How I cope with feelings of envy by saying the Arabic word ‘mashallah’ | Friendship
I doesn’t often feel envy and it’s not because I don’t know anyone worthy of it. The people in my life are just brilliant. My friends and family are talented writers whose books and magazines I proudly display on my shelves. They are learned psychologists, motivated designers, artists and poets whose work moves me deeply. It’s easy to celebrate their most recent successes, to which I say:Mashallah.”
Being a raised Muslim, mashallah is an Arabic expression that I use often, if not daily. Most commonly spelled as mashallah or mashaAllah, the most accurate way to represent the phrase in transliteration is ma sha Allah, meaning: “What God willed has happened.” In many cultures, saying mashallah is believed to protect a person from the evil eye. Another way of looking at it is that it shifts the focus from potential envy to admiration, gratitude, and respect.
“Language and emotion are intrinsically linked,” says psychologist Dr Emma Hepburn. “Having more finely tuned emotional words to describe our feelings is proven to benefit us. The language we use to ourselves and others, both verbally and in writing, can have an impact about how we feel. Kind words can calm and regulate us, while harsh words can create a response to threat.
Perhaps by saying a phrase that actively seeks to protect the recipient from the threat of envy, I inadvertently protected myself from letting envy get the better of me.
One of my earliest memories of craving someone intensely was in the winter when I was about eight years old. My best friend came to school with the most amazing cardigan I’ve ever seen. It was stocky and had small sheep and cow appliqués on the front, spun wool in green tufts for the trees, and towards the shoulders were cream-colored quilted clouds. Meanwhile, I wore the same thing I wore every day: a thin black acrylic sweater that no longer reached the knuckles of my bony wrists. I imagined how gorgeous I would feel wrapped in something as fabulous as a farmhouse cardigan. I also imagined what it would be like to see my best friend accidentally spill the powder paints we were mixing everywhere that day. I accidentally imagined on purpose spilling the paint on the cardigan myself, and for a moment the thought made me feel good. And then I remembered that she was the only person who had bothered to befriend me after weeks of orbiting the perimeter of the playground alone. Burning shame colored my cheeks red as I stirred my paint, because it is the color of shame – the color of blood.
The color of envy is green. The green-eyed monster. The grass is always greener. Envy is considered a dark emotion. Not as sexy as anger can be perceived, while melancholy and sadness can be shaped to suggest depth of character. Envy, however, is something to hide in the shadows of ourselves. I’m thinking of the viral meme of Kermit the Frog standing across from his doppelganger in a black hooded robe. We are presented with the binary forces of good versus evil, with the understanding that the shadow Kermit represents all of our darkest thoughts and impulses, a mirror of the positive aspect of ordinary Kermit. The fact that the dialogue within these memes presents conflict underscores this polarity. In my meme, the text above regular Kermit would read, “But she’s my best friend.” The text above Shadow Kermit would read: “Fuck friendship, spill the paint.” And Kermit, as my craving was at the time, is the brightest green. If anything had happened to the farm cardigan that day, I would have felt personally responsible.
Navigating envy was much easier in the pre-digital world of my childhood and adolescence. By the time I became a mother at 24, my peers were building their careers and taking life by the horns, which caused me to leave Facebook as quickly as I joined. It was just easier not to see the panoply of parties, promotions, and vacations I missed while I stayed home to change diapers. Filtered through the lens of my hormonal perspective as a sleep-deprived new mother, I knew I would have found it too much to bear to see things I wanted for myself, but, in that moment, I had no means of having; too hard not to feel some kind of longing that would have left me breathless if I had stayed online and watched all of this.
The eye icon on my Instagram Stories records a view count every time I post, a reminder of how the emergence of social media has added a real-time vector to our culture of hyperconsciousness. We are more aware than ever of seeing and being seen. Our eyes are drawn to announcements, vacation snaps and successes like magpies drawn to shiny things. Thus, not only do we bear witness to the lives of those with whom we physically interact, but we are now able to take a figurative look at the lives of those we have never met.
When I left Facebook as a new mother, I told people it was because I was a private person. I’m too introverted. I don’t have time, with the baby and all. I couldn’t tell it was because logging on made me nauseous with envy. Jungian analyst Gail Collins-Webb tells me that “envy is one of the most difficult emotions to address in analysis because it is closely associated with the emotion of shame, and shame goes to the heart of human suffering”. She suggests that when we experience envy, we should lean on her and allow her to instruct us: “Define what you are envious of. That tells you something. For example, an introverted person may be very jealous of an extrovert’s ability to have lots of friends and network in ways that they simply aren’t capable of. When you feel envy towards someone, what you are doing is projecting onto that person that they have this wonderful thing that you want. And that’s worth asking, isn’t it?
Recently a close friend achieved something that I consider one of my personal goals. She is talented and hardworking and deserves her success. For this reason, I find it easy to be happy for her without envy. “Mashallah, I’m so happy for you,” I said when she broke her happy news to me, knowing that I too would love to achieve something like this one day. A while ago, however, another friend realized something that I hadn’t yet, that I didn’t even have on my radar, and while I was congratulating them, something about it bothered me. . I had to admit that in the symphony of emotions I was experiencing, envy was the base note. I had never looked upon this friend with envy before, but this particular realization stirred up negative feelings. Collins-Webb tells me, “If you can follow your urge, it can tell you what you want and it also tells you what your shadow is because you cast it.”
When she says “shadow”, she refers to the darker aspects of our personality, which Carl Jung defined as our “shadow selves”. He explains in his 1951 book, Aion, that “to become aware of [the shadow]…involves recognizing dark aspects of personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition of any form of self-knowledge. “Shadow work”, therefore, is about recognizing and learning from the unconscious and the darker aspects of ourselves that we usually ignore and repress. It’s about figuring out where they’re coming from, because sitting with those feelings can teach us something about what we desire or what we want to change in our own lives.
When I questioned my desire, I was able to trace it back to desire and a feeling of injustice. I could recognize that the opportunity this friend had was the result of privilege and nepotism, so the feelings of envy began to dissipate. I also learned that I wanted something like my friend had for me, and not because they had it, but because I really wanted it. Following my craving, then, led me to a desire I didn’t know I had and as a result, I set to work to achieve what I wanted.
Dr. Sabinah Janally, clinical psychologist, says, “Words have the power to crush or transform sense of self and perceived reality. I don’t feel envy very often, but I realize that a lot of that comes from not avoiding it. For me, saying “mashallah” does not negate envy, it acknowledges that envy may well be present alongside acclaim and if I find it sitting alongside my praise and admiration, I encourage my look to turn inward to see what it can try to show me.