As social animals, humans compare. It’s almost impossible not to. However, not all comparison is bad, and some is necessary: we look to others to understand, relate, and mold or shape our behavior. Issues arise when comparison directly affects our self-esteem or self-image.

When it comes to shadow work, jealousy and envy are two of the most challenging emotions to confront head-on. Both are born from comparison. There’s a key distinction between both terms. Jealousy is related to fear of someone taking something you perceive to be yours. Whereas envy is the belief someone else has something you lack.

Understanding this difference is crucial in learning from both. For example, we might become jealous when our loved one gives attention to someone else, and not us. Here, we feel what is rightfully ours (our partner’s attention) is given to someone else. We may feel envious when a friend gets a promotion and a significant pay-rise. Here, we feel we lack what our friend has.

Jealousy is commonly linked to romance. That in itself is a separate article for another time, but to clarify the above examples, it’s common to experience jealousy and envy at the same time. As your partner pays attention to someone else (jealousy) you also look to the person they’re paying attention to, and start to compare. They’re better looking, funnier, smarter… Then envy joins the party.

I personally find jealousy and envy difficult to work with. I put this down to a few factors. The first is that, egoically, by fully witnessing these feelings, we have to admit to ourselves we are in comparison. This is painful for the ego — especially if those feelings are evoked by someone we don’t particularly like.

The second is that, when I feel jealousy, I also feel a sense of shame and instantly try and shut down the feeling. This, in turn, creates a level of anxiety or frustration. To work through emotions, we have to learn to experience them fully with non-judgement. Yet simply allowing ourselves to feel the sensations of jealousy or envy can be difficult.

How non-judgement opens the door to learning

If we judge our emotions (uh, jealousy! This is bad!) we become attached to them. We don’t see them clearly, and therefore we can’t learn. Instead, we become victims of their presence. We may try to avoid them, and this very avoidance gives them more credit. Only when we can confront them with openness do lessons become clear.

The first step with all forms of shadow work is acceptance. By accepting the existing thought, feeling, emotion, sensation, we begin to see it clearly from the observer mindset. We take ownership. Then we can explore with curiosity. The practice of mindful non-judgement is a huge catalyst for growth for this very reason.

Further still, rather than confront the experience within ourselves and take ownership, we may point to external circumstances. Rather than learn, we may become fixated on the source of jealousy or envy — if only my partner would act differently, I’d be okay. If only my friend wouldn’t talk about their new salary so much, I’d be okay.

In doing this, we again become stuck by circumstance.

Emotions are here to teach

It takes courage to explore such emotions with the willingness to learn. All emotions have something to teach, and jealousy and envy are particularly impactful teachers. The lessons will be unique to you, but on a basic level:

  • Jealousy highlights what we are afraid of losing. Egoically, this can highlight the areas in life we are trying to control, or the things, people or experiences we are trying to “possess”.
  • Envy highlights the areas of ourselves in which we feel, on a deep level, we would like to cultivate.

Questions to ask yourself for jealousy

To unpack this further, let’s say you experience an intense jealousy with your partner, or friend, or family member. Rather than focus on changing the dynamic of the relationship, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I feel entitled to this person’s attention, 100% of the time?
  • What do I feel I am missing out on?
  • Am I afraid this person will reject me?
  • What am I looking for in this person that I cannot cultivate in myself?

These questions direct you to exploring where you may be placing undue emphasis on the relationship for your own fulfillment. The sense of “possession” (this is my friend, not yours) can lead to feelings of entitlement or fear of abandonment. Equally, it could be we are relying on this relationship for our own self-esteem. Here, it’s vital to start working on emotional independence.

Questions for envy

I used to fear envy. I saw it as an indication I wasn’t a good friend, or there was something inherently unkind about me. Well, this is shadow work, after all, and it’s worth noting that envy is a completely normal reaction in some situations. The choice is in how we respond.

As noted in the shadow work overview, we often project our shadow onto others. This is why envy is particularly useful. Envy has the ability to highlight the areas of ourselves we feel we lack, or the parts of ourselves we’d like to fully express.

The funny thing with envy is that it’s actually a form of distorted admiration: if we didn’t admire the traits or behavior we witnessed, there’d be no envy!

It’s possible to become excited when you experience envy because you know it’ll lead you to parts of yourself that have remained unseen. Questions to ask for envy are:

  • What traits in this person cause envy?
  • Do I feel I lack these traits?
  • If so, how can I cultivate them within myself?
  • Are these traits I know I have that I’m afraid to express?
  • Can this envy be transformed into admiration?

What we’re doing here is exploring the ego’s response to the situation. Mostly, it’s important to drill down to really uncover what’s going on. For example, I might be envious of Brad Pitt because of his good looks and millions in the bank. Yet by digging deeper, I can see that my envy stems from witnessing someone who is completely at ease in their own skin.

The answer here isn’t to earn millions or try your best to look like Brad Pitt — it’s working on self-acceptance.

A word of caution when learning from envy: always be aware of what stems from ego and what stems from a genuine, unexpressed part of the unconscious. Ego-envy is superficial, it’s a misdirection. If I’m envious of someone for earning loads of money, I might find this is driven by ego and external markers of “success.” However, if I’m envious of a friend who is following their passion… then we reveal potential untapped passion within ourselves.

In conclusion

Grappling with jealousy and envy isn’t for the faint hearted, but provides great opportunity for growth. Remember, begin by accepting the presence of these emotions, then explore where these emotions come from. This exploration then leads to the real work — the awareness of what needs to change.

As with all shadow work, once we are aware, then the work begins, the Herculean task M.L. Von Franz refers to. But when you begin to see these as an opportunity to grow, I guarantee you’ll feel self-satisfaction at the level of empowerment the learner’s mindset provides.

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