Jealousy vs. Envy

“Envy assails the noblest: the winds howl around the highest peaks.” – Ovid

Jealousy and envy, while painful and distressing, serve important functions in our lives.  Emotions that cause suffering to ourselves and others are designed to act as useful indicators to promote our survival.  If we were to never experience the emotions of jealousy or envy, we would lack the necessary motivation that is required to keep/protect important relationships and to work to achieve that which we desire.  It is only when we experience jealousy or envy that doesn’t “fit the facts” or that is painfully disabling that we suffer.  When we use these emotions constructively, we benefit and grow.


Jealousy is typically prompted by events such as an important relationship being threatened, someone threatening to take away important/valued things in your life, a friend ignoring you while talking to someone else, or your partner being interested in someone else (or vice versa).  When we experience these events, we immediately interpret the events in ways that either heighten or subdue the feelings of jealousy.

Some cognitive interpretations that will increase jealousy are thoughts like: “My partner doesn’t care about me anymore,” “No one loves me,” or “I’m not as good as other people.”  Interpretations that decrease the emotion of jealousy are thoughts such as: “I know my partner loves me,” “My friend was just busy when it seemed like she ignored me,” or “I’m just as good as other people.”

The emotion of jealousy is typically associated with a host of biological changes and sensations that are useful indicators that we may be experiencing jealousy.  Some typical feelings/sensations are:

  • Lump in the throat/choking sensation
  • Feeling helpless/out of control
  • Feeling rejected
  • Breathlessness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling paranoid/suspicious
  • Needing to be in control

When jealousy is justified, we are motivated to act in our best interest. In this case, it is important to either:

  • Protect what you have/the relationship
  • Fight for the relationship
  • Leave the relationship

When jealousy is unjustified, it is time to practice the DBT skill of “opposite action” by:

  • Sharing what you have/who you love with others
  • Avoid spying/snooping
  • Let go of the need to control other people/situations


Envy is usually prompted by events such as someone else getting something that you really want/value, being around people you perceive as having more than you, someone getting credit for what you have done, or being alone when others are having fun.  When we experience these events, we have automatic thoughts and interpretations about the events that either intensify or calm the emotion of envy.

Possible cognitive interpretations that will intensify envy are thoughts such as: “It’s unfair that I always get less than other people,” “Other people just have more than I do,” “I always get the short end of the stick,” or “Why am I so unlucky?”  Alternative explanations for events that prompt envy are: “I am so grateful for all that I do have,” “You never know the full extent of others’ pain/suffering,” or “We are all on our own path.  Mine is just different from his/hers.”

The emotion of envy is accompanied by biological changes and physical sensations, as well.  These sensations exist to inform us of our emotional state.  It is possible to be sensitively attuned to these physical sensations without becoming overwhelmed by them.  Possible feelings and sensations include:

  • Tightening of the jaw/mouth
  • Pain in the pit of the stomach
  • Feeling hatred towards another person
  • Wishing bad luck/ill will upon those perceived as more fortunate
  • Feeling unhappy if another person experiences success

When envy is justified, it is because another person or group truly does get or have things that you earnestly want or need.  This motivates us to:

  • Work harder to get what the other person has
  • Improve yourself and your life
  • Fight for fairness and equality

When envy is unjustified, it is time to apply “opposite action:”

  • Count your blessings/express gratitude
  • Imagine how it “all makes sense”
  • Stop exaggerating others’ worth/value

How do you experience the emotions of jealousy and envy in your own life?  It is important to accept and recognize these emotions as valid and not deny them.  No emotions are inherently “good” or “bad.”  It is our interpretations of emotions and the actions that we take following emotions that create positive or negative consequences.  Consider the ways in which jealousy or envy have caused significant suffering in your life.  How can you become more mindful of your emotional state so that you can respond in ways that are in your best interest in the future?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Linehan, M. (June 6-7, 2011). Updates to emotion regulation and crisis survival skills in dialectical behavior therapy. Austin, TX: Behavior Tech, LLC.

Featured image: Jealousy by Quasic / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Rina on July 5, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Jealousy has always been a nasty, ugly emotion to me that would often be followed by envy towards people who really cared for me. Granted, it isn’t all my fault, but one thing I never knew how to do was learn from it. This article has let me see my feelings in new light. Thank you.

    • Laura on July 6, 2011 at 8:49 am

      Rina – I’m glad that this article, “Jealousy vs. Envy,” was helpful to you! Jealousy can certainly be experienced just as you described: “nasty, ugly.” When we can figure out how to learn from such painful emotions (even when they are justified or not our fault), then we are using them constructively. Thank you for you comment and I hope that you enjoy future posts.

  2. James on July 7, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    I think it’s important to also note that most people don’t understand that there is a difference between jealousy and envy and therefore tend to use the two words interchangeably. Do you think that understanding that there is a difference, and what that difference is, could lead to reacting to the experience of these two emotions is a more constructive manner?

    • Laura on July 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm

      James – It is quite common for people to misunderstand the distinctions between jealousy and envy. I imagine that understanding the basic difference(s) between the two emotions would make a big impact on the person’s awareness of and sensitivity to their own emotions. Once someone understands the meaning and useful functions of their emotions, it seems likely that this can only increase their “emotional intelligence.”

  3. Rowan on February 9, 2014 at 10:13 am

    I struggle with envy on a daily basis, almost. It hurts. I try to avoid situations where it might be triggered but that’s impossible. I can’t deal with the pain of the envious thoughts, or the ensuing guilt and shame. I’d give anything to feel genuine happiness for others’ good fortune, but I seem to be wired up wrongly. I’m not proud of this. I hide it as best I can, but I’ve never found a way of easing the pain.

  4. niraja kadakuntla on July 17, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    A simpler way to understand 

    “We envy for others belonging and jealousy is for our own belonging”

    Bonus Fact : Universally applicable and easy to remember and explain further..

What's On Your Mind?