Jealousy vs Envy: How They’re Different and Why It Matters

A lot of people struggle with feeling jealous.

For example:

  • They feel jealous when their coworker gets a promotion and can afford a new car.
  • They feel jealous when their sister-in-law loses a bunch of weight and looks great in her new swimsuit.
  • They feel jealous when they see how easily all the other kids can read now while their kid still struggles.

Unfortunately, jealousy is an especially difficult emotion to deal with, primarily for two reasons:

  1. It’s easy to feel bad about feeling jealous. No sooner than you start feeling jealous but you end up feeling angry or guilty with yourself for feeling jealous. Now you’re feeling bad about feeling bad.
  2. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything you can do about it. There’s an element of helplessness that makes jealousy especially tough to deal with. Because jealousy involves other people and their accomplishments, it’s easy to feel stuck with jealousy as something that’s inevitable.

Luckily, jealousy is something you can learn to deal with in a healthy way. And the key is to learn to distinguish it from a related but distinct concept:


But before we dive into dealing with jealousy and envy, let’s take a quick minute to define our terms and get clear on what jealousy and envy actually are…

What is jealousy and how is it different than envy?

Jealousy is an emotion you feel when someone else has something you want or value.

Interestingly, it’s closest emotional cousin is probably sadness because both are about our values and things that are important to us…

  • We feel sad when we lose something important to us
  • We feel jealous when we see someone else having or experiencing something important to us

Now, a lot of people use jealousy and envy interchangeably. Which isn’t totally surprising since there’s no official or technical distinction between the two. If you’re curious, start looking up the definitions of each in various dictionaries and start comparing. It’s interesting but pretty messy.

So, while different people might define jealousy and envy differently for different reasons, in the context of psychology and wellbeing, I’ve found the following distinction to be the most helpful:

Jealousy is an emotion. Envy is a mental behavior.

More specifically, envy is a form of thinking that compares what you have with that of others. And the natural consequence of this thinking is the emotion of jealousy.

For example:

  • You think to yourself, He doesn’t deserve that promotion… I do. I worked way harder than him this quarter which leads to feeling jealous.
  • You think to yourself, Her kid is only 5 and already plays two musical instruments. I wish we could afford to send our kids to private music lessons… which leads to feeling jealous.

By the way, this is exactly how other emotions work…

  • Worry about something dangerous is the mental behavior that leads to anxiety.
  • Ruminating on an injustice is the mental behavior that leads to anger.
  • Reflecting on having done something wrong is the mental behavior that leads to guilt.

Like these other thinking-emotion pairs, there are healthy and unhealthy versions of each. For example, thinking about a fire in your house when the fire alarm goes off is very healthy. Worrying about your son’s plane crashing while laying in bed at 2:30 in the morning is not very healthy.

Similarly, thinking about what other people have and wanting it for yourself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very healthy thing… Seeing the work of an artist you admire, for example, and wanting to be a great artist like them (which includes feeling a bit jealous of them and their achievements) can be perfectly healthy.

But this thinking style can become unhealthy and turn into envy when it becomes extreme. For example, when you find yourself constantly thinking about how much money your boss makes relative to you to the point where you can’t focus and are regularly gossiping and complaining about her to your coworkers.

Comparative thinking can also turn into unhealthy envy when it becomes possessive—that is, when it shifts from they have something I want to they have something I should have.

We could go on an on here, but for the purposes of this essay the key idea is this:

Jealousy is the emotional consequence of thinking about something other people have that you want.

And when this thinking becomes extreme and unhealthy, it turns into what we call envy which is what leads to extreme or long-lasting jealousy.

With this distinction in mind, let’s talk about how we can use it to start dealing with jealousy in a healthier way.

How to feel less jealous

If you struggle with extreme or persistent jealousy, here are a few suggestions for working through it in a healthy way:

