a peek inside the fishbowl

20 Apr, 2010

Thinking aloud about envy

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life|parenting

Envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. Emma and I were talking about it the other day. I had to look up the exact definition.

This is from Wikipedia:

“… jealousy is the fear of losing something that one possesses to another person (a loved one in the prototypical form), while envy is the pain or frustration caused by another person having something that one does not have oneself.”

I’m not an envious person by nature, but in a way I used to be. In high school I envied the relaxed manner of some of the other girls. I often felt like a tightly wound clock on the inside; worried and anxious and concerned. How did these girls manage to glide through their seemingly problem-free lives?

I still wonder if the inadequacy I felt on the inside was mirrored on the outside.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that no one’s life is free of worry. Everyone struggles to a certain extent, it’s just that some people are much better at hiding it than others. Even the girls who were so easy and breezy. The girls who could turn a perfect cartwheel and had well-behaved hair had issues too. I just didn’t know what they were at the time.

Happily for me, somewhere along the line I became a more confident person, the type who is content with her choices and happy to be in her own skin.

I could be envious of a lot of things, but I’m not. We live in a small house in a wealthy neighborhood. We drive a small car (a very plain and unglamourous 1999 Mazda Protege). I don’t have fancy brand clothing or shoes and my kids don’t play piano and they aren’t gifted and they aren’t heading for the Olympics. And you know what? I’m ok with all of that… more than ok.

As much as I hate online quizzes I skimmed a few for different scenarios involving envy to put this all in perspective:

Your co-worker gets a promotion. Are you the kind of person who:

  1. 1. Plans a celebration.
  2. 2. Complains that you didn’t get it, or thinks that they don’t deserve it and that you are more deserving.
  3. 3. Finds an reason or excuse for her success i.e. the boss was filling a quota

Your friend shows off his latest electronic gadget. Do you:

  1. 1. Go out and buy one just like it.
  2. 2. Get something better.
  3. 3. Think nothing of it and just play with it when you visit.

Your collegue has lost ten pounds and looks amazing in a new outfit. Do you:

  1. 1. Congratulate her. It’s hard to lose weight!
  2. 2. Make a negative or sarcastic remark about her appearance (either inwardly to yourself or pointedly to your friend).
  3. 3. Say nothing.

This got me wondering. Is the root of envious behaviour tied up in self-esteem? If you are content with who you are and with what you’ve already got, it’s not as likely that you’ll start to envy your neighbour’s car or exotic holidays, or your friend’s recent successes or promotion at work.

Envy can be the root of great debt … both emotional (and for some) financial too. If one is envious, does it mean something is missing in their lives? If so, what?

Is envy a virtue or a vice? Does it hold people back by causing an emotional drain that makes people negative and unhappy, or does it drive people to succeed?

Perhaps there’s a fine line in there somewhere. Motivation and self-improvement is healthy, envy is not.  

So how can people curb feelings of envy? This might be easier said than done, but perhaps the time and energy spent envying others is best channeled elsewhere; whether it’s by going to the gym, taking a course, or landscaping one’s life in whatever way. Maybe if people worked harder to create unique things they’re proud of, envy will naturally fall by the wayside.

I really don’t want my kids to be envious. It’s emotionally draining, and an utter waste of energy. Envy isn’t pretty.

So how do we teach our children not to envy others or covet what others might have?

Does it start with helping our children cultivate healthy self-esteem? Helping our children find something they are good at and teaching them how to be self-reliant and confident little people?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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25 Responses to "Thinking aloud about envy"

1 | coffeewithjulie

April 20th, 2010 at 8:34 am

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Jinx! I was just reading research on envy — and how to avoid it. It was about adults in the workplace, but I think the findings would be interesting in the context of children too. I’ll let you know when I’ve found the time to scribble the notes down, k?

2 | andrea

April 20th, 2010 at 8:36 am

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Yes! I would love to hear your findings!

3 | betsy mae

April 20th, 2010 at 9:09 am

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I don’t normally feel envious of others, I’d be lying if I said I’ve never felt envious but as a rule I don’t generally find myself feeling this way. BUT I do think I’m insecure and struggle with my decisions etc. I find it challenging to be content and not to always look for more. I’m not saying that envy and self esteem don’t go hand in hand but I think there is more to it as well.

