Jealousy vs Envy: Spotting The Difference
Why Am I So Jealous?
I wish I would have written that, I often think, reading another writer’s essay or book. I’ve often struggled with envy and jealousy in my career. I’ll analyze other writers’ work, wondering if I’ll ever have similar “success.” A beautiful sentence can send me into a spiral of pity and pettiness.
It’s hard to admit (currently cringing as I type), but these emotions are all too familiar and very real. I have to remind myself that jealously and envy are normal human responses, even if they often invoke profound shame and feelings of insecurity.
“Envy and jealousy are aspects of ego and we all have egos as part of the human condition,” explains psychotherapist and author Joyce Marter, LCPC. “We are human beings, not expected to be perfect, and are all works in progress. It’s perfectly normal and understandable to experience jealousy and envy from time to time.”
What’s important is recognizing the onset of these emotions and learning to control and channel them rather than the other way around. Jealousy and envy can teach us, but only if we let them.
Two Similar, But Different Emotions
“While we often use ‘envy’ and ‘jealously’ interchangeably, there’s a subtle scientific distinction,” says Jasmine Chen, Founder & CEO of LIFE Intelligence, a science-backed app for emotional and relational wellness.
One of the easiest ways to differentiate between the two emotions is to consider loss versus gain. If you’re worried you may lose something (or someone) to another person, you’re experiencing jealousy. But if you’re yearning for what someone else currently has that you don’t, that’s envy. Both feelings are anchored in fear and scarcity mindset.
Jealously is often attributed to perceived threats to human relationships, especially sexual and romantic kinds. The feeling is rooted in suspicion, anxiety, distrust, and sometimes low self-esteem. Though a completely natural emotion, it’s not always healthy or helpful for our relationships, especially when we let it drive our responses and decisions.
“People who have had traumatic betrayals such as infidelity, might be more likely to experience jealousy than those who have had relationships that have not been threatened or damaged by another person,” says Marter.
For example, a person may feel jealous if someone is threatening what they already have—perhaps a job title or relationship. If they feel at risk of losing their role to another team member, they might get jealous.
Envy, however, sits deeper than jealousy. It’s an upward social comparison, associated with feelings of inferiority, longing, and disapproval, says Chen.
Envy illuminates a longing for what others have that we don’t, and it highlights underlying insecurities, including ones we may not realize exist. Revisiting writing as an example, my feelings of envy point to the insecurity that I will never achieve the same writing success as others I admire.
When people have something that we also desire, we fear that we may never get it for ourselves. And this can make it difficult to be happy for another person’s joyful experience, explains Marter—such as a promotion or an engagement.
Envy and Jealousy As Teachers
Shame has a tight grip when it comes to feelings of envy and jealousy, and this shame can keep us from admitting the truth to ourselves. We might bury our emotions, hoping they eventually go away. But what if instead of trying to hide from jealousy and envy, we sat with our feelings and let them teach us, guide us even?
“Jealousy reveals us to ourselves,” says literary critic Parul Sehgal in her TED Talk, An Ode to Envy. But this revelation only happens through self-reflection. We can harness our envy for motivation towards our goals, adds Chen. And we can contemplate our jealousy and look for ways to strengthen our relationships. “This may be working on yourself, and improving your own self-esteem,” Chen says.
Guiding questions can help us, too. I especially love these journal prompts to refocus on my core values, move past surface emotions, and explore the root cause of my envy or jealousy.
“Practice self-reflection and explore why you may be experiencing these emotions,” explains Marter. “Journaling or talking with a friend or therapist can help you have a cathartic experience and sort out your emotions.”
You can also ask: What is the story I’m telling myself? We often weave narratives about ourselves or other people’s lives when we experience jealousy or envy, explains Segal. These stories are rarely true and only feed into our insecurities, confirming our feelings over the facts. Remember, both envy and jealousy are rooted in a deeper fear—either that we will lose something or never obtain it. Fear is a healthy human experience that we need for survival, but when not wrestled with, it can overtake us.
It’s not always a misplaced fear either, notes Marter. “Sometimes we experience jealousy because there is a real threat that needs to be acknowledged.” Our feelings may be pointing to broken trust or boundaries that need to be addressed.
Moving To Appreciation and Acceptance
Ultimately though, envy and jealousy can be an invitation towards appreciation and acceptance. Instead of focusing on fear and what we may lose or never obtain, we can appreciate who we are and what we already have. We can be happy for others, too.
The more I sit with my feelings of envy, the more I realize I’d rather be a person who encourages and champions others in their pursuits and successes. Besides, we are all capable and deserving of truly great things, and there is room for everyone at the table. We don’t have to compete or allow the scarcity mindset narrative to win. We can choose to feel excited and inspired by the achievements of others.
“Reframe the people you are envious of as heroes,” says Marter. “This is much healthier than spiraling down into a dark hole of feelings of inadequacy and disempowerment.” She recommends having a few personal and professional heroes.
“They are like lighthouses that show us what is possible and light the way.”
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for sensitive people.