Hating the Rich and Other Envies

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Growing up in poverty, I envied those who lived in houses with garages. To my youthful eyes, having a garage meant you had arrived in the big leagues. Space to store bicycles and roller-skates, skis and camping equipment, with room for a car, or two, symbolized empowerment and possibilities.

For those of us who grew up poor, from broken homes or from families with mental illness or alcoholism, shame can accompany envy like twins joined at birth. The feeling of not being good enough, smart enough, attractive enough for love, happiness and success, can stumble out in anger outbursts, lost achievements and broken ambitions.  Jules Feiffer said, “I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor. I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was underprivileged. Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.”

A client with a multi-million dollar a year business admitted envying his friend who made 3 billion dollars last year. Even those on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people in the world feel envy. As Steven Wright said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

Envy actually serves a good purpose. When you see someone with attributes you envy, it can give you a feeling of hope. Your friend lost weight and looks physically fit. That can cause you to think,”I could do that too.” Someone you know saved for many years and bought a home. “I could do that.” Envy points the way to something you could shape into a goal. When you admire the neighbor’s garden, perhaps it inspires you to put more time into beautifying your own.

If you feel strong envy, shape that envy into a goal. Then ponder the hopeful statement, “I can do that too.” When you think hopefully, working toward the goals you wish to achieve, life gets better and you feel happier. And remember what W.C. Fields said, “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”