I find it’s a big struggle for me when others seem to be envious of me. I view certain types of competitiveness as envy or jealousy and when I feel someone being competitive with me it really bothers me alot.

4 | Ginger

April 20th, 2010 at 9:28 am

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Wow…you don’t know how relevant this post is for me today. Thank you.

5 | bushidoka

April 20th, 2010 at 9:38 am

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I’m also not an envious person and am trying to raise the boys that way as well. I think part of it stems from self esteem, but I also think a much larger part of it has roots in our economic system which has the flawed notion of “growth” as its basic foundation. For anything to succeed, there must be “growth”. Economic growth. Which means that if a company makes 1 million dollar profit this year, and makes another million dollar profit next year, it has failed because there was no growth. One of the basic ways to ensure growth is through the consumer chain – so they need to convince people to buy stuff. Increasingly more stuff. And they need to convince people that they are failures if they do not do this. And fortunately for them, this is generally speaking pretty easy to do with TV commercials.

A key reason we got rid of TV when our first was born.

As the old saying goes – “follow the money”. Sad, but I think true.

6 | andrea

April 20th, 2010 at 9:48 am

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This issue is huge and multi-faceted for sure.

It’s a fine balance. We need to teach our kids to be happy with what they have, but it’s also important to aspire to greater things, isn’t it? Hmm.

7 | bushidoka

April 20th, 2010 at 10:11 am

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“Aspire to greater things” is one I’ve been struggling a lot with lately. I guess the answer for me hinges on the word “greater”, and how to determine that. For me the greatest “great” would be to put the needs of society and the planet ahead of one’s self, so any notion of “great” that is selfish in nature is flawed in nature. This also conflicts with the notion of “individualism”. As I like to say – plant yourself on the surface of the moon and revel in your individualism. There is no such thing as an individual, and any philosophy which promotes it is flawed from the beginning – a lie. Which goes against everything we’ve learned to consider “a good thing” ™

Another personal motto of mine is “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. People in our society are not in the habit of issuing personal restraint – not even an iota of it. This is tied up in the notion of individualism, as well. But this is also a root cause of so many of the world’s problems. I like to look at the Amish and Mennonites for inspiration in this area. Everything they do is centered around the notion of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Not that I am religious mind you – or even Christian. But nobody is ever going to be able to blame those guys for screwing up the planet. Thanks to their personal restraint.

For example choosing to live in a small house even when one could afford a bigger one :-) That is a good example of issuing personal restraint, arguably for the betterment of all. Choosing to not have all the toys and bling, even when one can afford it.

My challenge now is how to teach my kids to be themself without them being an “individual” in that sense. Not easy :-)

8 | andrea

April 20th, 2010 at 10:37 am

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Well, every parent has a different idea of what “greater” is. Acquaintances of ours have a teenage son who is graduating high school and has no plans whatsoever. He doesn’t know what he wants to be, doesn’t want to get a job … I think they want him to be something more than a layabout with no goals.

9 | bushidoka

April 20th, 2010 at 10:48 am

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Hee, hee, every parent’s worst nightmare I think – birds have it right when they drop the babies out of the nest :-P

10 | karen

April 20th, 2010 at 11:25 am

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This year I have noticed a change in my 11 year old daughter. She has become envious of others. The kids in her class are REALLY into brand names. So now she thinks she needs Holister and Lululemon. A year ago she had never heard of these things and now thinks she can’t live without them because her friends have lots of it. I am trying hard to remind her to be thankful for what she has and that a Lululemon sweatshirt won’t change her life at all. I hope she figures it out quickly.

11 | andrea

April 20th, 2010 at 11:29 am

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karen – you know what really changed my outlook on expensive goods? Working for my money. When I learned how long I had to work to buy the things I wanted it really put it into perspective. I learned how to say no to things I didn’t need and prioritize the things I wanted.

12 | bushidoka

April 20th, 2010 at 11:57 am

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I agree – putting a concrete price on it works even at younger ages. I bought a PS3 in November and made it clear to everyone is was MY toy (one of the very few I have) and that the boys ( 6 and 8 ) could play it only with my permission. Which I would dole out easily enough when they asked. The point being it was not their box to do with as they pleased – it was a special thing they had to ask permission to use.

About a month ago I noticed that one of the remotes was missing – and it was eventually found in their room (very far away from the PS3), and found to be broken! Grrrrr. So I told them they do not get to play it again until I have another remote to replace it. And they now know that a remote costs $54. And they do not even bother asking to play it anymore.

