There are many human emotions that we are told are distasteful. Seven of them have even been lumped together and considered deadly: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and laziness.
Not only does society put these feelings in a negative light, but they aren’t super fun to experience. Especially envy is a feeling we don’t enjoy for long. It’s uncomfortable to feel greedy or less than when someone in our circle has something we want, such as a supportive group of friends or a rewarding career. When everyone we know — and a lot of people we don’t — are constantly broadcasting their victories and extravagances online, jealousy can crop up more often than we’d like.
Envy should not be confused with jealousy. “Envy is about things that are important to us,” says Yochi Cohen-Charasha psychology professor at Baruch College, “and the target of envy will always be someone similar to us.”
The people we are really jealous of will often like a same age and same sex like us, and never people far beyond our social strata, such as a celebrity or socialite. The specific things we desire are closely related to our self-identity, which is why the successes and relationships of others can make us feel so bad; we want them too. Higher social status – respect and admiration of others – as opposed to material things is one of the most common objects of envy, a group of international researchers found in 2020. Jealousy, on the other hand, refers to the fear of losing your achievements, status or partner to another person. Jealousy factors in the feelings of external parties; envy is internal.
Envy takes two forms, says Gerrod Parrott, a psychology professor at Georgetown University: Evil envy and non-malignant or benign envy. Evil envy involves hostility or resentment towards another person who is better off than us. “The motivation is to try to take away what they have or to undermine their success or happiness,” Parrott says.
Non-malicious envy focuses more on the objects of our desire — a large family, the financial ability to buy a house — and digging into how the other person achieved those goals. “The evil, sinful kind is really out to draw the other person to your level,” Parrott says. “While [with] the more benign form, the motivation is more trying to improve yourself and do better to achieve what the other has already achieved.”
While jealousy can mean going on the attack in the name of self-preservation, jealousy breeds introspection, an internal process that can help us set goals and provide a roadmap for achieving them.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of using envy as a force for good is admitting we’re jealous, says Cohen-Charash. For example, at first, we might find it unfair for a sibling to get attention for getting engaged when our achievements are seemingly overlooked. The root of this thought is in fact jealousy. Instead of admitting that we somehow fell short, it’s easier for our ego to paint the situation as an injustice. (The envy-inducing situation can certainly also be unfair, Cohen-Charash notes.) However, without acknowledging our jealousy, we are unable to deal with it in productive ways, and instead we can resentment or inferiority. “If you admit it to yourself, it actually puts you in a more realistic perspective,” Parrott says. “Then maybe move on and think of ways you can do it better.”
Sometimes just recognizing jealousy can alert us to goals or milestones we never thought we wanted, Parrott says. The pang of envy we felt when we were on the third wheel with a friend and their partner may be indicative of our own desire for a romantic relationship; the feeling of inferiority experienced after eating a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by our amateur chef cousin can be a sign that we want to improve our own skills in the kitchen.
Owning jealousy doesn’t have to be a shameful or even public undertaking. While expressing feelings of envy to a friend or therapist can be cathartic, people rarely open up to the subject of their envy, says Cohen-Charash. In fact, this may not always be helpful. “I would ask, what do you expect or want to happen when you do that?” says marriage and family therapist Emily Simonian. “Do I think they’re going to say something that will make me feel better? Am I looking for comfort? Or do I want their advice?”
More often than not, Simonian says he errs on the side of privacy when faced with admitting envy to the source. Trusting an outside person can provide objective perspective and validation, helping you anchor in reality, Parrott says, either justifying the envy and helping us move forward constructively, or taking the personal sting out of the emotion.
Let jealousy serve as a motivator
Rather than let malicious envy feed us and engage in a little glee when those we envy stumble, use desire as a goal setting tool. To determine whether our envy motivates us to act maliciously or benignly, Simonian says to try to fill in the blank: “I’m jealous and it makes me…” Crying? Damage someone’s reputation? Better yourself?
Unpleasant emotions, such as fear and, yes, jealousy, are functional, Cohen-Charash says, alerting us to situations that need to change. For example, envy warns us of “a situation in which we [performing at] a lower level in things that are important to us,” says Cohen-Charash. It can also motivate people to improve themselves and achieve success, show studies. If we envy the meteoric rise of a colleague within the company’s ranks, it can fuel our pursuit of our own professional success.
Look to those we envy, Parrott says, as a roadmap or role model for achieving goals. “How did they get that? What do they do that I don’t?” he says. “Then you can imitate or emulate that other person’s methods, techniques, ideas, movements, and what have you got to actually improve yourself somehow.” It can be helpful to write down a list of steps or benchmarks to make a lofty goal less intimidating, Simonian says.
However, no amount of hard work or manifestation can bless us overnight with generational wealth, inherent talents, or a colossal salary. The jealousy we harbor for a rich friend’s nice new car offers little clue as to how we can get one ourselves when we’re struggling to make ends meet. To soften the blow, Cohen-Charash says it’s helpful to compare ourselves to the subject of our jealousy in areas where we excel over the other person. The person with the nice car can drive badly and constantly gets parking tickets.
“Remembering that everyone has their story and everyone has their problems and challenges,” Cohen-Charash says, “and finding a situation where we’re doing better than them can help us feel less frustrated.” , less jealous, because we immediately see that it is not the whole picture.”
In the event that jealousy has turned evil, there are ways to reduce the sting. Simonian says to consider that two seemingly opposing facts can both be true. We can be aware of our desire for a new job and at the same time accept the role we currently have.
Resentment arises when envy persists without any action, Simonian says, so we need to dig deeper to eradicate causes of constant envy. She advises thinking about the question, “Are there things that I haven’t digested that are holding me back, or keeping me from letting these normal jealous feelings roll off my back a bit?” We might feast on constant feelings of inadequacy based on past experience. “Maybe I’ve been fired from a job before and that’s a sore spot for me,” she says. “So the promotion that I’m jealous of really hits a sore point.”
Simply learning to value the achievements of others can be rewarding, Parrott says, even if the others in question aren’t exactly your peers. “I will never be an Olympic gymnast and I can look at the Olympic gymnasts and say, ‘Wow, that’s great and I’m glad it’s out there in the world,’” says Parrott. “And I don’t feel like I should start practicing on the bow horse right away.”
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