I’m pretty sure no one enjoys the feeling of envy, but let me tell you a secret; Envy (and career envy in particular) is a gift. We learn from an early age that it’s wrong to resent and covet what others have, but our career envy is an enormously helpful tool in the process of self-discovery and vocational discernment. In other words, our envy is trying to show us something.
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“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.”Gretchen Rubin
Envy vs. Jealousy
Envy: a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.
Wondering about the difference between envy and jealousy?
The main difference between envy and jealousy is that envy is the emotion of coveting what someone else has, while jealousy is the emotion related to fear that something you have will be taken away by someone else.
We often use these terms interchangeably, but just remember that jealousy occurs when something (a job, a relationship) you already have is threatened. Most often by another person. For instance, in terms of career, an established professional might be jealous of the company’s rising star who they feel is after their job. The young up-and-comer might be envious of the established person’s position and authority.
Career Envy as a Compass
For me, once acknowledged, career envy was like a compass or a neon sign pointing towards my purpose-in-waiting. Unfortunately, I had grown so used to seeing and ignoring this sign that I had to all but trip over it for me to take it seriously. Getting in touch with career envy helped me get out of my own way and identify a path that no one had refused me except, well…me.
So, who are you envious of?
This was the career discernment question that shook me up a little. Of course, as a Nice Christian Girl, I knew the correct answer to that question is NO ONE. Nice Christian Girls are taught not to envy others and, if we do, we’re taught to repress it indefinitely until we end up with an ulcer or a therapist or both.
I can’t speak for all the Nice Christian Girls (NCGs?) but I ended up so disconnected from my own wants and needs that I honestly didn’t know at first who or what I was envious of.
It wasn’t until I sat with this question for a time that I realized how much I was in denial. I was, indeed, harboring some envy. But for Christians, envy is a sin, and since I didn’t want to sin, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about who or what I was actually envious of. It took me a hot minute, plus a willingness to admit to some wounds and deep heart struggles, but I started to see the value and power behind this question.
Eventually, I stumbled across some information that helped me examine this envy in a more constructive way. I learned that envy could actually be helpful.
The Two Types of Envy
Did you know that researchers have identified 2 types of envy? One is malicious, and one is benign.
Malicious envy is when the focus is on another person. Benign envy focuses on the situation. According to the research, while this duality might be a new concept for English-speakers, some languages (e.g. Russian, Dutch) already distinguish between the two. The difference is what it motivates us to do.
The malicious experience of envy is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s rooted in a comparison that results in a feeling of unfairness and seeks to damage the other person or delights in their misfortune. So, yeah. That clearly belongs in the “unhealthy” category.
In contrast, benign envy lacks hostility. Therefore, it has more positive elements in that it can move us towards constructive outcomes. In other words, it can motivate you to elevate your own game rather than attempting to pull others down.
According to the Self-Maintenance Evaluation Theory, distance is a key factor here. The closer (both in proximity and relationally) we are to the source, the less benign our envy is likely to be. Just ask Cain and Abel.
Career + Envy
Frankly, it’s just too easy in this social media-saturated world to experience career envy because we are constantly bombarded with the accomplishments of others. But even before social media came along, humans were comparing themselves to each other and acting like petulant, entitled jerks. After all, it was a case of career envy that got Daniel thrown into the lion’s den, and according to Greek mythology, envy is why we even have spiders!
In terms of career, the success of others can definitely cause feelings of envy to surface. Here are some common occasions for career envy to occur:
- a co-worker gets an award or promotion you wanted
- a member of your team or department gets publicly praised in a meeting
- your college roommate’s family connections get him an amazing position straight out of college while you’re stuck scrounging the job boards
Malicious envy would have you trying to sabotage their success or feeling a sense of satisfaction over their failures. Could this be you at times? I invite you to reflect on this question and be honest with yourself. We are subtle and manipulative creatures, good at deceiving even ourselves. I think sometimes we let ourselves off too easily because we haven’t “done” anything, yet our hearts are actually full of malice.
This kind of envy is solidly in the territory of Galatians 5:19-21
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Benign envy, on the other hand, would move you towards reflecting on what steps you should take (e.g. going back to school or improving a skill) to get to the next level in your career so that you might be next on the list for promotion.
