Character Defects: Envy

Bill & Lois - Envy

How many of us took inventory of envy when we did Step 4 for the first time? Probably not many. How many did in subsequent 4th Steps, or when working Step 10? Again, in all likelihood very few. And yet, as we can see in our two opening quotes below, the Big Book and the 12&12 count envy as one of our biggest problems as alcoholics, on a par with anger, resentment, and fear.

Why then is envy not on our radar screen? Because like greed, envy is hard to detect in ourselves. To paraphrase Milton Friedman’s take on greed, none of us are envious, it’s only the other fellow who’s envious. Indeed, envy hides even more than greed. Greed can always pose as a positive quality. It can hide behind ambition or behind a good cause. We want more because we want to do more, we rationalize; we want to accomplish things, make a contribution, do good.  

There’s no such out with envy. As a defect of character and emotion, envy is beyond redemption. It is a detracting construal of others issuing from a detracting construal of ourselves. Its trademark is rivalry. In envy, we want something somebody has but we lack. It can be any good: a quality, talent, advantage, possession. But we don’t want it so much for itself as for the value that it confers upon the person who has it (e.g., approval, respect, admiration). That’s the underlying concern, what’s really important to us. The rivalry is for personal significance or worth.

If we desire to have the object of envy too but we don’t mind the other person having it, the rivalry is amicable and ours is said to be “friendly envy.” If, on the other hand, we begrudge the other person’s possession of it and would like that person to lose it or otherwise to be diminished, the rivalry is hostile and our envy is said to be (redundantly) of the “invidious” type. The other’s success is our failure and his failure our success.

That’s the kind of envy the Big Book and the 12&12 are talking about. That’s what they say led to the bottle and is one of our greatest enemies. It’s not hard to see why. In envy our self-worth is always on the line. We are always comparing ourselves with others and always coming up short. We’re always competing and losing. We become bitter and resentful. We get depressed and feel sorry for ourselves.

Envy is often conflated with other emotions, which compounds our problem when taking inventory. One of these is greed. Like envy, greed is an immoderate or inordinate desire for possession. But greed targets possessions in general. Envy targets specifically the possessions that belong to another. Moreover, greed is concerned with possessions properly speaking, that is, with external objects of ownership (her Porsche, his Mercedes Benz). While also concerned with these, envy is more concerned with internal qualities that belong to a person (her looks or musical talent). What it really wants is what the possessions say about the possessor. It wants for itself the worth the possessions reflect.

Envy is also confused with and used as a synonym for covetousness. Both target what belongs to another. But when we covet, our focus is on the possession itself, not on the value the other person derives from it. Moreover, the focus is only on the outward type. We do not covet someone’s personal or inner attributes. We are not competing for self-worth. The 12&12 sets the two apart in the following sentence: “Unreasonable fear that our instincts will not be satisfied drives us to covet the possessions of others, to lust for sex and power, to become angry when our instinctive demands are threatened, to be envious when the ambitions of others seem to be realized while ours are not” (S4, p. 49, our italics).  

The biggest confusion, however, is with jealousy. In fact, jealousy is routinely used as a synonym for envy. Like envy, jealousy involves rivalry. But unlike envy, the rivalry is over something the subject of the emotion already has and the object of it doesn’t. Moreover, in jealousy that something involves paradigmatically a person, not some external possession or internal quality. Thus jealousy takes place in a three-party context. The contest is over a person’s affection (love, admiration, loyalty). The jealous person construes herself as in danger of losing that affection to her rival.

Jealousy is sometimes a convenient substitute for envy. It’s a euphemism. Envy suggest inferiority. Somebody has something we lack and want and is in that sense better than us. But we don’t want to give anybody that idea. So we say we’re jealous. Envy also suggests ill will. Thus people don’t particularly like being told that we are envious of them. But nobody minds our saying we’re jealous. They may even take it as a compliment.

But envy is no compliment. It is at best a begrudging admission of somebody’s superiority over us in some respect. The underlying sentiment is that the other person is not deserving of the good they have and we lack. They have cheated, are priviliged, or are otherwise unjustly favored. This justifies our ill will and our desire for their downfall.

Envy rests on a concern for personal worth. But the concern is comparative. Our worth is hitched to somebody else’s worth. We feel worthy only if we can see ourselves to be as good or better than somebody else with respect to something that person has that is important for us to have. But we are envious precisely because we don’t see ourselves that way. We see ourselves as being being less than. Unable to bring ourselves up to the other’s level, we can only wish to bring him down to ours.

To properly take inventory of envy, we need to see the ways it expresses itself. We’ll mention a few. One is through resentment. Do we resent someone even though the person has done nothing to harm us or those we love? Are we comparing ourselves to the person in any way? If so, our resentment may be the product of envy. Perhaps the person won some award or got a promotion at work. Whenever we are unhappy over somebody’s success or good fortune, or displeased with their recognizably good qualities, envy may very well be at work. The same applies if we find ourselves taking pleasure in somebody’s difficulties or setbacks.