I find in general when they ask for something, I just put a price on it and ask them how they want to come up with the money. Last summer we set up a lemonade stand out front and so they know how much work is involved to earn a certain amount of money, and they are already saving up their lemonade money for something specific. I tell them I’ll be happy to help them with another lemonade stand and they can spend the money on whatever new whim they decided they want. They usually sort it out pretty quickly in their heads and give up on the new thing they want because they still have that lemonade money bookmarked for something else.

We still do not give them an allowance though we have been talking about it. And they do earn money for doing chores.

13 | Jayne

April 20th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

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Good topic. Excellent feedback. I’m sometimes (ugly) envious…not for material things but for happiness, goodness, congeniality, etc. Ironic eh? This post is mostly focused on kids and how to make them less envious, less interested in getting more, more more. I’m attending a meeting tonight to review plans for a new BIG house in our neighbourhood. A super modern (boxy) 5-bedroom place that will be quite a bit longer than the rest of the places on the block. Neighbours are buzzing with disapproval. I think there’s a bit of mob mentality going on. I could be wrong but my read on this is it mostly comes down to…envy. And maybe the effect this place will have on the $ value of their modest Westboro homes.

14 | Ginger

April 20th, 2010 at 8:36 pm

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I am still fairly new to the whole parenting gig. My boys are only about 20 months old. I certainly don’t have all the answers. Right now when one of my boys wants something he just takes it. Tears and shouts and maybe even some brotherly pushing and shoving take place. Sometimes I let them work it out and sometimes I intervene. I think that even before they know what envy is they have it. I think that envy is kind of hard-wired into us. I think that it is my job to help them learn to control their envy. I agree that it is a fine line between the bad, negative kind of envy and the good kind of envy that pushes us to strive for something. As long as the envy doesn’t become controlling and negative. I think some of this is modeled. As a parent I shouldn’t be whining and complaining about envying something someone else has or being mad or negative about it. Helping a child to sort it all out is what we do. Maybe that means helping them figure out ways to earn the money to purchase something that is desired. Maybe it means providing the lessons or the books or the help needed to meet a goal. I think some of it is self esteem and feeling accepted not only at home but by peer groups as well. I think that it takes lots of conversations like the one you had with Emma. And I think some of it just takes growing up and maturing.

I do know one thing. I am glad that I have an online community of parents who share these parts of parenting because it scares me to think of having to totally go it on my own!

15 | ShopHaven

April 20th, 2010 at 9:43 pm

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Great article! Jealously and envy are definitely not things that I want my son to know. I think people spend too much time worrying about what other people think of them and it only drives you crazy. There is no reason to be envious, you need to be happy for what you have. If you keep wanting what everyone else has you will never be happy.

16 | meanie

April 21st, 2010 at 7:09 am

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I used to be a hugely envious person, envious of other people’s physical attributes and wardrobes. I chalk it up to a very low self-esteem. It is only recently that I am quite comfortable with myself and what I have and don’t look at others with envy. I am very aware of this with my girls – I don’t want them growing up envious of others and basing their happiness on superficial things. One way I am trying to do this is encourage them to befriend all walks of life and not find themselves completely reliant on one, small group of friends. Girls can be tricky, and sometimes mean. If you find yourself on the “outs” with them one day, your whole life can change. I think being friends with a nice cross section of people allows you to really be yourself, be liked for who you are and there is not as much pressure to fit into one crowd (the crowd that needs Lululemon sweats, etc etc). I can see it working with my 8 year old – so far she has her own distinct style, and gets invited on playdates from a whole variety of kids, girls and boys. Of course, she is still bemoaning the fact that she doesn’t have a DSi, and EVERYONE else does, but she can save her allowance for that :)

I hope that makes sense.

17 | andrea

April 21st, 2010 at 7:36 am

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Great comments everyone, thank you for contributing to this conversation. I always love hearing your thoughts and strategies.

I think ShopHaven summed it up quite nicely: If you keep wanting what everyone else has you will never be happy.

This goes for material things just as much as personal attributes such as happiness, success, wealth etc.

