Envy is a natural human emotion, but one that can get out of hand and harm your inner peace and relationships. Many resources and techniques can help you work through it.
Jealousy and envy, although not always viewed positively, are normal human emotions — emotions that almost all of us have likely experienced from time to time.
And while most people are able to regulate these emotions in a healthy way, some people find it difficult to manage feelings of envy and jealousy.
When someone allows their envy to influence their behavior and personality, it can affect their relationships with the people around them. Recognizing the characteristics of envy — whether in someone else or yourself — is the first step in learning how to appropriately handle this difficult (and sometimes hurtful) emotion.
Envy vs. jealousy
Before we dive into these complex emotions, it can help to understand what the terms “envy” and “jealousy” actually mean. Many people use the two terms interchangeably, but these emotions are quite different, depending on the situation:
- Jealousy is the fear or concern that someone else will take something that you possess or own, or that you believe you possess or own.
- Envy is the resentment you feel because of the advantages or possessions that someone else has.
Both jealousy and envy can describe the feeling of coveting (or wanting) something. And in most cases, the terms are used interchangeably to reflect the idea of yearning for someone else’s possessions.
But although the word “jealousy” can often be used instead of “envy” in most situations, the opposite is not necessarily true.
For example, you can use the term “jealousy” instead of “envy” to describe what you might feel about your friend purchasing a brand-new car. But you wouldn’t necessarily use the term “envy” instead of “jealousy” to describe someone who is romantically possessive.
It’s a safe bet to say that most of us have experienced feelings of envy before. For example, if you’ve ever looked at another person’s skills, accomplishments, or possessions and felt yourself longing for them, that’s envy.
Envy, just like any other emotion, has a place in the spectrum of healthy human emotions. But some people experience unhealthy levels of envy over the lives of those around them. This envy can cause them to experience extreme stress and possibly act in ways that are hurtful or harmful to others.
Some of the characteristics that you might notice in an envious person may include behaviors like:
- refusing to celebrate another person’s success
- finding themselves unhappy when others around them have success
- finding joy when other people experience setbacks or failure
- frequently scrutinizing or judging what other people are doing
- constantly downplaying or diminishing the success of others
- becoming upset when people compliment others’ hard work
- offering fake compliments when talking about other people
- spreading rumors or false information about other people
- attempting to copy or compete with the person they are envious of
However, it’s important to note that not everyone with an envious personality engages in these specific behaviors — and some people may express their feelings of envy in other ways.
Envy and jealousy are complicated emotions. There are many reasons someone might feel these emotions more strongly than usual.
However, some researchers suggest that jealousy and envy may sometimes originate from unconscious thoughts and feelings, many of which originate from years and years of evolution.
Some things that may cause feelings of envy and jealousy are:
- beliefs that another person has advantages or possessions that they want
- a worldview that requires constant success or accumulation to be deemed “worthy”
- a tendency to judge themselves against the success of others
- a belief that success or good fortune are scarce resources
When someone experiences strong feelings of envy they can’t control, it can significantly affect how they respond to and treat other people.
Although we often like to think of emotions as “good” and “bad,” envy is really no different than any other emotion when expressed properly.
But if feelings of envy and jealousy are negatively impacting how you treat and react to other people, it’s important to learn how to express these emotions healthily.
Here are three tips that can help you practice expressing your envy or jealousy in a healthier, more productive way.
Recognize what you’re feeling
One of the first steps in addressing the problem of excessive envy is to recognize what you’re feeling. Whenever you notice feelings of envy or jealousy creeping in, take a step back and take note of:
- what situation triggered these emotions
- who you feel these emotions toward
- why you think you might be feeling these emotions
Appreciate what you already have
Envy can be a difficult emotion to handle because it often prevents you from being able to appreciate what you already have. After all, when you’re envious of what other people have accomplished or possess, it’s easy to forget about your own achievements.
One activity that can help you feel more grateful about your own life is gratitude journaling. Gratitude journaling is an activity in which you write about all the things you’re grateful for each day.
Make changes to your own life
It can also be helpful to expand on why you’re feeling this way. For example, are you envious of someone’s success because you feel that you haven’t been able to achieve your own goals in life?
Sometimes envy and jealousy are signs that it’s time to take the next step in meeting your own goals. Whether that’s learning a new skill, finding a new job, or moving to a new city, there’s never a better time to make changes than when you want to.
However, sometimes these feelings can be a sign of a deeper emotional issue, one that could really benefit from the guidance of a mental health professional.
Many therapists are trained to help people not only recognize strong emotions but also work to express them in a healthier manner. A therapist can help you make a plan to change the way you express envy, both inwardly and outwardly.
Personal boundaries are important in any healthy relationship — romantic, family, or otherwise. If you’re in a relationship with an envious person and their behavior is becoming hurtful, setting a boundary can be helpful.
According to California Mental Health Advocacy for Children and Youth, here are four steps you can take to establish personal boundaries with the people around you:
- Identify where and why you need to create boundaries: If you’ve noticed that someone is envious of you, it’s likely because their actions have already hurt you. Take note of how this person has acted and how their behavior has made you feel.
- Define the new boundaries you’d like to create: Once you’ve identified the behavior that has made you uncomfortable or hurt you, create a personal boundary. If the boundary stems from the actions of another person, it will likely involve them needing to make some changes.
- Implement the new boundaries you are setting: It’s not enough to just create a personal boundary; you also need to communicate that boundary. Communication is key to letting others know what your personal boundaries are so they can respect them.
- Set consequences for when your boundaries are crossed: Sometimes people will continue to cross your boundaries even after they’ve been created. It’s important to let the other person know that if they continue to cross your boundaries, there will be clearly defined consequences.
Boundaries can often work best as “if/then statements.” While your impulse can be to try to stop the offensive behavior, it’s best to focus on what your reaction to it will be. For example:
- Unhealthy boundary: “Please do not downplay my success at work or get upset when I talk about my promotion.”
- Healthy boundary: “If you continue to downplay my success at work and become upset when I talk about my promotion, then I won’t be coming to Sunday dinners anymore.”
If you’re struggling to deal with someone who has an envious personality — or you’ve noticed your own envy beginning to harm your relationships with others — there’s no shame in reaching out for help.
Here are a handful of mental health resources to check out:
- FindTreatment.gov is a government resource dedicated to helping people find mental health or substance use disorder treatment.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a treatment services locator to help you find treatment near you.
National Institute of Mental Healthhas a page dedicated to mental health resources, including how to find help.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has information on national helplines and other resources for mental health treatment.
Envy and jealousy are just like any other emotions we experience from time to time — and yes, it’s possible to express them in a healthy way.
However, when we’re not able to regulate our feelings of envy and jealousy, it can cause us to exhibit characteristics and behaviors that are hurtful or harmful to others.
If you’ve noticed that you or someone you love is finding it difficult to express their envy and jealousy in healthy ways, there’s never any shame in reaching out for professional help.