How Envy Differs from Jealousy and What We Can Learn from It

Sisters seated at opposite ends of sofa, arms crossed, looking away from each otherEnvy doesn’t get talked about much these days. I’m not sure why. Maybe because in these times of personal empowerment, everyone is supposed to be pursuing personal bests and following their own destinies, independent of everyone else. In such an environment of individualism, it’s a little gauche, maybe, to admit (to oneself, but especially to others) you could be envious of someone else.

Maybe because envy seems tinged with old-school morality, something to be thrown out with the raised eyebrows and tsk tsks of past convictions of superiority. We are more straightforward now. We say it like it is. We have no need for spurious or vague emotions that cause messes in our souls.

Think so? I’m not so sure.

Envy has not vanished from the face of the earth. Envy is hardwired in the human heart. It has only gone underground. If you’ve ever tried to eradicate moles or gophers from your garden, you know how difficult it is to rid your life of things that live beneath the surface. The problem, of course, is that you can’t see them. You can only see where they have already been, because they leave a trail of wreckage.

Just like envy.

So what is it, this envy?

One thing it is not is jealousy. The words are often used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. There is a vast and meaningful difference between the two.

Jealousy. You are jealous of someone if they have something you want. For example, that girl in your economics class has the shoes you covet but can’t afford. No fair. Or, that man who is a major slacker has a bigger office than you do. No fair. The feeling you have when you imagine yourself in these two scenarios is jealousy. Another word for it is covetousness. The Ten Commandments are all over covetousness; in fact, 20% of the commandments are spent in outright ban of it, both spouses and goods. It doesn’t matter who the other person is or what their circumstances might be: they have something you want; you, on the other hand, do not have it; you are jealous.

In my estimation, this is a garden-variety offense. It doesn’t hurt anyone but you. It makes you stew in your own juices until you wake up, which you will eventually do, one hopes. If you are even halfway conscious, you will find it becomes boring after a while to covet everyone else’s stuff because it finally dawns on you that you could buy yourself your own pair of shoes if you were a little more prudent with your finances. Your feet and the feet of the suede-shod woman are existentially unrelated. What she has is completely independent of what you have/don’t have. You’re on your own. Get your own shoes and get over yourself. They will look great on you if you like them so much.

Envy, on the other hand, is insidious. Envy targets the person with the shoes you covet, the person with the bigger office. Envy tells you that you are better than they are, that they don’t deserve the shoes or the office, that in order to get them, they probably did something unsavory or were born under a lucky star (no fair!) or had better parents than you did (no fair!) … and you are the one who really deserves these things. So to hell with them and their stupid shoes and their stupid office. You want to pour red wine into the taupe suede shoes. You want to hide a stinking, rotting chicken carcass in the big office. You want to hurt those people. At the very least, you want to spit venom about them behind their backs. That, my friend, is envy.

Envy attacks another person.

It is envy, for example, that makes you writhe with hot discomfort when your sister executes an ethereal Chopin piece while you know you had the attention span of a gnat during the two years of forced piano lessons you endured. Sure, you wanted to play. But you didn’t want to practice. You wanted to go do other stuff. Therefore, the whole enterprise for you—the boring piano lessons—was a burden your parents forced upon you and which you could not manage to see as anything but punitive.

Plus, your sister was born with a gift, you tell yourself. This music comes so easily to her she could play in her sleep. I wasn’t born with that. She got all the talent. Look at her! Everyone is all admiring and things. What a show-off! If I had had half the advantages she had, I’d be sitting there playing even better than she does. Crap.

You snipe at your sister every chance you get. You make it your business to examine her life for all the unfair advantages your parents extended to her but denied you, forgetting already that you had the exact same opportunities at the keyboard. But the piano is just the start. You could recite an entire litany of examples of favoritism, if anyone gave half a damn about you and the way you’ve suffered while your sister got all the attention. Crap.

With your unbridled envy, your sister gets hurt. You are mean to her. You devalue her accomplishments by attributing them to luck or parental favoritism or natural talent (as if talent required no discipline in order to bloom). You ignore the hours of practice she put in while you were off doing who knows what—and you don’t even remember what now, do you? You debase her well-developed discipline, focus, and personal goals. And you take shots at her about other things to keep her in her place, which to her feels arbitrary and nasty, making her question herself and what she may have done to provoke you. She is hurt and anxious.

So are you! You also are hurt and anxious. Can you see that? Envy is a pitchfork with two sharp tines: you pierce the other person’s accomplishments with one while you let the grace seep out of your own soul with the other.

So if envy is this bad, why do I claim it is hardwired? Because like all emotions—positive and negative—envy is an indicator. It is a message. It alerts us to something in ourselves that requires our attention.

We can look at anger as an example of a familiar negative emotion. Anger is our red-alert system that tells us something seems wrong. People think anger is wild acting out in behaviors of rage or even violence. It’s not. Anger is just a feeling. How you act upon that feeling is your choice.

You could react and blow gaskets in the form of wild behaviors—the so-called knee-jerk behavior we see in road rage, for example. Your anger is telling you that you are approaching your limit with driving in traffic and with disrespectful drivers. You blow up. How does that help? You’re likely still in a white rage when you walk in the door at home an hour later. Everyone at home gets the fallout. What a crummy evening that is likely to be. Meanwhile, your morons, the ones who inflamed you, are still moving on down the highway, not only unaware of your meltdown but also unpunished for the transgressions you detest so much. It will be just like this again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, by the way. And next week. Why would anything change?