Moving on from Career Envy
For as long as we live, envy is going to be part of the landscape of imperfect humanity. But, I’d like to think I’m done trying to deny the feelings of envy I experience. Besides, putting a spotlight on my envy (rather than mentally shoving it in a drawer and pretending it isn’t there) gets me from the personal (malicious) aspect of my envy to the situational (benign) aspect WAY FASTER. Plus, once I get through the moral-failing part of the program I am better positioned to do something to resolve it.
Malicious envy CAN be converted into benign envy, and that, my friends, is when you are cooking with gas. Now you can ask yourself, “What do these feelings reveal about my own situation?” and “What is it I want from my life?” and “How can I take steps to make that happen?”
Just like all those other sins in Galatians 5:19, envy is an attempt to meet a legitimate need in an illegitimate way. So what need is your envy trying to show you?
Here are some ways I have found to transform career envy into an exercise in identifying purpose.
Labeling our emotions (as opposed to denying them) is the first step in the right direction. Your friend tells you that they just got a promotion with a big raise and you’re struggling to feel happy for her. Picture all those icky feelings you experience coming together to form some kind of character. You could even give it an actual name. Just like you notice when a person comes into the room, now you can notice when Envious Edna knocks on your door. “Why hello Edna!” you might say. “I see you’ve brought me a bouquet of irritability and self-loathing! What’s the occasion?” (In my case, Envious Edna is closely followed by Susie Shame.)
Allow Edna to have her say. Ask her questions. Treat her kindly, because after all, she is a part of you. Having this imaginary talk with Envious Edna, as silly as it seems, is a good way to practice self-awareness. It’s a strategy to feel your feelings without indulging in anger, shame, or self-pity. Most importantly, it keeps you out of attack mode- whether that’s aimed at another person or even yourself.
Hello, my name is Carmen and I have career envy.
Be honest with yourself. You feel envious because you see someone enjoying something (money, recognition, respect, freedom, status, etc.) you might also like to have. If you are like me, releasing this into the open is in direct contrast to your first instinct to deny, push down, and cover up how you really feel (how Susie Shame likes to work). <<< see everything Brene Brown has ever written
Invite God’s Help
Use Psalm 139:23-24 as a mantra to perform a brutally honest self-inventory and identify the very things and people that stir your envy.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Go ahead and swap out the phrase “envious thoughts” for “anxious thoughts” if it helps. Just the act of acknowledgment and confession both to God and to yourself (and maybe to the other person) will loosen unhealthy envy’s hold on you AND move you towards action and progress. Pray for the ability to see what you might learn from this person’s example, to see the sacrifices and setbacks and challenges that all of us face.
The good news is that you’re not stuck. Even if you start out in malicious envy you can still make a choice to pivot in a healthier, more Christ-like direction.
In my opinion, making the shift from the stronghold of envy to the path of purpose can only happen in one way.
How? By giving God praise for the career/job/opportunities you DO have. If you are gainfully employed, then there’s usually something to be thankful for. If not, then you can be grateful for the opportunity to move closer to your authentic vocation.
I’ve always thought that quote: “Until God opens the next door praise Him in the hallway,” was kind of annoying. Hallway-praising is tough. But what is just as hard as the praising is the waiting. We all need something to do while we wait so I recommend practicing gratitude.
There is SO MUCH we tend to take for granted when we get wrapped up in career envy, such as friends and family who love us, the health we enjoy, sunsets, Starbucks bacon and gruyere egg bites, and Gilmore Girls on Netflix.
SO DO THIS: Start a gratitude practice. Journal every day one thing you are grateful for. Even better, introduce some accountability into this habit by partnering with a friend to text or Snapchat each other the things you are each grateful for (snap streak idea, anyone?). I use the app Grateful, which I absolutely love. (I’m not an affiliate for them, just a superfan. It is well worth the $4.99 upgrade.)
Many times when I notice the comparisons starting and Envious Edna making herself comfortable in my head, I realize that I’ve fallen out of my gratitude practice. My mood and overall satisfaction with life are directly tied to how well I’m practicing gratitude.
Be Kind to Yourself
Envy is one of the 7 deadly sins for a reason, and it’s also one of the most common human experiences.
