When Envy is a Good Thing

The moment after we don’t know what to do with ourselves is the moment we find ourselves. Right after itchy boredom is self-discovery. But we have to hang in there long enough without bailing.

-Glennon Doyle

After becoming a little, well, tired of the route we usually take for my dog Arthur’s twice-daily walks, I recently began taking him on the golf course near our home. I’m fairly certain we’re technically trespassing, but in my defense, I only crossed the flimsy rope fence after I saw some elderly walkers doing the same. Plus, I’m banking on the authorities being a little too preoccupied right now to worry about us sneaking onto the cart path before sunrise.

Aside from the change of scenery, walking on the golf course opened up a whole new world of sights (and for Arthur, smells) that we hadn’t explored before. It’s a private club, so the closest we ever came to it pre-COVID was walking by one of the holes adjacent to the road. Shamefully, I took a little too much pleasure in seeing Arthur lift a leg on the bushes lining the course back then.

But today is a new day, and during a global pandemic, scruffy dogs and un-showered, unkempt women can freely traverse what was once reserved only for the upper crust. Along with the +70 crowd, anyway, but they could always trespass wherever they wanted by pleading ignorance, right?

Unsurprisingly, I was taken by the live oaks, cedars, and other trees dotting the course between fairways.

Walking along vivid green carpets of closely shorn grass, I also got a new perspective of the homes lining the course. Most of them are palatial monsters adorned with fine architectural features, surrounded by pristine landscaping and crystalline pools. One even has its own pond with a fountain spraying majestically in the backyard. For whose benefit? Seemingly only the golfers, groundskeepers, and trespassers like Arthur and me, because I didn’t see any signs of life inside or outside the grand home.

Typically, seeing this kind of estate makes me feel a particular way, especially when it always appears to be empty (and there are a decent number of these in Florida). Just like the phases I go through during major life changes, my reaction to this sort of opulence follows a similar pattern each time.

First, I am in awe of the objective beauty of the home and the excellent taste of the homeowner (assuming it’s an understated sort of audaciousness). Then, I feel annoyed and/or angry about the fact that such a massive, picturesque place sits largely idle and unused. Finally, I snap out of it when it dawns on me (each and every time) that my anger is not based on some wealthy homeowner’s offensive lifestyle; it’s simply a product of something inside of me, something generally considered an odious emotion: envy.

Once I reach this realization, I can usually let go of those feelings and return to enjoying my surroundings. And during this time of self-isolation, I’ve been very happy to find that when I see a huge home with obvious signs of life, I don’t feel this way at all. I don’t know about you, but for me it has been strangely comforting to know that even those who seem to have everything–celebrities, athletes, and run-of-the-mill mansion owners–have also been confined to their homes.

I even found a few birds for Arthur and I to stalk from afar.

Honestly, I don’t think my envy stems from a strong desire to own that kind of home (though, I’m not saying I would turn it down). I think it has more to do with a perception of the sort of life a person in that type of home must have–some unattainable ideal.

I know from working in family law with high net worth clients that money definitely does not solve most problems. In fact, my short stint in that career convinced me the opposite is often true (See The Notorious B.I.G’s “Mo Money Mo Problems”). But then again, maybe I’ve convinced myself of this because it’s easier than living in jealousy.

Envy is hard to talk about, isn’t it? None of us want to be seen as envious, and yet, it has been clinically proven that we are hard-wired to covet. Sure, there are outliers, people who never complain, seem genuinely seem content with what they have, and feel only happiness for the success and wealth of others. But most of us feel pangs of jealously from time to time, even if we wish we didn’t and work to stuff those feelings down.

Because we’re taught early on that envy is undesirable, we tend to see it only as destructive or limiting. But what if someone told you that envy can be a good thing? I’m not talking about the phenomenon where envy for a neighbor’s new BMW spurs someone to work harder to purchase one for himself. I’m talking about using envy as a tool to bring genuine good into the world, and perhaps also help us discover our purpose.

Peaceful, serene, and scrupulously manicured. All descriptions that typically have no place in my life.

Fortunately, I do know of one such person, and she is this week’s example of a purpose-driven life. She is known by her community as viscerally vulnerable, sharing all of her emotions, including envy, with the world. What can we learn from author and activist Glennon Doyle, especially in terms of using envy to help us find our purpose? Let’s take a look.

Source: Momastery.com

For anyone not yet familiar, Glennon Doyle is the author of New York Times bestselling memoirs, founder of the nonprofit Together Rising, and “evangelist” for the message that the best way to find resilience in this beautiful and brutal (or, “brutiful”) life, especially if you’re a woman, is to turn inward and listen to your own voice over the voices of others.

Doyle grew up in northern Virginia in a traditional home with loving parents and a younger sister. However, when she was only ten years old, she began binging and purging her food as a way to cope with her emotions. In her teens and college years, she continued numbing her feelings by drinking to extreme excess and trying “all of the drugs.” Though after graduation she managed her life well enough to work as a third-grade teacher, Doyle’s parents were acutely aware that their daughter had a serious drinking problem. They begged her to get help and to stop lying to them, but she couldn’t be convinced to change her life.

“I am a clinically depressed inspirational speaker. I am a diagnosed anxious person whose main job is to convince people that everything’s okay. Please note that if I can be these things, anyone can be anything.

