How the experience of envy can take us to our authentic selves

“Hell is other people.” wrote Sartre, the renowned French philosopher, novelist and playwright in his play, No Exit. The famous quote is in the end of the play when three characters arrive in a place that appears to be hell. While they try to figure out what crimes they committed, they realize that the three of them are trapped in a room. They continue to get on each other’s nerves when one of the characters concludes, “Hell is other people.”

What do you make of this quote? One way to interpret this is that when an individual becomes conscious of someone else’s gaze, the awareness of being watched restricts the freedom of thinking and being as an individual. 

Sartre’s quote is a witty observation into the social nature of human beings. Other people give us a frame of reference and constraints to understand ourselves, our aspirations and purpose. We can be physically next to another person. Or, we can bring the other in our thoughts. Under both scenarios, our brains automatically scan the physical or imaginary presence in attempts to answer the question, “What is my status in this relationship?”, “Am I better off or worse than the other?” By design, we compare ourselves to others. Everybody does it, one way or another.

When dealing with an unprecedented life threatening situation, like the coronavirus outbreak, we have the tendency to compare ourselves to others more than normally. How do others react to the chaos? We perceive the environment with an increased sense of vulnerability. What do others do to adapt to the new reality of remote work? Is my colleague, let’s say Mike, performing better than I am? Is he more resilient than I am? 

Every few seconds, our brains scan the environment – both physical and virtual – in search of safety. Have you heard of the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”? Our brains may be designed to ensure our survival but when comparative thinking becomes obsessive, the good intention of protecting starts to backfire. 

For some of us, the experience of envy can be one of the main outcomes of this comparative thinking. Under the current circumstances of social isolation, remote work and homeschooling, we may end up stuck with envy.

There is hope. Living among others, even if the others are in our thoughts only, can reveal glimpses of heaven in us. Are you interested in understanding yourself, aspirations and purpose with more clarity? If you are, what may be of particular interest is what can we do about the envy ensuing from the impulsive comparison to others. 

There can be four ways in which we can experience envy:

  1. We unconsciously let the invidiousness manifest in reflective words and behaviours. In the mildest forms of envy, we give The Look. You know, that green with envy look. We may be unconscious about it but the other can notice it even in video conferences. What are the more severe forms of unconscious words and behaviours of envy that you have noticed in others?   
  2. We become aware of feeling envious. Unless we are masochists, we don’t like the taste of suffering that envy brings. Envy is a toxic feeling that burns the heart. What do we do? How can we fix the poisoning effects fast? We shift the blame on the other for making us feel the way we do. Or we find excuses why the other achieved something which we crave but could’t accomplish yet. “Of course, my colleague Mike is performing better. He is in better control of remote work because he has no kids.” There we go. We feel better. Next time we’ll experience this feeling, we’ll rinse and repeat. 
  3. Some of us respond with shame over feeling envious in the first place. We try to ignore the feeling. The ideal self who wants the best of us overrules the envy. “It’s not me to feel this way.” While it’s a virtue to aim at the greatest possible good in ourselves, we end up creating an illusion of goodness when we cannot look at the envy in the eye. It would be like responding to chronic headaches by using affirmations, such as “All is well”, “I am pain free”, “I am healthy”. Do positive affirmations take away the headache? Do positive affirmations lead to understanding what causes the headache?   
  4. The fourth way of reacting increases self-awareness, when we have better odds at gaining clarity on what is the problem and what solutions we can come up with. We can observe the feeling as it arises. If you can, pause to reflect on it. If you’re into the middle of some important task, set a date in your calendar when we can take a break and get curious to understand, “What lies behind my envy? Why do I feel this way?” 

The experience of envy shows us there is a need. Unprecedented situations make us more insecure and whatever unfulfilled needs we may have had before, they become now bigger. I’m thinking of the need for safety, employment needs, status, recognition or self-actualization. One of these needs may be important for us and not fulfilled yet. 

Whenever we experience envy as a result of comparing ourselves to others, we can take it as a barometer of personal or professional fulfilment. The point of envy shows us the status quo of fulfilment. Press reset. Embrace instead the path of authenticity. What aspirations and dreams are dormant in us? 

“Comparing yourself to others is an insult to yourself.” 

Bill Gates    

Each interpersonal interaction is like a mirror that shows us how to know ourselves better. The mirror can show the best sides we perceive in others, which trigger the envy. Press reset. Breathe. Look away from the mirror. Breathe.

Look back at the mirror. What is inspiring about how your colleague Mike is coping with remote work? Breathe. Look away from the mirror. Breathe. 

Look back again. The mirror can now reflect aspects of our ideal selves. We cannot copy and paste others’ best qualities. We can only discover and practice our best qualities. Breathe. Look away from the mirror. Breathe. 

Look back again. The mirror can show reflections of our authentic selves that will help us satisfy the important needs.

In the first days of self-isolation, when I was quite blown by the novelty of the unwanted change, I received messages from a couple of friends who shared their new calendars for the stay at home week.  

It was obvious to me that discipline was my friends’ strength. I was tempted to copy my friends’ action and come up with a new daily schedule to adapt to self-isolation with children. Yet, I’ve always known that discipline is one of my weaknesses and I would not have been able to follow through the schedule. Instead, I chose to look into what purpose the discipline served for my friends? 

What my friends were doing by exercising their discipline was to claim agency over their new lives, turned upside down by the coronavirus outbreak. They created a new sense of control for themselves by writing down a daily calendar of events for their work, for their kids and for their families. 

The human brain loves to have predictability. And since the coronavirus outbreak brought lots of ambiguity and uncertainty, the way to develop predictability is to set up new daily routines.   

The interactions with my friends brought me in front of the mirror of personal strengths. “Mirror mirror on the wall, tell me what is my best strength of all?” I had to find my strength to bring predictability in the daily chaos. And my strength is to take my kids’ perspective and be flexible to their needs. What did I do? 

schedule_6_year_kidIn the morning, as we woke up, I asked them to draw a plan for the day. As you might expect and can see in the above picture, my 6 year old drew all sorts of play activities. Play was my kids’ way to have agency over the changes in our lives. Therefore, day by day, when the energy in the room would be about to get explosive, I initiated some moments of dance and other physical activities with the boys.     

The mirrors that others place in front of us help us see more earnestly what qualities or strengths we may choose to lead ourselves through a trying life situation, such as the coronavirus outbreak.

Hell is other people if we focus on the best selves of others instead of focusing on our authentic selves.