Envy and jealousy are deeply painful emotions. They bring a debilitating sense of suffering and powerlessness. It is normal to experience these feelings from time to time, but when envy and jealousy linger, they can lead to aggression or depression, undermining our physical and mental well-being and our relationships.
“Envy burns, but jealousy is a thicker feeling, a sort of heaviness in my stomach and tightness in my chest. It feels hard to speak or think about anything else. It feels worse because I know it is wrong,” says Jamie V., an online student at Park University. “It quickly leads to me feeling depressed and going into a funk. It can cause me to resent the other person for making me feel that way.” Envy and jealousy are so distressing that it’s difficult to imagine these feelings might benefit us. And yet they can.
Envy and jealousy—what’s the difference?
Do you desperately want what someone else has (incredible football skills, easy popularity, the newest device)? This perceived gap in talents and material possessions—essentially, self-criticism—can be painful. It may be tempting to ease that discomfort by either bringing the other person down or by elevating yourself.
Are you afraid of someone taking what you believe to be yours (your role in the play, your chance at that internship, your romantic partner)? When your self-esteem is low, you may fear and try to protect yourself from potential loss. Jealousy may be accompanied by envy (e.g., when the student you worry could grab your role in the play has acting skills to die for).
- Worry and anxiety: the fear of losing popularity, respect, love, rewards, or opportunities.
- Betrayal and anger: the sense of unfairness that comes with not getting what you may feel you deserve.
- A sense of inferiority and insecurity: the discomfort of wondering why you don’t have the qualities, skills, or good fortune you perceive in another person, and what that could mean for you.
- The same parts of your brain control envy and jealousy. The amygdala, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex are active in these emotions, and we experience the social or emotional pain in a way that’s similar to physical pain.
- The sense of threat may send your body into fight-or-flight mode. The boost in adrenaline pumps up your heart rate, erodes your appetite, and generates cortisol, a stress hormone that can increase your blood pressure and make you feel foggy-headed. The rush of adrenaline, another stress hormone, may make it hard for you to relax and sleep.
Here’s how students say envy and jealousy makes them feel:
“It’s a weird tingling in the pit of your stomach, a tightness in your neck, a feeling of uselessness cascading over you.”
“It feels like everything you love will be stripped away, and you are completely powerless and helpless.”
“It’s like being torn up.”
Why do we have these negative feelings?
Envy and jealousy are likely part of our instinct to survive and reproduce, according to evolutionary psychologists. When we compare ourselves to others in our community, we’re estimating our relative strengths and weaknesses and how we might fare in the competition for social status and resources. Emotional pain alerts us to the risk of missing out on what we may need to survive and flourish.
Although that pain is hard to handle, we can lessen it. “Remember that we must learn to manage emotions like jealousy,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and associate vice president for academic and professional success at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas. “You aren’t likely to get it right all the time; don’t be too hard on yourself, but do be thoughtful and learn from your experiences.”
What does that learning look like?
Envy—when we admit to it—can help us identify and reconsider our values and goals. “Envy is a great tool to help you figure out what you want from yourself,” says Asheesh G., a graduate student at the University of North Dakota. “If you envy someone’s work ethic, it means that you wish to be a harder worker. If you envy someone’s car, then you can save money up to buy one. That is a really good way to make an otherwise unproductive feeling work for you.”
In that way, envy can be a powerful motivator. Envy is linked to competitiveness, research shows, and can drive our success. “The truth is that if you never once experienced envy and jealousy, you might end up satisfied with less than you’re capable of,” says Melissa Walker, a registered counselor in Montreal.
Here are some examples of how to handle envy and jealousy when it happens to you.
Jealousy: “I was very jealous and possessive with my partner.”
“I used to be very jealous and possessive with my boyfriend. I have matured and realized that my jealousy makes him uncomfortable because it shows a lack of security. He does not understand why I become jealous because he loves me and makes it very apparent.”
