Family Portraits Taught Me the Futility of Envy

Wyndi Ambrose
Jan 8, 2020 · 10 min read
A photo of a photo of my beautiful mother in her college days

I recently introduced two close friends to each other, and from there, Friend A continuously raved about Friend B.

Friend B tried to stop Friend A from becoming a fan because she was afraid that I’d become jealous (fearful of losing my friend to her). Interestingly, I was not.

I assured Friend B that it was cool to guiltlessly bask in all the admiration she deserved, and she responded with:

How come you don’t get jealous? Were you always that way, or is that new?

It was something I had to think about, and I realized that I couldn’t be jealous because while I admired my friend, I didn’t envy her.

So, what’s the difference between envy and jealousy? Psychologist Richard Smith breaks it down this way: envy is when you are unhappy about lacking an attribute that is a benefit to another person, while jealousy is a reaction to the idea of losing something or someone to another person. In the context of jealousy, you may think to yourself: “What does the other person have that I don’t?” And here you’re pondering on the attributes they possess that could potentially steal your position, relationship, status (or whatever).

“This means that when you are feeling jealous, you are often feeling envious as well,” Smith says.

When I think about it, these days it’s harder for me to become jealous because I’m rarely in a posture of envy. But back to my friend’s second question: was I always that way?

Nope.

She’s really made me reflect on how far I’ve come, and it hasn’t been an easy process.

Always Different

My siblings and I grew up much like military kids, bouncing around from one Caribbean island to another. Consequently, it was easy to feel like an outsider when you’re constantly being introduced to new social norms and new dialects every few years — all while your sense of identity is still being formed.

And with feelings of being on the outside came feelings of wishing I wasn’t. It led to envy of those who could say they’d had the same friends since they were five years old…those who knew all the inside jokes…those who belonged.

But the dynamic that had a very significant impact on me was that of physical norms. My father is a black man, but my mother is biracial, and what they produced was a very slender “light-skinned” creature that didn’t fit into the physical norms of the region in which they chose to live.

The grown-up version of me — embracing her wispiness

I was so ‘light” in comparison to most of my peers at school that they’d call me “white”. Colorism is a huge part of Caribbean culture, so I now understand that behind their taunting was probably a lot of pent-up resentment. Some of them probably wished they were “white” or as close to it as possible and hated that I fit their perception of what was “white” (I’m not white at all). Or maybe they were just angry that society had placed value on something they could never be. But I didn’t understand any of those possibilities as a child, and I just wanted to be what everybody else was. I wanted to identify with the object of Richie Spice’s affection — the “Brown Skin” girl with the “vibes”, the “spice”, and the “passion”.

Around the same time, I was also teased about being skinny. Years later, it would be mind-blowing to me to learn that being skinny was so celebrated in American culture that people actually starved themselves to be that way. Instead, there I was trying to stuff myself to fit the Caribbean beauty standards that center on how voluptuous a woman’s body is. Just listen to any Caribbean song — “Crash in your Bumper” and “Ms. Set Good” by Tian Winter or “Shape Nice” featuring Vybz Cartel. Or look at the number of views on a Shenseea or Nailah Blackman music video. That’s what Caribbean people (in general) consider attractive.

A very gorgeous capture of Nailah Blackman

Every birthday I’d pray that this was the year I’d “bust out”. I’d have a larger butt and sizeable breasts — like almost everyone else around me. And as puberty gave others drastic transformations, the cards dealt to me were….drum roll please — more height and acne. I’m sure there were times when I was green with envy.

Looking at Things Differently

But then there was a paradigm shift.

One year I was rummaging through my mother’s old photo albums for a photo I could use to celebrate her birthday on social media. I got completely lost in the albums, studying her features and mannerisms in detail. I found a photo of her throwing up the peace sign while wearing aviator glasses. (I’m always throwing up the peace sign in photos, and I love aviator glasses.) She had written poems that matched the mood of her photos and had placed them on the adjacent pages. (One of my favorite things to do is to come up with song lyrics to match a photo).

I remember thinking, “She’s so beautiful.

And I meant that in every sense of the word. Objectively speaking, I thought she was physically beautiful (not just ’cause she’s my mom 😊 ). But I was also reminded that her spirit was beautiful.

I realized that not only do I love my mom, I also admire her as a person. And there are so many characteristics that she and I share. Then I thought of all the times I’d envied others or wished to be someone else. It occurred to me that if I were someone else, then I wouldn’t be a part of her. What a shame!

I also came across photos of my father in the old albums. There were photos of him from his glory days as a star cricketer and soccer player. I studied his features and compared them to mine too. I’d gotten my long, slender limbs from him.

A photo of a photo of my father as captain of the Trent Bridge Cricket Team

And while looking at photos of all his athletic trophies, I contemplated that I might have inherited my drive to achieve from him too. My dad is a superstar who I admire. If I were someone else, I wouldn’t be a part of him either.

Who Validates You?

I guess that was my process of validating myself — contemplating how silly it was to be envious of other people when there was so much value in being me.