Other possible signs of envy are harboring ill will toward someone for no apparent reason; falsely accusing or belittling others; engaging in backbiting and slander; being dismissive or contemptuous of other people’s abilities, talents, or accomplishments; and teasing or expressing sarcasm.

Since envy is a comparative defect and emotion, it stands to reason that if we wish to stop envying, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. That is correct, but we can’t just wish ourselves to stop. We have to practice the principles which will help us to stop making the invidious comparisons.

The AA view of our defects of character and emotion is that they are manifestations of a spiritual problem. As such they require a spiritual solution. For envy the problem is that we falsely base our self-worth on what others have. The solution is to base it upon a spiritual foundation instead. AA says only God can provide that foundation.

We can awaken to such a spiritual view of things through the practice of gratitude. When we are envious, we are unhappy both with what we have and with what others have. We are unhappy because we’re possessive about these things. We see ourselves as entitled to them and as competing for them with others. We see our situation as a zero-sum game where their win is our loss and the other way around.

Gratitude fosters a spiritual awakening which brings us to see whatever good we or others have as a gift from a gracious and loving God. We can be grateful for their gifts as much as for ours. We are not in a competitive but in a cooperative relationship where somebody else’s gifts, rather than detract from ours, add to them and to all the good that is in the universe.

Seeing the good others have as gifts from God also helps us to practice a principle that stands in direct opposition to, and is a corrective of, envy. This is the virtue of admiration. When we admire someone, we see the person as excelling in something that we deem important or valuable. We take pleasure in it. We validate and uphold it, for her good as well as for ours and the good of all who might benefit from it. We may even be inspired to emulate the particular excellence, or at least to emulate some of the qualities in the person which enabled her to develop and achieve it.

In time we come to be grateful for such people and for the gifts they have so admirably cultivated. Admiration thus becomes another way of practicing gratitude and of being happy with ourselves, with people, and with the world.  

[Image: Bill and Lois. For Lois's autobiography, see Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the Co-founder of Al-Anon and Wife of the Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]

Bill W."We live in a world riddled with envy. To a greater or lesser degree, everybody is infected with it. From this we mus get a warped yet definite satisfaction. Else why would we consume so much time wishing for what we have not, rather than working for it, or angrily looking for attributes we shall never have, instead of adjusting to the fact, and accepting it? – Bill W., ABSI, p. 131  

Big Book
"The greatest enemies of us alcoholics are resentment, jealousy, envy, frustration, and fear."
 – Big Book, p. 145  

"Anger, resentments, jealousy, envy, self-pity, hurt pride
all led to the bottle." – 12&12, S10, p. 8   

Life Recovery Bible"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud." – 1 Corinthians, 13:4
“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice." – James 3:6 

"It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered." – Aeschylus 

"The envious person grows lean with the fatness of his neighbor." – Socrates 

"As iron is eaten by rust, so is the envious consumed by envy." – Antisthenes 

"Envy aims high." – Ovid

"Envy is blind, and she has no other quality that that of detracting from virtue." 

"When men are full of envy they disparage everything, whether it be good or bad." – Tacitus 

John Chrysostom
"As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a person." – John Chrysostom 

Baltasar Gracián
"The envious die not once, but as oft as the envied win applause." 
– Baltasar Gracián

Benjamin Franklin
"To all apparent beauties blind, each blemish strikes an envious mind." – Benjamin Franklin  

Henry Fielding
"Worth begets in base minds, envy; in great souls, emulation." Henry Fielding 

Wellins Calcott
"Take heed you harbour not that vice call'd Envy, lest another's happiness be your torment, and God's blessings become your curse." – Wllins Calcott

Honoré de Balzac
"Envy is the most stupid of vices, for there is no single advantage to be gained from it." –
Honoré de Balzac  

"Hatred is active, and envy passive dislike; there is but one step from envy to hate." – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Envy is the tax which all distinction must pay." 
 – Ralph Waldo Emerson  

Robert Louis Stevenson"To be rich in admiration and free from envy, to rejoice greatly in the good of others, to love with such generosity of heart that your love is still a dear possession in absence or unkindnessthese are the gifts which money cannot buy." – Robert Louis Stevenson 

Nicias Ballard Cooksey
"Envy and jealousy, twin sisters, come with the cunning of the fox to steal away our peace and happiness." – Nicias Ballard Cooksey 

Theodore Roosevelt"Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do to ourselves when we let the vices of envy and hatred enter deep into our own natures." – Theodore Roosevelt   

Marilyn Monroe"Success makes so many people hate you. I wish it wasn't that way. It would be wonderful to enjoy success without seeing envy in the yes of those around you."  – Marilyn Monroe   