—Aliyah K., third-year undergraduate, University of North Texas
You likely consider your partner a valuable part of your life. When it feels like someone is threatening to take that away, you instinctually go on the defense—and get jealous—to protect what’s “yours.” “Jealousy is often a very strong emotional reaction, and since it is closely related to anger, we often strike out at those around us, doing more harm than good,” says Dr. Hanson. In a survey by CampusWell, almost four out of five students who responded said they’d felt jealousy in a romantic relationship or crush.
Recognize that your thoughts are not reality.
You might believe your partner is interested in someone else, but that doesn’t make it true.
Accept and admit to your jealousy.
Allow it to exist. Sometimes, being mindful and accepting of an emotion is enough to diminish its hold on you.
If you believe your partner has behaved in a way that might undermine your relationship, give yourself time to cool off. If you are agitated, wait at least a few hours before talking with them about it. “Deal with it without acting out and nip it in the bud. Don’t fly into a jealous rage. Try to act mature, and don’t put the blame on anyone,” says Walker.
Acknowledge that you are not defined by any single part of yourself.
“People who are really good at shifting how they think about themselves to always highlight the positive are really good at tamping down on jealousy,” Dr. Piercarlo Valdesolo, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Moral Emotions and Trust Lab at Claremont McKenna College in California, told the Huffington Post.
Texts and emails can’t capture tone of voice and may read as more aggressive than you intend. If writing helps you get your thoughts out, try writing a letter without sending it, or just jotting down some pointers to bring up in a face-to-face conversation.
Talk it over.
Find a friend or another sympathetic listener. “It helps to voice it, no matter who you tell. Getting it out and in the open will help stop you from obsessing over it,” says Walker.
Envy: “My peer athletes don’t have to deal with medical issues.”
“My peer athletes don’t have thyroid issues like I do, thus they lose fat, gain muscle, and recover substantially quicker. I don’t harp on it, though. Instead, I learn more and work harder so that the difference isn’t a medical condition but is about exercise programming, nutrition, and work ethic. I’ve learned that I have to be satisfied and grateful for my best efforts, and that everyone has insecurities they must handle.”
—Bennet M., fourth-year undergraduate, Southeastern Oklahoma State University
We’re generally raised to believe that life should be fair—that the harder we work, the more rewards we reap. Unfortunately, that’s not always how the world works. This false sense of fairness can lead to envy, frustration, and disappointment.
Resist comparing yourself to others.
“I learned that the biggest insult I can make to myself is comparing myself to others; they are not me, nor am I them,” says Jose R., an undergraduate at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
Name the emotion.
This can be empowering. “Envy was a problem for me that caused much unhappiness until I recognized what it was. That changed how I felt,” says Iona B., a graduate student at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.
Honor and value your own qualities and skills.
“If I ever feel jealous or envious, I think of qualities within myself that I like, that are unique to me. That most often shakes those feelings,” says Jem J., a student at Cape Cod Community College in Massachusetts.
Channel your envy into determination.
Set goals and focus on encouraging yourself to achieve them. “Even if you don’t end up in first place, you’ll still be further than where you started, and you can be proud of that,” says Melissa Walker, a registered counselor in Montreal. “Quit hating on someone who has an awesome skill and go learn an awesome skill yourself. Go be awesome!” says Abe D., an online student at Park University in Massachusetts.
Nudge yourself away from self-pity and discouragement.
“Break the cycle of negative thoughts and stop talking negatively to yourself. Pretend you’re cheering up a friend and talk to yourself with those same encouraging words,” says Dr. Laura Offutt, a physician and founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, a health and wellness website.
Struggling to find the positivity?
Finish the following sentences:
- I always have a good time when I’m with . . .
- I’ve been complimented on . . .
- One thing I’m looking forward to is . . .
- One of my best memories is . . .
- I’m really proud of . . .
Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist, associate vice president for academic and professional success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas.
Laura Offutt, MD, teen health expert, author, and founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Melissa Walker, BA psychology, registered counselor, Montreal.
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