Envy often stems from insecurity and even self-hatred. That’s why it’s really hard to be envious of others when you love yourself sincerely. And when you love yourself sincerely, it liberates you into appreciating others for their unique beauty and into loving them sincerely too. Envy robs you of all that.

So, if envy is something you struggle with often (or from time to time), I suggest you take time to study yourself like you’re doing research for an important project and identify the awesome things that make you unique.

You know who was great at that? Audrey Hepburn. She’s one of my favorite celebrities of all time. I think it’s because I discovered her during my teenage years when I was struggling with my own identity, and her biography taught me the power of authenticity.

She was thin during the time when Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor’s curves had everyone captivated. Yet Hepburn was chosen for the role of Princess Ann in Roman Holiday over Taylor. Rumor has it that producers initially wanted to cast Taylor, but Hepburn’s screen test was too impressive to pass over.

There was something about her that didn’t make sense because she wasn’t traditional, and still, those who met her were in awe of her. Director William Wyler called her “enchanting”. Billy Wilder once said, “She’s a wispy, thin, little thing, but you’re really in the presence of somebody when you see that girl.”

Audrey Hepburn

I’m speculating here, but I suspect that the aura people sensed from Hepburn was something that came from within. She was honest about who she was and made it work for her. She didn’t try to be like anyone else.

Can you imagine what her career would have been like if she sat around in a pool of self-pity, wishing for bosoms like Taylor or Monroe?

On sex appeal, Hepburn once said, “I’m not as well-stacked as Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, but there is more to sex appeal than just measurements. I don’t need a bedroom to prove my womanliness. I can convey just as much sex appeal, picking apples off a tree or standing in the rain.”

At another point in time, she commented on her celebrity status saying, “I never think of myself as an icon. What is in other people’s minds is not in my mind. I just do my thing.”

In other words, Audrey Hepburn validated herself, ignoring so many social and beauty standards to the point where she became the standard.

Director Billy Wilder once said of her: “This girl, single-handed, may make bosoms a thing of the past.”

And she did for a while. Everyone in European and American culture wanted to be skinny for a long time. But they missed the point.

The point is cliché but no less true: Do you, and do it well.

Redefine the narrative of letting others validate you.

Other Sources of Value

When you come from a background where you can point to many beautiful memories and when you’re proud of who your family is, it’s easy to tell others to focus on the good things in their life, right?

And I get it. There are people who grew up under such painful conditions that it’s hard to overcome the shame.

I personally chose to talk about the good things in my life that I’ve found value in because I don’t think I do it often enough. But we can also choose to find value in our “flaws” or bad experiences.

Sometimes, the value can be found in our journey toward change and healing. Most, if not all, of us can relate to struggling with imperfection and suffering from trauma. Some can relate more than others. But it’s what we do afterwards that causes us to grow. And as long as we’re still breathing, there’s always an afterwards.

Whenever I don’t like something about myself and it’s within my power to change it, I try to change it. That way when I’m feeling insecure about either a real or perceived flaw, I can remind myself that I’m working on it. Minimizing my insecurities gives me the power to love myself and others.

Working towards positive change could mean exercise, therapy, spending more time with your family, or learning to say, “I’m sorry”. Evolving looks different for everyone but is necessary for our self-worth and one of the cures against envy.

Value can also be found in merely our desire to change. Think about it this way: if you weren’t a good person, an ambitious person, or a combination of both, chances are you wouldn’t even have a desire to be better in character or endeavor. There is value in that.

Finally, you can find value in being an inspiration to others with similar challenges. One of the number one self-esteem boosters is to help someone else. Yes, bad things have happened to you, but you’re still here surviving and coping somehow. Show someone else how to cope. Even if you help one person, your worth to that person is priceless.

It’s a Process

This isn’t something that happened overnight for me. Maybe it’s possible, but I haven’t experienced it that way. Learning to find value in myself and to cope with feelings of envy has been a process of consistently redirecting my thoughts away from comparing myself to others and focusing on the unique worth I bring to the world. After all, it’s natural that jealous or envious thoughts will cross our minds. But we all have the choice on whether we ruminate on those thoughts.

Wrapping This Up

When it comes to feelings of jealousy or envy, it usually boils down to what you think you’re worth. Maybe you’re struggling with identifying value in your life. So, let’s run through it again.

You can choose to find value in:

· Your heritage (the people in your family who you love, admire, and share blood and characteristics with)

· The way your pain can help you help others with similar struggles

· Your desire to be a better person (there must be something good in you if you want to evolve)

· Your journey towards evolving

· The way you’re going to inspire others by showing them that there is more than one way to be successful, beautiful, smart or talented

And don’t forget to be patient with yourself. Learning to appreciate oneself is a process; it’s hard sometimes but very possible.

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Wyndi Ambrose

Written by

Freelance journalist/writer based in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico— Contact: wyndiambrose@gmail.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Wyndi Ambrose

Written by

Freelance journalist/writer based in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico— Contact: wyndiambrose@gmail.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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