that the key to taming it was simply in learning what it was there to show me about myself.

So often we're taught that envy is a sin, something to be avoided, or at the very least hidden away where nobody will see it. When we can look straight in the face of our envy, instead of running from it, however, it always has something to teach us.

When you're feeling envious, ask yourself, “What is it about me that I’m dissatisfied with? What really needs to change in my life in order to feel content again?”

You may not always find the answer immediately, but if you're open to receiving, it will come eventually, and when it does, you can bid farewell to the green-eyed monster. At least until the next time it appears to teach you about yourself again.

Photo by Gregory Tonon

About Melissa Dinwiddie

Melissa Dinwiddie helps people turn their creative taps to "on," and transform their lives from grey to full color. She blogs and podcasts at Living a Creative Life, where you can get a FREE printable poster of her 5 reminders of why creative play is a world-changing act.

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  • Do you think that the envy was a result of several years of not loving yourself enough, rather than dissatisfaction with yourself? Unless you understand both to mean the same thing?

  • Thank you for this post!

  • You’re welcome, Shevonne! Thanks for reading. 🙂

  • Great question, Khurty. In this case I think they boiled down to the same thing. You’ve got me thinking, though, whether one can be totally self-loving and also dissatisfied with oneself. And also how envy relates to self-love.

    I still experience envy, though I’m in a much better and more loving place now, so I don’t think self-love is a guaranteed cure for envy. Self-awareness is a big piece, though–the more I’m able to notice what I really want and go after it, the less I’m saddled by envy.

    One of my tag lines is “self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good.” I find that to be true with envy, as with so much else.

  • This is fabulous! Exactly what I’m learning right now. A perfect affirmation! Thank you!

  • I love that, Heidi! Serendipity. 🙂

  • That is a great way to look at it. 🙂

  • Good stuff, Melissa, as always. Envy is totally disarmed by generosity and personal growth!

  • MK

    Thanks for this post, it’s a great share

  • It’s funny because I was just reading the previous article and thinking to myself ‘I need an article on jealousy right now!’ and wouldn’t you know, the very next one was your article on envy! Totally needed this today. There is a girl at work who I am very jealous of – ironically, I don’t respect her, wouldn’t want to be her… I am at work every day feeling overwhelming jealousy (that isn’t even logical) and can’t understand why? Your article has helped me turn the questions around on myself, rather than focusing on her. Clearly there is something inside of me that is missing in order for me to feel this way, so thank you so much for this article! I just found it at the perfect time!

  • I’m so glad my article was helpful, Michelle! And boy do I hear you on feeling jealous and not understanding why. It’s helpful to be able to use that feeling as a lens into oneself, isn’t it?

  • You’re so welcome, MK!

  • Aw, thanks, Laureen! 🙂 Yes, disarmed is a good word for it. 🙂

  • smw

    Envy pretty much consumes me when it comes to other girls, but I just can’t help it’s automatic anger that is pretty much impossible to control. Naturally Thin girls are especially a sore point. ‘they don’t even have to work to keep their figure, they don’t deserve it, they don’t know what it’s like’ is a common thought. It often results in extreme resentment with friends or strangers, it makes no difference. Emotions are so strange and useless.