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The Real Difference Between Envy and Jealousy

Envy vs. jealousy may seem like a tiny matter of semantics but there’s a key difference between these feelings that might surprise you—and that difference can be the secret to helping you work through these tricky feels. 

If you were similarly blown away by Brené Brown’s recent book and HBO special Atlas of the Heart, you might remember that we tend to use the term “jealous” when what we’re really feeling is envy. And, hey, we’re not here to police the comment section if you want to write “omg so jealous” on your friend’s vacation photos. You do you. But knowing the difference between jealousy and envy can actually help you process these emotions more effectively. It can even lead you toward what you really want in life. 

Before we get into the difference, you should know that there’s nothing wrong with feeling envious or jealous (you know, in moderation, hopefully). Both emotions are normal and even evolutionarily necessary, says Jaimie Krems, PhD, a social psychology researcher and  assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. That means jealousy and envy can actually benefit us, even if feeling them is un-fun in the moment. We asked experts to clarify the difference and tell us what to do with that knowledge.

Envy feels like: Ugh, I want that.  

Simply put, “envy is an emotion that focuses on when others have something that you want,” says Jen Douglas, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. Say your BFF buys her first home while you’re nowhere near being able to. Or maybe you see some influencer posting beautiful travel pics all around the world while you barely have the cash and PTO days to go on a weekend trip somewhere local. These people have something you want, but they’re not actually taking those things away from you. 

Wrapping your head around that distinction is key to processing envy. If you can identify that you envy your friend for buying her first home, you can 1) make sure you don’t become bitter towards her, as she didn’t buy a home to hurt your feelings, and 2) realize how important the goal of buying a house is to you, and reallocate your energy toward that goal, says Dr. Douglas. “Envy can often serve the purpose of making our goals in life more clear,” she says. So, that’s pretty neat. 

Put another way: “Envy is more of a two-person emotion,” says Dr. Krems. It’s triggered by social comparisons—someone has or accomplishes something really freaking awesome that we also would love  to have or do. “For example, we won’t feel envy when someone is a super great high jumper if we don’t care about being a high jumper, but we will feel envy if they get great grades and we also want to excel academically,” says Dr. Krems.

Jealousy feels like: Back off, this is mine. 

Unlike envy, jealousy is more of a three-person emotion, says Dr. Krems. It’s stoked when you feel the threat of losing someone or something you have to another person. Jealousy can feel like a cocktail of anxiety and betrayal, spiked with a dash of sadness and anger, she adds. Whether the threat is real or perceived, when you think someone you love might replace you with someone else, you’ll feel jealousy.

Say someone at a party is flirting with your partner, and your partner seems into it. Hello, jealousy! Same goes if a close friend is nonstop talking about the awesome new coworker they’re suddenly spending a ton of time with. Situations like these send us cues that another party might take someone we cherish away from us and that we might be replaced.

“Jealousy is also very closely tied to a feeling of being ‘less than,’” says Dr. Douglas. Like if someone at work is more outgoing and sparkly in meetings and getting projects that would otherwise be yours, you’ll not only feel jealousy about the cool projects you’re missing out on, but you’ll also feel like you’re not as good as the person being given what should be yours, she says. 

“One of my favorite theories regarding jealousy breaks it down to a framework that states that jealousy appears when there is the presence of a rival or threat,” says Raquel Martin, PhD. a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and scientist. If you’re only mildly jealous, you might not do anything. But if you perceive the threat as high, you might actually try to disrupt the situation. 

Say you, your friend, and the co-worker they won't stop talking about meet for drinks, and the two of them are trading tons of inside jokes from their job. You may deem the threat as high—feeling anxious, betrayed, sad, and angry. You might focus your attention on your friend, trying everything you can to get more of their attention, like planning events you know the work friend can't come to or just not inviting them at all. Or maybe you focus on the threat, trying to legit break them up as friends. All of this happens because you perceived a threat to your relationship with your friend. “Once the thought popped into your head that your friend may like your coworker more, jealousy mode was activated,” says Dr. Martin

So while both jealousy and envy involve wanting something that someone else has—like an opportunity, relationship, or, uh, a house—it’s usually only with jealousy that you’ll have thoughts like: Why am I not good enough for that role? What do they have that I don't? Are they going to leave me for someone else?