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
"Our envy of others devours us most." 
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn   

Bertrand Russell"Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.” – Bertrand Russell

Margaret Thatcher
The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build." – Margaret Thatcher 

William Arthur Ward"Blessed is he who has learned to admire but not to envy, to follow but not imitate, to praise but not flatter, and to lead but not manipulate."  William Arthur Ward  

Erich Fromm"There is perhaps no phenomenom which contains so much destructive feeling as 'moral indignation,' which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue." – Erich Fromm   

Helmut Schoeck
The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself." – Helmut Schoeck 

Janis Joplin
"Oh, Lord, won't you buy me, a Mercedes Benz. My friends all got Porsches, I must make amends." 
– Janis Joplin   

Barbra Streisand
"Oh God, don't envy me, I have my own pains." – Barbra Streisand 

Harold Coffin
"Envy is the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own." – Harold Coffin 

Robert C. Roberts"[T]he systematic obstacle to every virtue is human selfishness . . . Ambition, scorn, envy, greed, injustice, cruelty: the disease in every case is traceable to the same sourcethe self's non-negotiable claim to be Number One in the universe." – Robert C. Roberts   

Vanna Bonta"Where you see valid achievements or virtue attacked, it's by someone viewing them as a mirror of their own inadequacy instead of an inspiring beacon for excellence." – Vanna Bonta  

Jim Rohn
"The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch." – Jim Rohn 

Frank Tyger
"You can't be invious and happy at the same time." 
 Frank Tyger   

Joseph Epstein
"Of the seven daily sins, only envy is no fun at all." – Joseph Epstein 

Amy Purdy"In snowboarding. I've always looked at really strong competitors through a lens of gratitude rather than envy in the sense that the better my competition is, the more it forces me to work hard, focus, and be better myself if I wanto to succeed, which I do." –  Amy Purdy  

Craig Groeschell
Envy is resenting God's goodness in someone else's life and and ignoring his goodness in your own life." – Craig Groeschell 

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
"Envy's view of the world is essentially antagonistic: it's me-versus-you, my good or your good
never both."  Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung   

Jerry Cortens
"Don't compare your progress with that of others. We all need our own time to travel our own distance." –  Jerry Corstens 

English Proverb
"Envy shoots at others and wounds itself." – English Proverb 

German Proverb
"Envy eats nothing but its own heart." 
– German Proverb   

Namibian proverb
Envy and greed grow on the same stalk." – Namibian Proverb

"Complaint is the soil in which envy grows." – Anonymous 

Tim Fargo
“Don’t envy what people have, emulate what they did to have it.” – Tim Fargo

"The grass isn't greener on the other side. It's greener where you water it." 

Charlie Munger
It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy." – Charlie Munger

"Blowing out the other person's candle will not make yours shine brighter." 

"People who can't stand to see the success of others will never experience their own."  

"The first step to accepting yourself is to stop comparing yourself to others." 

“No one has ever made himself great by showing how small someone else is.” – Anonymous  

Aasia S.
It is not that another’s grass is greener, but your envy that colours it." – Aasia S.  

Al-Anon slogan
"Compare and despair." 
– Al-Anon slogan   

Twenty-Four Hours a Day
"I don't have to be envious anymore. I'm content with what I have earned by my efforts to live the right way." 
Twenty-Four Hours a Day, 11/25   

Courage to Change"Many of us resent others whose lives appear less troubled, envying what we think they have  . . . Envying is nothing more than a hostile form of self-pity. I will not succumb to it tofday." – Al-Anon's Courage to Change, 06/18   

Each Day a New Beginning"Envy eats at us; it interferes with all our interactions. It possesses all of our thoughts, caging us, denying us the freedom to achieve what can be ours." Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women, 11/18 

Gratitude can . . . displace envy . . . for we see others’ blessings as such, not as objects of comparison and competition." – PTP123 

"Envy is a detracting construal of others issuing from a detracting construal of ourselves. That is why it lacks any redeming value." 
– PTP4 

Envy: Francis Bacon
Envy: Sir John Gielgud

For PTP4 discussion of envy, see Chapter 16: Character Defects, Envy, pp. 352–356. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, please click on and search for envy and its cognates. On this site, see Appendix 4: Common Manifestations of Self: Character Defects – EnvyThe Virtue of Gratitude, and The Virtue of Generosity

Additional Resources

  1. Meditations for February 13, May 19, and June 18 in Al-Anon's Courage to Change  
  2. “Envy: Feeling Bitter When Others Have It Better,” chapter in Glittering Vices: A  New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, by Rebecca Konyndyk  DeYoung     
  3. Amadeus, 1984 movie with F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri and Tom Hulce  as Mozart. Directed by Milos Forman. Six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. 

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