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Transmuting Negative Emotions: In Defense of Envy

I’m not so proud as to say that I’ve never been made uncomfortable by someone else’s good fortune. That is to say that yeah, I’ve been envious before. Sure, it might be rare, but anyone who says they haven’t is a liar. There’s a lot of shame surrounding the act of admitting that you harbor irrational or childish emotions, but I think that shame stems from how poorly we’ve been trained to handle our emotions.

There are very few things in this world that are inherently bad. Envy has been given a bad rap, but in this article, I’d like to make a case for why envy can be a force of good in our lives. I’d also like to bring attention to how important it is to not ignore what is referred to as one’s shadow side.

The Origins of Envy

To put it simply, envy is wanting what someone else has. But this ‘someone else’ isn’t just anybody. Rischard Smith, author of the essay Envy and It’s Transmutations writes that “we envy people who are similar to ourselves.” And what we covet from that person who is similar to us isn’t just anything. Smith notes the importance of “the domain in question [being] self-relevant. We must link part of our core self-worth with” the very thing we covet. Should one pride themselves on their punctuality it might create the conditions for envy to fester should another colleague be recognized as most punctual.

We might live in the modern age, but ultimately, we are still animals fighting over resources we view as necessary for sustaining our lives. In this age, status is the new waterhole and we’re all fighting for steady access to it. With envy, there is an understanding that one is just as worthy of what they desire as the person they envy. And the envious perceives themselves as being denied what is rightfully theirs. This is because “psychological balance forces require that similar people should have similar outcomes” writes Smith.

I’d also like to take a moment to address that one can only be described as envious when the playing field is fair. If the playing field is unfair, “especially in terms of objectively derived and agreed upon standards, the full-blown emotions of resentment and indignation rather than envy will result…Envy occurs when the advantage is painful but fair.” Oftentimes, people will try to conflate someone’s discontentment with unfair or disrespectful treatment as envy.

As if the injured party is just being a sore loser. It’s gaslighting to be made to feel as though your fair grievances are irrational and a product of poor self-esteem. Disliking someone who is given a pass to treat you as less than, is not the same as being envious. When uninterrupted, feelings of envy are a bit more insidious.

Why Envy Has a Bad Rap

Envy isn’t considered one of the seven deadly sins for nothing. There’s a destructive quality that envy can bring out in us that “aims at spoiling the goodness of [something], to remove the source of envious feelings… since a spoiled object arouses no envy.” If left to fester in our heart without interruption, envy eats away at us.

And Once it’s consumed you, the object of one’s envy naturally becomes the next item on the dinner plate. We have no shortage of stories where someone was driven to commit heinous acts to appease the appetite of their envy. From Cain and Abel to Cassius and Caesar, envy has brought the downfall of both the envied and the envious. This “hostile component of envy” Smith writes about is why I believe that so many aim to stomp out or suppress feelings of envy.

How to Positively Channel Any Negative Emotion

However, if we interrupt those thoughts of ill will in our head, we can redirect our resentment to a productive solution that can elevate us. In order to channel the negative emotions that envy creates into something more positive, it helps to think deeply about why you feel envious in the first place. Deconstructing your emotions to their most primitive aspects gives you the building blocks for reconstructing your self-esteem. It makes no sense to resent someone for their good fortune when you more than likely have access to it too. The envious harbor a sense of powerlessness. You have to think of something as unattainable to yourself in order to resent someone for having what you don’t.

Or as Smith put it: You have to believe “that obtaining the desired attribute is unlikely even as he or she can imagine what it would be like to have it.” If it pains you to be outperformed by someone in academia, then perhaps a more rigorous study schedule and a better work ethic are due. If it hurts to see a someone favored by others for their clear skin, then perhaps it’s time to eat less sugar and drink more water. Envy puts our naked bodies in front of a mirror and we’re forced to look ourselves and all our imperfections. What you see can bother you to the point of doing nothing, being a hater, or it can motivate you to change. Acceptance and honesty are very important towards moving beyond many of the negative emotions we feel.

The next time your vision starts to turn green with envy, take a moment to really think about what is making you upset. Has this person ever personally wronged you? Are you capable of achieving what they have? If so, what's stopping you from making the necessary changes in your life? I think it’s important that people listen to their negative emotions. Not necessarily because they are right or justified. It’s simply because listening to that part of us we’d rather keep hidden casts a light into the darkness by which we can begin to see ourselves fully. By giving the child inside of you just a little attention, you will find healthier ways of coping with negative emotions. When we learn to positively channel uncomfortable emotions, we grow as human beings.

Lilith is a blogger with an emphasis in writing and reflecting upon social agendas that effect black women. When not at her computer writing she is more than likely still at her computer, programming. On the rare occasion that Lilith isn't at her laptop you can attempt to find her exploring the Chicago food scene or attending workshops in creative writing

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