  1. Normalize and validate feeling jealous. Everybody feels jealous sometimes (most people just don’t talk about it or admit it). And just because you don’t like feeling jealous doesn’t mean it’s wrong or unhealthy. So as soon as you realize that you’re feeling jealous, validate your jealousy by reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel jealous. Emotions aren’t something we have direct control over, and as a result, should not be something we judge ourselves for. Here’s a simple script you should get in the habit of using as soon as you find yourself feeling jealous: I don’t like feeling jealous, but it’s not a bad thing and I’m not bad for feeling it.
  2. Accept your jealousy but control your envy. Once you’ve acknowledged and validated your jealousy, the next step is to accept it. This means acknowledging that there’s nothing you can do about it directly. And that even if it’s uncomfortable, it is possible to get on with your life despite feeling jealous. So, take all that energy you would have put toward stewing on and trying to stop feeling jealous and instead direct toward something you can control: your envy. Remember, envy is a form of thinking. And to a large extent, you can control how and to what extent you think about one thing or another. So, instead of ruminating on your jealousy or continuing to compare yourself with someone else, gently redirect your thinking and attention to something else that matters to you. If you’re having trouble with this, my 3Ms framework can be helpful here.
  3. Make jealousy a trigger for assertiveness. Most people feel jealous and immediately go toward envy—thinking even more about what they don’t have and comparing themselves with others. But as we’ve talked about, this habit of envious thinking actually makes your jealousy more intense and long-lasting. So, once you get better at acknowledging and validating your jealousy, try using it as a trigger for assertive action rather than envy. That is, instead of thinking more about how unfair it is that they have X and you don’t, ask yourself: How could I begin to work my way toward having X? In other words, shift the focus away from them and what you don’t have and shift it onto a more productive plan for how you could get to that thing you want.
  4. Identify the insecurities behind your envy. Often, envy is a coping mechanism for some kind of insecurity. For example, if you frequently find yourself envying people with lots of money, it might be that you have some insecurities around money and your relationship with it. And envy—thinking about other people and their money—is a way to distract yourself or deflect from your own fears and issues around that topic. So, once you start seeing patterns in your jealousy and envy, ask yourself: What insecurity is my envy defending me from? Because it’s only when you’re willing to be honest with yourself about your insecurities that you can start to develop healthier ways to get those needs met.
  5. Use jealousy to get curious about your values. Remember that jealousy is not bad. Like every emotion, it’s your mind trying to help you with something. Anxiety is trying to keep you safe. Anger is trying to correct an injustice. Guilt is trying to keep you from repeating mistakes. And jealousy is trying to tell you something about your values—what you really want. For example, if you find yourself feeling jealous of a friend’s good looks, maybe it’s a signal that you really value your health but are ignoring it for some reason. Or, if you find yourself feeling jealous of other people’s accomplishments, maybe it’s a signal that you’re not living up to your own value of ambition or creativity. This is the most difficult but perhaps the most powerful way to work through extreme jealousy: use it as a prompt to do some serious work on identifying and clarifying your personal values. After all, if you’re not clear about your values and what really matters to you, it shouldn’t be surprising that you routines “borrow” or absorb other people’s values and end up chronically feeling jealous.

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Nice clarification between jealousy and envy. Thank you for sharing helpful tools to enable one to differentiate and proceed towards the outcomes one may strive for.

A lifelong problem for me, and I’m 88, so it’s been a LONG time, I’m an expert at jealousy and envy.
This is the first time ever that something has actually made a dent! How you identify the two, how they’re related, how to untwine and tackle them, actually worked.
First came the tears (the sign of pay dirt always) and then the glimpses of other possible ways of seeing and thinking and feeling, culminating in a lifting, a freedom for the very first time. All my previous hard work in therapy has been necessary, I know that, but your article this morning , like the story of the 100th monkey, was the key that at last has accomplished a change. Thank you more than I can say.

Thank you for the article. I was wondering if you can suggest how to deal with people who are jealous and become envious of me?

I’ve needed to hear this for a long time. Is becoming more of a struggle between myself and jealousy as I get older. This article brings much needed guidance.
Thank you so much for your insight!

Well explained! What do I do if I feel envy or jealous about sth I cannot get any more because it was taken away from me when I was a kid (e.g., attention, care etc)?

I loved this article. As usual, your observations are nuanced and well thought out. I have sometimes thought of envy as “You have something I want” and jealousy as “You have something I want AND I don’t want you to have it”. That feels spiteful so it’s a bit harder to accept the anger and smallness behind that thought.

Hmm, this is not my understanding at all. To me, the key difference is with one, I want that money or great situation too–I too want to be a millionaire or in a great relationship or great-looking etc. TOO.

In the other, I want YOUR money or hot spouse or good looks INSTEAD OF YOU HAVING IT, which to me is much much different and more like spiritual/existential greed versus ‘comparison’ or FOMO.

The first can be win-win: we can sometimes all be rich and happy. The second makes there be winner and a loser. That is the crucial point for me.

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