From jealousy to healthy ambition

Candy PhotoUnderstanding the differences between jealousy and envy can help us facilitate our childrens’ development while at the same time furthering our own.  While none of us like to feel jealous, it is a very human feeling and it boils down to not wanting someone else to have what they have.

Jealousy may be natural, but it is developmentally “younger” than is envy, which could be understood as wanting something that someone else has, while not particularly wishing the other to lose what they have.  Envy is less toxic or destructive than jealousy, as it doesn’t wish for the other not to have, just for ourselves to also have.  

“It’s not enough that I succeed, my enemies must also fail” would be jealousy; “That looks fun, I want to join in” would be envy.”  Walking over and asking to join takes courage, but it hinges on ambition.

Ambition could be understood as facing the fact that we lack something that we want, but having the fortitude and confidence to try for it—a willingness to try and close the gap between what we have and what we want.  While ambition can conjure notions of power-hunger and greed, at root it is part of much healthy development and learning.

Given that we live in a culture that has a lot of jealousy in it, it serves us to think about jealousy a little more deeply.  We tend to be uncomfortable when we feel jealous; characters gripped by jealousy (i.e. Salieri, at least the way he’s portrayed in Amadeus) don’t come across as very likable, even though they are exceedingly human; and our own kids can make us both embarrassed and irritated when they exhibit unbridled jealous (particularly of siblings).  Fair or not, jealousy often distills down the the rageful cry, “It’s not fair!”

And this is a great challenge for parenting because we try very hard to be fair, even though the world shows very little evidence of being fair.  And then there is the troubling fact that most of us fortunate enough to have internet access, not to mention food and shelter, are more more materially privileged than much of the world’s population and we are typically loathe to look too deeply at fairness, preferring to focus on what we lack than on what we are blessed to have.  This both maintains the status quo, for better or worse, and it also tends to deprive us of our happiness, for although we may be materially abundant, we may or may not live in an enviable state of mind.  When our material and/or status ambitions are fulfilled, we tend to feel hollow and, rather than examining this phenomenon more closely, we quickly create new ambitions to keep our minds off of more troubling, but potentially fruitful, questions (i.e. why are we really here?  Is there any reason?  If so what might that be?). 

So, as parents at least, it is worth being open and interested in what our children want, and how they go about dealing with it.  If they are mad with jealousy, we can help them articulate how they feel, and validate that their frustration makes them so angry that they don’t want to have to even look at it (i.e. in the form of a sister getting to play with a toy).  Like the kid with nose pressed against the candy store window, we want to help our kids learn that wanting things is part of what drives life.  But we also want to help them think ever so slightly more deeply about what they really want.

While it’s a bit of a difficult concept for children younger than ten or eleven, at least we parents might like to keep in mind that often what we really want is not the actual objects of our desires (be it a fantasy getaway or a dream house, job or lover) but rather the feeling that we imagine we would have if only we got our way and our dreams came true.  Recognizing, and articulating at least to ourselves, the feeling states that we want to achieve (i.e. abundant, grateful, safe, playful, productive, loved and loving, etc.) can go a long way toward helping us grab the brass ring of Good Feelings That Last, which essentially boils down to presence to the living moment.  This sets up a cognitive framework for helping our children, in turn, deal with their own feelings, desires and frustrations.  Perhaps this is another way of learning to enjoy the ride, and not so much the destination.

So let’s dedicate today to understanding the ladder, not of “success,” but rather of a realistic balance of “good” and “bad” feelings, helping our children climb, without shame, and with greater compassion and understanding, from jealousy, to envy, to ambition and on to Good Feelings That Last.

Namaste, Bruce


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2 Responses to “From jealousy to healthy ambition”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for this post, Bruce–it helps to differentiate jealousy from envy. (I’ve never thought about it that way.)

    While I was reading this entry, I thought to myself: “when I drive off to work tomorrow and start worrying about my usual things, what if I imagine that I already have that career/that big group of connected and dear friends, etc, etc.?” I think it’s sort of freeing to playfully try on what abundance feels like, and then observe how that informs your thinking…

  2. Middle School Masochism « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] layer on the mean comments likely has to do with envy and jealousy (not the same thing).  If one kid is flat-chested, for example, and sees another kid getting attention for her […]

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