There are three little words that I’ve finally started to pay more attention to in my 40s. The truth is I’ve said them many times during the past two decades of adult life.

What are they?

Must Be Nice. As in, “that must be nice to have XYZ,” or “that must be nice to have your family around.”

When I first learned that according to my Enneagram number, envy is a hang-up for me, I immediately dismissed it. I’m not envious, I thought. That’s ridiculous.

But a seed was planted, and I started noticing all the times I utter that little three-letter phrase.

In case you’re like me and think that the green monster never comes creeping out of your closet of contentment, let me share some examples of where this has popped up for me over the years.

Sometimes I find myself thinking, it must be nice to have extended family nearby. It must be nice to have a husband that’s home every night and doesn’t travel for work. It must be nice to stay at home. It must be nice to have a career. It must be nice to have a house cleaner and a nanny. Do you see what I mean?

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells the story of being jealous of a friend that had great success in publishing before she did. As she tells it, she’s consulting with her therapist for ways around feeling this way when her therapist reminds her that jealousy is really a secondary emotion that is born out of feeling excluded and deprived. Her therapist says that Anne’s jealousy is, “that business of comparing my outsides to other people’s insides.”

I’ve thought about that quote a lot and about jealousy being a secondary emotion with a root cause that lies somewhere deep inside another underlying emotion. Jealousy may be a secondary emotion, but it’s a powerful one.

Ever since I became more aware of this tendency to compare, I started focusing less on thinking, “It must be nice” and more on what I’m actually feeling.

When I see another mom getting help from extended family, I can pause and realize I miss my family rather than being envious. When I see a family together on a day where my husband is gone again, I can recognize that I miss my spouse rather than resenting a job that leaves me parenting solo so often. When I find myself wishing for a different career or longing for the days when I stayed at home, I remind myself that the grass isn’t always greener and sometimes different is just different, not better.

Once I’ve identified the feeling and assigned the right meaning, I can ask myself what I need right now.

Maybe I need to be honest with someone or myself about what is or isn’t working in my life at the moment. Maybe I need to have better boundaries or make different choices based on the results I’m getting.

It’s possible that I need to simply pause and name the thing or the feeling that’s been eating at me. There’s something very powerful and freeing about being honest with yourself and giving yourself some space to grieve, reflect and eventually, move on.

I don’t know if I’ll ever completely conquer that tendency to think about what I don’t have because we live in a society that lives and breaths comparison, but I’m working on it.

I made up a few rules to keep me focused on my blessings. When I think, “must be nice,” I need to remember instead:

  1. Nothing is really as it seems.

    This is true for real life and especially on social media. Don’t compare your actual reality with your perceived reality of someone else’s life. If social media makes you feel worse then quit for a while. It’ll still be there waiting, I promise. 

  2. Wish good for others.

    Why wouldn’t we want good things for people we know?

    Life is not a pie where each piece that gets passed out means less for someone else.

    We live in a world of abundance, not scarcity, and we would be better off if we kept that in mind.

  3. Quiet the FOMO (fear of missing out).

    If you are already having a hard time and feeling down about a particular area of your life or struggling with a hard season, why exasperate that feeling? When my husband deployed with the military for long stretches, being around lots of other families on the weekends made me feel more alone. I found it was better to connect with friends during the week and limit family activities on the weekends.

  4. Turn jealousy into action.

    If you’re jealous and you know why, try doing something about it. If you’re jealous that some people get to travel more, then start saving. Try turning your newly recognized feelings into productive action instead of letting them boss you around.

  5. Pay attention.

    I can’t tell you why or how it works, but I know that when I start listening to my body and my mind instead of all the voices out there, I am more easily able to decide where the envy is coming from. Unexpected tears, feelings of anxiety, or loneliness can be important indicators that the life I’m presenting on the outside isn’t matching up on the inside. Once I start paying attention, taking meaningful steps toward positive change becomes much easier.

Perspective is a powerful thing. If we listen to how often we say something along the lines of, “It must be nice” we might learn something new about ourselves. I think we don’t talk about envy much because it’s hard to admit, but maybe talking about it and recognizing it can set us free to embrace the amazing life that’s right in front of us.

Do you struggle with envy? Is it just me?