“Our envy always lasts longer than the happiness of those we envy.” – François Duc de La Rochefoucauld

Most of us have experienced pangs of envy at some point in life.  It may feel like a knot in the pit of your stomach as one of your colleagues or peers receives praise or admiration.  Perhaps you experience envy as a sharp pain to the chest when you are passed over for an award or a promotion, watching it go to a colleague who you feel is somehow undeserving.

Whatever the particular circumstances are, envy can be very painful.  Rather than succumb to negative emotional backlash, self-doubt, and suffering, choose to use envy to your advantage.  While envy may hurt, don’t add insult to injury by allowing envy to prevent you from garnering your own success.  If you learn to think about envy differently and experience it differently, you will be able to use envy as a motivating force in your life.

Recall from a previous post, Jealousy vs. Envy, that envy is generally prompted by someone else (often someone we know in “real life”) getting something that we wish to have for ourselves.  Envy is distinctly different from jealousy in that the emotion of jealousy ensues when we feel that an important relationship, possession, or something else that we value is being threatened.  Envy is not the result of wanting to “protect” something or someone valued, but rather it is about wanting to “have” something that someone else has.

Like all emotions, envy can become useful if you choose to notice, interpret, and make use of the valuable information that the emotion is trying to tell you.  When you experience envy, rather than become consumed or overwhelmed by it, try reflecting upon what the emotion has to teach you.

Dr. R. Douglas Fields (2011) explains, “take an evolutionary view.  Because it hurts, envy might command our attention and in the long run this hijacking of cognitive function could be a good way of improving an individual’s success in society.  By fixating on the perceived advantage of another person, one might better learn and remember how to achieve the same outcome.”

Envy can become a powerful teacher if only you will defuse yourself from the negative cognitions, negative self-talk, and self-doubt often associated with the emotional experience.  Allow envy to tell you something important about what things in life you value the most.  It is unlikely that you are envious of “everything.”  It is much more likely that you are envious of those things which you value most.

Identifying Envy

Perhaps your true values lead you to feeling envious of people who:

  • Receive a promotion at work (value = success)
  • Have a happy marriage (value = love/marriage/relationship)
  • Have a happy family/home life (value = family)
  • Have a lot of money (value = wealth)
  • You perceive as being more attractive (value = beauty/attractiveness)

The point is to not to get stuck in the trap of judging that which you value, but rather to accept your values and learn from what your envy has to teach you.  Begin to notice what types of people, possessions, or other “things” make you feel pangs of envy.  Evaluate what is underneath your envy and use it as an opportunity to get more in touch with your true values.  Once you become aware of what your values are, begin to consciously direct your behavior in a purposeful manner to get what you desire.

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Fields, R. (2011, September 12). Eat your guts out: why envy hurts and why it’s good for your brain [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-new-brain/201109/eat-your-guts-out-why-envy-hurts-and-why-its-good-your-brain

Featured image: Claymore by coxy / 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. Mary Ross on September 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Besides the photo resonating with how I feel when I feel envious… this post is very helpful.

    I never quite understood the difference between jealousy and envy… very helpful. Even since reading this on a few business calls I have begun to recognize what is behind those pangs of envy you refer to… and I have been exploring what are my true values underneath those feelings. Now I need to learn how to positively “direct my behavior”!

    Thank you, Laura.

  2. Ed on September 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    I have had recurrent depression for most of my life, and I been practicing ACT for several months now. I started by reading the Happiness Trap, and then I began seeing an ACT therapist. ACT has been the only thing that has truly helped me.

    Yet, envy is where I always get “hooked.” You see, I am a short guy. Not a midget, but just rather shorter than average. It is a fact that taller men get more respect, get paid more, and get more attention from women. I feel that my life would be objectively better if I were taller, yet there is nothing I can do about it. The problem is, I know this is my fate, and I get pathologically envious of men who are taller than me. I resent them because they have an easier time than me.

    I don’t know what to do. I meditate and I practice ACT, but I still get consumed by malignant, pathological envy, and it disturbs me.

    • Laura on September 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm

      Ed – I’m glad to hear that ACT has been helpful to you. The more that I have explored ACT in my own work, the more positive stories I am hearing about the benefits that ACT principles and techniques have had in peoples’ lives.

      I can imagine how your struggle with envy has created such a difficult internal struggle for you. When we are envious of something like height, which is an attribute that we cannot “change” or “get” for ourselves, then we have to handle the emotion differently than when we are envious of something that is attainable. It may be helpful to approach your struggle with envy in two ways. ACT focuses on incorporating an attitude and practice of acceptance, which is especially helpful regarding issues/feelings that cause intense distress or struggles. When we are truly accepting, there is no more struggle. Of course, this is not simple in practice.

      Another idea is to look inward and reflect upon what the height of tall men represents to you. In your mind, what does it “mean” about a man who is taller than you? Perhaps begin to focus on what qualities are represented in height that are attainable (e.g., power, success, confidence, etc.)

      It sounds like you are actively involved in meditation and practicing ACT, but that this is quite a struggle for you. It also sounds like the strategies that you have tried thus far have not been helpful with this particular issue, so I would want to explore alternatives and reflect upon how to look upon this problem in a new light.

      Thank you for visiting my site and for your comment.

  3. Paul on September 12, 2012 at 1:27 am

    I realize many of the entries here are a year old, so I hope you’re still active with this project. I just found it and it’s interesting. Thanks for that.

    I appreciate your answer to Ed. His situation is intractable, and many people avoid his kind of challenging question. You didn’t flinch, though, and your suggestions were honest and relevant.

    I’m relatively tall but I lack any semblence of attractiveness, and since I’m 55 Ed will grow taller before I get any more handsome. I already stay fit and I dress well and it’s just not happening.

    So I value beauty, can’t have it, and so I’m left to satisfy my need for acceptance, affection, feeling desired, by…….

    Can you name anything that feels the same as being truly desired by another person?

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