-Doyle

Then, a few months into dating a man she had met in a bar, Doyle found out she was pregnant. While sitting on her bathroom floor holding the pregnancy test, she heard her internal voice for the first time telling her she would be a great mother, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Doyle became sober that day and married her unborn child’s father shortly thereafter.

Seven years later, Doyle struggled as a young mother with three small kids. Rather than turning to booze or food to cope, she began writing her thoughts and feelings. First, she started writing daily emails to her friends, but after one of them sent her to a guide on how to start a blog, she got the hint and created “Momastery,” a mommy blog with a Christian underpinning and following.

Source: Momastery.com

In the years that followed, Doyle’s audience grew, and her Christian parenting blog became one of the most popular of its kind. She then began to self-identify as a writer, and she spoke openly about her envy for the talents of other writers. In an interview, she admitted that although on her blog she was “preaching abundance”–or the mentality that there’s enough success to go around–she “secretly struggled” with her envy for other women.

However, even early in her writing career, Doyle recognized that she could use envy in a more productive way. As she explained, “I used to think that secure women believed in abundance, and that they lifted everybody up, and insecure women were jealous. The awesome and heartening thing I learned was that all of the strong women are jealous. It’s just that insecure women mask their insecurity by tearing other women down. Wise women mask their insecurity by raising women up.”

Based on this realization, Doyle began promoting those female writers she was most envious of and advocating for others to do the same. Her audience exploded, her blog was featured in national publications, and she eventually even drew Oprah Winfrey’s attention. By using her envy to elevate others, Doyle experienced her own dramatic success.

Doyle was tapped to join Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, and her second memoir was an Oprah Book Club pick.
Source: OWN

Though she became adept at lifting up other women in her professional life, this idea would be tested fiercely in her personal one. In 2013 when her first memoir was published, Doyle learned that her husband had been consistently unfaithful to her throughout their marriage.

In her second memoir, Love Warrior, Doyle is raw and honest when describing all of her emotions during this tumultuous time. Unlike many spouses in similar situations, though, she was not jealous of the women who slept with her husband. Instead, she felt only “white-hot anger” towards him for betraying her and their family.

At the end of Love Warrior, the reader is left to believe that after spending a lot of time in counseling, Doyle decided to forgive her husband and start anew with their marriage. Because of this choice, she was lauded among Christian women’s groups as an exemplary wife and mother.

Doyle with her husband and children.
Source: Instagram

Right before the release of Love Warrior, Doyle was still committed to repairing her broken marriage. A few days before the launch, however, she had a chance encounter with Abby Wambach, a women’s professional soccer star who was promoting her memoir as well. Doyle says that when she saw Abby for the first time, she heard her inner voice speak to her again. This time it said, “There she is.”

Shortly after her book was released, Doyle decided to end her marriage. While she did not know what her future held with Abby, Doyle now knew that she and her husband had never truly been in love with each other. They were excellent parents and partners, but with Abby she experienced true romantic love. They wed in 2017, angering conservative Christian groups and her more close-minded followers, but Doyle knew she had to follow her heart and her own message by choosing the hard, right path.

Abby Wambach and Glennon Doyle at their wedding in 2017.
Source: The Times UK

Since that time, Doyle has continued to chronicle her life online and in a recently-released third memoir titled, “Untamed.” In this book, she asserts that while we are all expected to follow social norms, women are especially programmed from a young age to abandon themselves in order to adhere to strict gender rules. She believes that many women need to free–or “untame”–themselves from that programming by listening more closely to their inner voices and by raising up other women so that they may do the same. In the untamed world that Doyle envisions for us, there is no space for the envy that causes women to tear each other down; it can only be used to raise each other up.

Doyle often talks about how supportive her ex-husband has been and how healthy their modern family is.
Source: Instagram

While it may seem counterintuitive, Glennon Doyle’s envy was the key for discovering her purpose of uplifting women through her writing. By recognizing her jealously and choosing to use it as fuel for supporting others, she was able to find her greatest strength and gift.

As Doyle is fond of saying, “Feelings are for feeling,” and envy is no exception. When it arises, I think envy is telling us something about ourselves. In Doyle’s case, her jealousy of other inspirational writers was a signal that she was meant to be a leader in this space. On the other hand, the absence of jealously when she learned of her husband’s indiscretions was likely a sign that he wasn’t the right person for her in the end.

Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because you’re doing it right.

-Doyle

In the broader context of fighting to find your purpose, however, I think the biggest takeaway from Glennon Doyle is that envy can show us our true calling if we take the time to listen. By paying attention to this emotion when it arises, we too can start to read the signs and hear where our own inner voice is nudging us to go.

However, I don’t think this necessarily means I need to psychoanalyze my envy for the person who owns the mansion. Instead of looking at the things or lifestyles or experiences we wish we had, I think it could be more useful to think about people who are pursuing a path we wish we could take, or maybe thought we would take when we were younger.

I’ve always been envious of writers (including Glennon Doyle), so I think this could be more evidence that I’m following the right path. This whole global pandemic has put a wrench in everyone’s plans, including my own, but I’m going to use wide discretion here and self-servingly interpret it as positive reinforcement.

And who knows? By recognizing who we’re envious of and using that to find our purpose, we could end up living in a mansion on a golf course in the future (or my dream home, a villa in Tuscany).

Then again, it could simply mean a future where we’re living purpose-filled lives in which those mansions and villas (or whatever you currently covet) don’t make us feel envious at all.

3 thoughts on “When Envy is a Good Thing

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