Seven Deadly Sins: Envy

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It’s a lot easier to envy people than it is to work toward acquiring the things they have that we want. (studiostoks/Shutterstock)
It’s a lot easier to envy people than it is to work toward acquiring the things they have that we want. (studiostoks/Shutterstock)

We recently announced that we would be doing a series on the Seven Deadly Sins and how they play into addiction and alcoholism. This is the first part of that series, in which each article will be focusing on three main points. First, we will give a basic overview of the sin in question and how it affects our thoughts and behaviors. Second, we will be discussing the role of each specific sin in active addiction. Finally, we will focus upon how one may overcome these sins to decrease any potential threats to their sobriety. To begin, we will focus on envy.

Much like all of the sins that we are to be covering in the coming weeks, envy is dangerous regardless of your religious beliefs. The goal is not to think of envy as a sin, but rather as any other character defect that may be harmful to your sobriety. This should make things a little easier to process for those who struggle with faith, or who simply do not believe in organized religion. The goal here is not to provide you with a dogmatic lecture, but rather to help you maintain your sobriety.

You should already be pretty familiar with envy and the harm that it can do. Envy is what drives numerous Shakespearean characters in plays such as Othello and The Merchant of Venice. In the fairy tale of Snow White, it drives the evil queen to deal away with a young maiden considered to be fairer than she is. And of course, it shows up in the Bible, in the stories of Cain and Abel or of the dreamer Joseph and his fratricidal brothers. All of these stories resulted in the attempted (and occasionally successful) taking of a life. If you do not learn how to deal with your envy properly, you might not be driven to murder—but you will almost certainly lose something of yourself.

Defining Envy as a Cardinal Sin

First, let’s talk about just what it means to envy a person. (aga7ta/Shutterstock)
First, let’s talk about just what it means to envy a person. (aga7ta/Shutterstock)

Several faiths and philosophical teachings including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have put forth writings which note the harm that can be caused by envy. It is seen as an emotion which results in misery. In fact, it has often been defined as a form of pain. This is how Aristotle viewed phthonos, which he referred to as “the pain caused by the good fortune of others.”

However, it is actually much more than that. German philosopher Immanuel Kant expanded on Aristotle’s definition in a fashion which evokes the internal struggles faced by those who suffer from envy. Kant saw envy as “a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others.” In other words, Kant viewed envy as a state in which we are pained by others’ good fortune specifically because it makes us feel as if we have somehow been devalued by comparison.

In some ways, it would seem as if envy could be a good thing. By looking at others, we look at ourselves. This should, by all rationale, compel us to be better. But in many cases, envy will cause us to take pleasure in the pain of others. We feel that they have somehow wronged us through their success, and we wish to see them pay for it. At this point, we approach the realm of epicaricacy, better known as schadenfreude. It is at this point that envy becomes a sin. More than that, it is at this point that it becomes a character defect that may absolutely ruin our sobriety.

Not only do we take pleasure in seeing harm done to those who have what we want, but we may even go to some measures to ensure their misfortune. We will try to hurt people who committed no wrong against us. All they did was succeed in their own lives. In fact, many of them were likely unaware that we considered them to be in any sort of competition with us. If we are unable to realize and accept this, envy will begin to play a major role in our addictions.

Envy’s Role in Active Addiction

Just as the evil queen in the Snow White tale, envy may cause us to harm others. But in most cases, it will really just cause us to harm ourselves. (Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock)
Just as the evil queen in the Snow White tale, envy may cause us to harm others. But in most cases, it will really just cause us to harm ourselves. (Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock)

How many times have you turned to drugs and alcohol to relieve you of your pain? And how often was this pain caused by envy? There have likely been at least a few. There have also been times when many of us have turned to drugs and alcohol to relieve ourselves of the pain caused by our own shortcomings. When we strike out against a person and find that they still have everything we want, we will consider ourselves to have failed. In this way, we essentially use our envious nature as an excuse to abuse our substance of choice.

Perhaps we do not always see it that way at the time. But every addict and alcoholic struggles with the tendency to harbor resentments. They can be incredibly consuming, and we will not be able to see that the people we resent did not always necessarily do us any harm. And when you consider that the objects of our envy are not always aware of the hatred that we hold in our hearts, they certainly fall under the list of people for whom our resentments are unwarranted. Nonetheless, we will continue to harbor these resentments, and we will often use substance abuse to either dull or fuel our anger.

We also use these feelings as an excuse to hold ourselves back. Because we feel as if we will never have as much as another person, we decide that there is no sense in working to achieve more. As this feeling grows stronger and stronger, we begin to give up on ourselves. To many, this behavior sounds rather childish. And on some level, that’s precisely what it is. But those who have felt it are aware of the burden, the internal pain felt by the person to whom envy is like an incurable disease.

The worst part is that we often fail to realize that we are creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our use of drugs and alcohol is in no indirect way responsible for the fact that we do not have the things we want out of life. We may justify this, saying that another person drinks or uses drugs, yet they still have many of the things we want. If we open our eyes, we may see that this is mere circumstance. And while our circumstances are sometimes unfortunate, we sometimes have to work to get what we want out of life. The fact that somebody else doesn’t have to work as hard is no excuse for giving up and hiding at the bottom of a bottle.

Overcoming Envy in Recovery

Instead of hating a person who has done you no direct harm, try reaching out to them in friendship instead. (A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock)
Instead of hating a person who has done you no direct harm, try reaching out to them in friendship instead. (A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock)

One of the first things we have to do to overcome our envy is to begin letting go of our resentments. We must look at the people we envy and try to view them through a lens constructed of kindness, compassion, empathy, and possibly even friendship. Upon doing so, we may realize that their life is not as perfect as we thought. The goal of this is not to see ourselves as having won the game of life, but rather to see that no one’s circumstances are perfect. For all we know, the same person of whom we are so envious may look at our own lives and see something they want, something that has eluded them. If we put them on a pedestal and refuse their friendship, we may never learn this lesson.

The fact that others have likely envied us in the past should make it obvious that one of the things we need to do in order to overcome this sin is to begin embracing the concept of gratitude. Instead of focusing on what we want, we should focus on what we have. When we attempt the former, we may feel as if we have nothing. But if we approach the situation with an open mind, we may realize that our lives have actually been greatly worth living. If we are clothed, sheltered, and surrounded by a strong network of supportive friends and family, then we should not be so dissatisfied. In fact, we should actually be quite content.

Many patients in treatment who struggle with negative emotions such as these are instructed to write gratitude lists, in which they write out everything in their life for which they are (or at least should be) grateful. You should definitely try this. Clear your head first, and ensure that you are honest. If something crosses your mind, write it down immediately before your mind can begin searching for negatives in an attempt to justify keeping it off the list. This sort of negative thinking is exactly what you are trying to overcome. Write an honest list, and you just may be surprised by the length of it.

Above all, try to relax a little. Part of the reason our envy always feels so strong is that we tend to become impatient when we lack satisfaction. But you don’t have to achieve everything you want overnight. Whether you seek material gain or simply personal development, these things are accrued over time. Those we envy did not win the lottery, unless we envy them because they literally won the lottery. And even then, who’s to say they haven’t been buying tickets for years? No matter what you want, simply set your goals and work toward them over time. As long as you know you are working hard and making even minimally gradual progress, you should be satisfied that you are living the best life that you are capable of living. And this, more than anything else, should help to keep you sober.

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