11/15/2013 08:28 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Envy Is Not Your Enemy (And How to Use It)

By Jan Bruce

Envy feels horrible -- that curdle in your belly, the shot of indignation that someone has more than you and the lingering shame that you aren't good enough to get it.

Think about the roller coaster ride of reading your Facebook feed. As our editor Terri Trespicio recently wrote, you see your friends out there saving the world or playing kickball in Belize, and your mind shoots into a death spiral: Wow. She's doing that? Why aren't I doing that? I should be doing that. I'm so lazy, and so on. (More on how to keep Facebook in perspective.)

The experience of envy can be so stressful that the impulse is to ignore it, or heap all the blame for your lousy feelings on the object of your envy. Nothing to do but resent her, right? But if you deny or externalize envy, you're actually losing out. Envy is in fact one of those fiery hot emotions that, with a little work, you can use.

In an elegant TED talk ("Ode to Envy"), New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal uses examples from literature to show how envy is strikingly similar to the quest for knowledge. Like stress, envy can be the kick in the pants that pushes you to take accountability for your dreams, your ambitions, your needs. It's hard to strive for what we want. We need jolts like envy or we just muddle along making do. (Read more on how to reframe stress as a tool.)

Here are three ways to help you use envy as a tool for growth instead of a bludgeon of shame.

Trap It, Map It, Zap It. At meQuilibrium, we teach a process called Trap it, Map it, and Zap it to manage high-intensity thoughts and feelings. It starts with observing and catching envy when it strikes: When you feel it coming on, flag that emotion. Trap it by noticing the symptoms, such as a clenched jaw or stomach cramp.

Then, map it: Identify the thought going through your head that's causing the emotion.
What caused it? Was it something that someone else received (praise, a promotion), or is it a certain person who seems to have everything (to you, anyway). What thought or story flashed through your mind that created that emotion?

Finally, zap it: Challenge the thought. Is it true? Will you never get a promotion? Does this other person really have the perfect body/life/career? Recognize that most of what you're feeling came from your interpretation, not form reality.

(Check out meQ's own app, which is designed to let you track your moods and emotions throughout the day.)

Pause, reflect, and accept. Feeling envious is about as universal as it gets. It's not the first nor the last time you'll feel it. It's not so much something to fix as it is something to accept, then peer curiously at. The emotion itself may be unbearable, but you can learn from it if you listen close to what's causing it.

Rather than let yourself get worked up and stressed over the fact that you feel envious, do the opposite: acknowledge it, and let it go. The calmer your nervous system, the more objective you can be -- and the more capable you are of capturing insights and acting on them instead of on the emotion.

(Here are three of our favorite low-tech, low-time, and low-stress relaxation practices.)

Identify the desire. Say you're envious of a colleague who got a promotion. When you can separate yourself a bit from the painful feeling, that envy becomes information: You want something she's got. Is it more money? Acknowledgement of your work? A greater challenge? A different schedule? With this clarity, you now have an opportunity to take action to get what you want.

Once you realize what's at the heart of your feelings ("I'm ready for a new professional goal myself") then you can start to take steps to achieve it. Envy may light a fire under your bum, but it doesn't have to burn you.

Want to dramatically reduce your stress? Take our 28-day challenge.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium,, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

For more on stress, click here.