You might have known that it was Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” But you probably didn’t know it was Carmen Hoober (that’s me) who said, “Joy is the guard against comparison.”
Think of the last thing you were doing that truly brought you joy and go do more of that. Invite a friend to coffee. Pet a puppy. Write a chapter of your Harry Potter fan fiction. Organize a party. Dig in your garden. Go for a walk. Spring for a manicure! (Carnation Pink DND polish on my nails is a source of joy and delight for me and I am pretty sure we could just call a weekly mani a spiritual practice.)
If you’re still stuck in an envious headspace then finding someone or somewhere to serve will go a long way to shake you out of your funk.
If you’re envying others you’re probably not loving them. Just like we practice gratitude we can practice loving- and the best way to practice loving (that I know of) is by serving.
Your church is an obvious choice, but there are SO MANY ways you can serve others! Here are just a few:
- Mow lawns, rake leaves, or shovel driveways for shut-ins
- Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)
- Volunteer with Big Brother/Big Sister
- Start a card ministry
- Foster an animal
- Meals on Wheels
- It doesn’t have to be strangers! Serve your friends and family: help your parents clean out their basement, do an extra chore, offer to pick someone up at the airport, help a friend move, or volunteer in your kid’s classroom.
Finding a place to serve in your church or community is an amazing way to transform your career frustration into inner peace and goodwill.
AND AND AND!!!! You might even learn a little bit about yourself! Service is one of the best ways to identify things you’re good at, find what lights you up, offer the opportunity to practice new skills, take on leadership, and make connections with like-minded people.
Get a Career Coach
Remember how I said career envy is sometimes a gift? That it’s trying to show you something? That you’re trying to meet a legitimate need in an illegitimate way? A good career coach can help you unpack that envy and get you to see 1) what’s inside this “gift” 2) what you might be missing and 3) how you can meet your legitimate need in a legitimate way.
One of the best/luckiest things I ever did was get a coach. It was lucky because I knew someone getting certified and I received free coaching as part of her certification program. Not everyone else will be so fortunate. (Sorry. Try not to ENVY me, hahaha.) But let me tell you, it was worth every penny that I would have paid! It provided just the catalyst I needed to clarify my own sense of purpose and DO SOMETHING about it.
Here is where I shamelessly plug my own career coaching services.
But I get it. For most people, a career coach feels like a luxury, and I’ll be honest: that’s because it is. Hiring a career or life coach is a financial investment in yourself. Not everyone is ready to do that or can afford to do that.
DIY Career Coaching
For those people (and I have been in this category myself) all is not lost. We live in an age of information and there are so many resources readily available for you. Seriously, go to any personal development section in your local library. I guarantee there is something on the shelf that will change your life and not cost you a dime. Here are a few that have helped me:
- The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg
- I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What it Was, Barbara Sher
- Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown
Of course, what a book can’t do is listen to you, provide accountability, or offer a neutral, supportive presence. A book is not going to challenge you on your limiting beliefs or call you on your own BS.
A career coach will likely give you “homework” and hold you accountable to completing it. It’s a little like having a personal trainer for your career. Yeah, you can work out on your own and eventually achieve the same results, but a personal trainer is probably going to get you there a heck of a lot faster.
To be clear, coaching is not therapy. A coach is not going to give you medical advice or diagnose you. They’re also not going to tell you what you should do. They will help YOU figure out what you should do.
Career Envy + Exploration = Purpose
So when it comes to discerning your purpose, paying attention to what makes you envious is one of THE BEST ways to figure out which direction you want to go. Are you running from or ignoring what you want the most and then envying those who have made it a reality?
Confronting my envy helped me discover my own career purpose. It showed me that my path has something to do with helping others find their path. I don’t know if I could have gotten to the place I am today without answering this question.
Now I’m using my gifts to build up others and help them resolve their career-related anxiety – through writing, coaching, and sharing what I’ve learned through my own struggles. It’s about helping people get out of their own way and show up for their own lives. BONUS: The more I’m walking in my purpose the less time I have to bother with comparisons and envy.
Persistent career envy is a sign that something needs to change; exploring that envy is a tool of self-discovery. It’s a great approach to use when you are stuck. When you aren’t miserable but ready for a change. When you ARE miserable but can’t quite put your finger on why.
So now it’s your turn: what is your envy trying to show you?