Here's how to dig into those feels.

If you can't figure out how you're feeling, it's hard to know what will help you feel better, Dr. Martin says. Dr. Douglas agrees: “Identifying the difference between envy and jealousy can help us process our emotions more quickly and with more clarity,” she says. If you’re feeling envy, you can start processing it by acknowledging what you want that you don’t yet have, says Dr. Douglas. 

With jealousy, examining yours can help you uncover the areas in your life where you’re feeling “less than,” threatened, or slighted. “These feelings can cause deep pain and should be addressed sooner rather than later so that more permanent jealousy or bitterness does not set in,” Dr. Douglas notes. That might look like asking yourself if you need to be more assertive about your needs within a personal or professional relationship or setting, making sure others are treating you with respect, and doing some inner work to heal from old traumas or mistakes, so you can move forward with less jealousy, she advises.

When it comes to dealing with the resentment that comes with jealousy, Dr. Martin suggests asking yourself some questions to identify the roots of what you’re feeling, like: What makes you feel that this person doesn't deserve what they have? Do you actually think the person doesn't deserve what they have or do you just not like that person? And if so, why are they still in your life? We tend to keep people around for a reason, so this last one is pretty telling.

“You also have to make it a point to address yourself in the situation,” Dr. Martin says, which isn’t always easy. So your bestie is building a bond with someone new and it’s eating away at you. Why? Is it because you think you're growing apart and this solidifies that for you? Is it because you are having trouble making new friendships and you don’t want your only strong one being taken away? Or is it because her new friend really is amazing and you want to be as amazing as her?

What to do (and what not to do) the next time you’re feeling envy or jealousy: 

First, let us just reiterate that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you for feeling either of these emotions—both jealousy and envy are valid, universal feelings. “Humans across cultures feel them, and in the case of jealousy, even other species—chimps, cows, mustangs, dolphins—feel it too,” says Dr. Krems. They serve an evolutionary function! “Knowing this can lessen our fears that feeling them means there’s something abnormal, wrong, or bad about us,” she says.  

So let’s stop judging ourselves and instead focus on what we can learn from this. “If you are feeling envy or jealousy, that is your brain giving you a message that you would like something in your life to change,” Dr. Douglas says.

So how do we do that? Start here:

Don’t push them away and pretend they don’t exist. 

We can all agree that “Oh, don’t be jealous!” has literally never been helpful advice. That’s because trying to ignore our feelings rarely works, and it’s no surprise that that’s the case with envy and jealousy. “Instead, create space to listen to what your feelings are trying to tell you, so that you can create a life that is more satisfying and whole,” says Dr. Douglas.

Do remind yourself that social media highlight reels are not reality. 

If you’re feeling more envy than you’d like, it’s not like there aren’t reasons. “The negative effects of jealousy and envy are increasing with social media,” Dr. Douglas points out. It’s impossible not to scroll through IG and assume everyone you know is blissfully happy, winning at life, and traveling 24/7, but these are their highlight reels, not their reality. Ditto for the world of online dating—or, more specifically, finding out that the person you’ve gone on five great dates with is still swiping away out there. So pay attention to how scrolling and swiping are making you feel and take breaks for your own mental well-being.

Do use envy as a motivator.  

“Envy means that someone has something that you want,” says Dr. Martin. “This also means that you  know what you want, so let's start there.” You don't have to feel bad or act in a malicious way—just because someone else has it doesn't mean that you can't get it as well. But now that you know what you want, you can take small steps to figure out how to get it for yourself, says Dr. Martin. If you want to nab the big opportunities your coworker is getting, pitch more ideas in meetings, and practice them with someone in your circle first so you nail the delivery. Not only will taking action help you feel more in control, but you’ll be working toward getting more of what you want.

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