When you respond, you take charge. It may not be a good feeling to admit to yourself that you’re stewing in envy toward another person. But if you take a deep breath and ask yourself where it is really coming from, you might be surprised to discover it is rooted deeply within the inaccurate narrative you are repeating to yourself about your life.

Alternatively, you could respond—and take note of the cause and the extent of the anger that the red-alert evokes. Then you can decide what you’d like to do about it. If you give yourself the time to respond, you give yourself the time to learn from your anger and to utilize it as notice that something in your life would suit you better if you were to change it. You are empowered. Your anger has pointed you right to the solution. You get to decide what to do next. Maybe drive a different route. Maybe change your hours. Maybe Uber to work. You realize your anger is about yourself. It has nothing to do with the drivers in the other cars. They have their own problems.

Extend this pattern of choice between reacting and responding to envy.

When you react in envy, you do things that not only hurt you, but also hurt the other people who are the targets of your envy, as discussed earlier. You do yourself no favors, because you stir yourself up into a hot mess while comforting yourself with the concept of some vague but gross injustice which places you squarely in the victim role. Oh, lick those wounds, and hate that transgressor!

But when you respond, you take charge. It may not be a good feeling to admit to yourself that you’re stewing in envy toward another person. But if you take a deep breath and ask yourself where it is really coming from, you might be surprised to discover it is rooted deeply within the inaccurate narrative you are repeating to yourself about your life. Like anger and the drivers, envy has nothing to do with the person you envy. It is an inside job.

You might catch a glimpse of yourself as lacking in discipline, and you might feel guilt attached to that. Well, you can learn a great deal about how to bring discipline into your life, if you put your mind to it. You can work with a therapist to reshape your personal narrative so that you can create openings for growth in your life. You don’t have to remain enslaved to old, ineffective stories about who you are. You have the power, given the desire, to change anything you’d like to change.

Jealousy and envy. They are both opportunities. Next time you feel one of them arise, stop for a moment and take a good look at it. Remember you are not your feelings. You are the feeler of your feelings. You are the thinker of your thoughts. As such, you are the creator of your life.

Try it in small steps. Mindfulness techniques are excellent tools for slowing down the crashing, reactive aspects of strong negative emotions. Becoming aware of your feelings and your environment (internal and external) and your hopes and your dreams at any one moment can create the space you need for grabbing the reins of your behavior, and bring the muse of discipline into your life to create the peace that is ultimately what you would most like to have in your heart.

You can do it. You will amaze yourself.

And oh, how you will sleep at night!

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Melissa

    September 7th, 2016 at 10:12 AM

    Very good way to explain these two very different things that are often said to be one and the same. I think that you could go even further and say that those who are envious toward another person might actually wish harm upon them in some way.

  • Sarah

    September 7th, 2016 at 1:59 PM

    Thank you, Melissa. I agree with you – often there is an urge to hurt another person that arises from unprocessed envy. It can be a very nasty way to view another person.

  • Shawna

    September 7th, 2016 at 4:05 PM

    Sometimes the grass really ISN’T greener on the other side but we spend far too much time thinking that it probably is, and this leads us to not clearly be able to see the good that we actually already have in our own lives.

  • Sarah

    September 8th, 2016 at 7:23 AM

    Hi Shawna – you make an excellent point. Why waste precious energy focusing on what someone else has or does, when you could be using it to make your own life more beautiful instead?

  • kim

    September 9th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    The only thing that I could even think that we could take aawy from this is that it truly makes you a terrible person if you wish to harm another person simply because they possess something that you yourself may want. There are so many things in life that I want and can’t have or maybe can’t afford, but I don’t go around begrudging those who have turned it into a reality for them. Maybe what I should do instead is study them and see if there is anything that I could maybe learn from them to see if that could then help me to reach my own goal of success. I don’t know, I have spent too much time being envious of others that seem to have everything come to them so easily, and I am just trying to come up with a path that also helps me get there without being detrimental to myself or another person.

  • Sarah Swenson

    September 13th, 2016 at 8:00 AM

    It doesn’t make you a terrible person, Kim. There is no judgment intended. Jealousy and envy are indicator emotions that help you understand where there is pain in your life, and this allows for discovery of a more productive use of your precious energy.

  • Samuel

    September 10th, 2016 at 7:57 AM

    well neither one is really going to be all that good for you

  • Sarah Swenson

    December 27th, 2017 at 6:30 AM

    Samuel, you are absolutely right.

  • Jerrod

    September 12th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    my days of just wanting what other people have is over
    i am learning to instead be more appreciative of the things that I do have
    and work harder for that which I don’t have yet

  • roberta

    September 15th, 2016 at 12:55 PM

    Both of the are green eyed monsters that I would prefer to stay away from/

  • David

    February 27th, 2020 at 1:03 AM

    A friend said that if I am going to envy someone for something I must be willing to trade my entire life for theirs which I am not.

  • Larry

    May 3rd, 2022 at 4:59 PM

    Great article. I really don’t have any problems with Envy/Jealousy, but I see other people struggle with it. I do sometimes have problems with anger AKA hot temper. However, after I let loose I wind up feeling much worse than if I had kept quiet.

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