19 | A Crafty Mom

April 21st, 2010 at 11:22 am

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Just clicked on bushidoka’s link and it’s so true!! My 4 year old out of the blue told my mother in law yesterday that the absolute cheapest and best place to shop was Walmart. I asked him where he had heard that (we don’t shop at Walmart, he’s never been!!!) and he said from a TV commercial – and this is exactly why we plan on cutting off our cable!

My six year old is just getting into this stage – envying things his classmates have and wishing he had one for himself. It’s a daily battle to work on this, so I welcome any tips. We do try to build confidence and self esteem and focus on non-material satisfaction, but I worry about the pressure kids get at school, and I want to make mine as strong as possible so they can fight off all that peer pressure.

That being said, I feel that I am usually a pretty confident person (like everyone, I have my questionable days). But I won’t lie – I still fall victim to house envy sometimes. I struggle with this often – we live in a small three bedroom house and there are five of us and a dog. I know I should be happy here and that we have everything we want, but I do find myself drooling when I walk into a friend’s lavish and massive home in the suburbs. I’m workin’ on that ;)

(I mean working on loving my small home, not working on moving into a bigger one, BTW!)

20 | bushidoka

April 21st, 2010 at 11:46 am

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Cutting off the TV is the best thing you can do IMO Crafty Mom. It is only one datapoint, but our boys are 6 and 8 and we get very, very little of this. We even let them have more-or-less free reign of the TV we have in their room, but because they only get TVO and CBC very well, it is for the most part good programming with few commercials aimed at kids.

Funny story but when they were about 2 and 4 we were visiting my in laws in NS, and the boys were watching TV when suddenly a commercial came on. Back then we did not even do over-the-air TV and only watched DVDs, so they had no idea what a TV commercial was. When the first one came on, the oldest got mad at the youngest – accusing him of messing up the TV :-) That was a proud moment for us, actually.

I get house envy from time to time as well – not burning envy though. Just fleeting. We are just shy of 1000 sq.ft. with 2 kids and a 3rd on the way any day now. It can be very challenging at times, but we would not give up our location for anything – right next to the Parkdale Market. The people in the burbs can have their big houses – they have to live in the burbs afterall :-P

21 | coffeewithjulie

April 21st, 2010 at 8:12 pm

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Hi! As promised, I collected a few thoughts. They were too long-winded to put into a comment so I did a blog post on envy as well. Thanks to all of you for the interesting discussion! :)

22 | Vicky

April 23rd, 2010 at 8:51 pm

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Andrea, I’m curious, do you think our mothers or their mothers wondered how they were going to help us cultivate a positive self-esteem? Do you think they gave any thought to whether or not we would learn not to be envious of what other people had? What makes our generation different that we do concern ourselves with these things? Is this just another way we are hyperparenting?

23 | andrea

April 26th, 2010 at 8:49 am

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Hi Vicky,
I’ve thought long and hard about your comment and I’m still not sure how to phrase it. It’s not hyperparenting, it’s parenting.

Helping our children find something they are good at and teaching them how to be self-reliant and confident little people isn’t new.

Our mothers (the vast majority of mothers, I imagine) worried about our self-esteem, but maybe not using these exact words. My mother encouraged me to do well in school, dress for success, make and keep good friends. We played board games together. She let me walk to and from school by myself (in kindergarten!) and roam around the neighborhood with a posse of friends until it got too dark to play outside. These things are all related – in one way or another – to cultivating self-confidence and self-esteem.

I’m sure yours did too.

What our mothers didn’t have was a public vehicle to publish their thoughts and worries like we do. I think this is why it seems like our generation is worrying about these things more, when in fact nothing has really changed.

24 | Vicky

April 26th, 2010 at 8:55 am

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Andrea, I think you are absolutely right. The fact that we do have a public vehicle to publish our thoughts (and share them with other mothers) does make it seem like we worry more. I’ve often thought that blogging/the online mom community is much like having all the moms on the street gather on your front porch to chat while the kids played in the yard. Some days I wish we still had more of that face-to-face contact and communication with other moms. I often crave it.

My mom lived by the idea of ‘give them a nest to grow in and wings to fly’. It’s something I too am striving for with my own kids.

(And I hope you didnt’ take my comment as a criticism? I was just stirring up some discussion ;)

25 | andrea

April 26th, 2010 at 8:59 am

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Vicky,
I didn’t take your comment as a criticism at all! I really and truly welcome this kind of discussion. We need to ask ourselves these kinds of questions, and I appreciate your thoughts! So stir away! :)

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