Let me reassure you that though you might feel alone right now, you’re not alone in your envy—it is part of being human. Even the people you envy feel envious; no one is immune. But what makes envy especially challenging is that despite its universality, so much shame is attached to it. We might feel free to talk to a friend about, say, our anger or sadness, but most of us worry that sharing our feelings of envy will make us seem petty or selfish. What’s worse, most of us want to celebrate other people’s good fortune and be happy for our friends; so, along with our envy, we also feel guilt. (As a patient once told me of the couple she envied: “I hate them, and then I hate myself for hating them.”)
It’s no wonder, then, that many people try valiantly to will away their envy. But as you’ve experienced, that isn’t an effective way to diminish it. Instead, what helps is to discover the meaning we attach to it, and see where this discovery leads us.
Let’s start by looking at the way you’ve described your situation. Right now, you’re seeing this as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” at which you’ve “failed.” Realistically, though, many other opportunities exist that could provide whatever you believe this promotion would have brought (status, success, money, fulfillment, joy). Often when we envy other people, we engage in a fantasy about how life-changing having what they have would actually be: If only I had this spouse/net worth/appearance, my life would be significantly better. Right now, you’re telling yourself that nothing will make you as happy as having this one job. It’s important to note, too, that you’re framing this situation as a personal failure, just as you’ve framed setbacks in the past (“I have failed before”).
I wonder whether these thoughts have a familiar pattern. It might help to break down your response to the current situation (despair, black-and-white thinking) even further. Does your envy leave you feeling unworthy, incapable, unwanted, unseen, insignificant, excluded, unfairly judged? If any of these resonate, does this perceived rejection remind you of how you felt growing up—maybe as part of your family dynamic, or other experiences that led to a negative self-perception? The more you can separate old hurts from the current hurt, the more you’ll be able to separate the old voices from the situation right in front of you.
For example, a person whose inner voice generally reacts to disappointment with See, nothing will ever work out for me or Without X, I’ll never be happy tends to marinate in their envy, because that way of thinking leaves people trapped. If nothing will work out or the one thing that would make them happy isn’t available to them, well, they would be destined to misery. And even though that’s not true, what often follows is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They stop trying to reach their goals (Why bother?), behave in ways that confirm their distortion (I’m not talented might lead to a person acting less capable than they really are), or unconsciously self-sabotage when presented with potentially exciting opportunities. At that point, the misery is no longer a distortion but a reality—of one’s own making.