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Envy and jealousy are deeply painful emotions. They bring a debilitating sense of suffering and powerlessness. It is normal to experience these feelings from time to time, but when envy and jealousy linger, they can lead to aggression or depression, undermining our physical and mental well-being and our relationships. “I find myself thinking about all of my flaws and generally putting myself down,” says Svetlana T., a third-year undergraduate at the University of Windsor in Ontario.

“[It makes me feel] angry and sad, resentful to myself—or occasionally it motivates me to try to be better,” says Layla R., a third-year undergraduate at St. Clair College, Ontario. Envy and jealousy are so distressing that it’s difficult to imagine these feelings might benefit us. And yet they can.

Envy and jealousy—what’s the difference?

Envy

Do you desperately want what someone else has (incredible football skills, easy popularity, the newest iPhone)? This perceived gap in talents and material possessions—essentially, self-criticism—can be painful. It may be tempting to ease that discomfort by either bringing the other person down or by elevating yourself.

Jealousy

Are you afraid of someone taking what you believe to be yours (your role in the play, your chance at that internship, your girlfriend or boyfriend)? When your self-esteem is low, you may fear and try to protect yourself from potential loss. Jealousy may be accompanied by envy (e.g., when the student you worry could grab your role in the play has acting skills to die for).

4 eggs with emotional faces holding sign "envy & jealousy involve other emotions too"

  • Worry and anxiety: the fear of losing popularity, respect, love, rewards, or opportunities.
  • Betrayal and anger: the sense of unfairness that comes with not getting what you may feel you deserve.
  • A sense of inferiority and insecurity: the discomfort of wondering why you don’t have the qualities, skills, or good fortune you perceive in another person, and what that could mean for you.
  • The same parts of your brain control envy and jealousy. The amygdala, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex are active in these emotions, and we experience the social or emotional pain in a way that’s similar to physical pain.
  • The sense of threat may send your body into fight-or-flight mode. The boost in adrenaline pumps up your heart rate, erodes your appetite, and generates cortisol, a stress hormone that can increase your blood pressure and make you feel foggy-headed. The rush of adrenaline, another stress hormone, may make it hard for you to relax and sleep.

Here’s how this feels to fellow students: 

“It feels suffocating, as if I can’t properly breathe. In my mind I start doubting the intentions of the other person and I start doubting my own good qualities.”

“It feels like a dark cloud over me.”

“It’s a weird tingling in the pit of your stomach, a tightness in your neck, a feeling of uselessness cascading over you.”

“It feels like everything you love will be stripped away, and you are completely powerless and helpless.”

“It’s like being torn up.”

Why do we have these negative feelings?

Envy and jealousy are likely part of our instinct to survive and reproduce, according to evolutionary psychologists. When we compare ourselves to others in our community, we’re estimating our relative strengths and weaknesses and how we might fare in the competition for social status and resources. Emotional pain alerts us to the risk of missing out on what we may need to survive and flourish.

Although that pain is hard to handle, we can lessen it. “While everybody has thoughts of being envious or jealous, it’s important to be able to put them into perspective,” says Dale Curd, a Psychotherapist in Ontario and co-founder of ChangeBullying, a workshop for students. “It’s how human beings are socially conditioned; we are a pair-bonded species. We learn about ourselves by being in relationships with other people.”

What does that learning look like?

Envy—when we admit to it—can help us identify and reconsider our values and goals. “Envy keeps me motivated,” says Felicia A., a second-year undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. “It makes me focus on what I want and don’t have at the moment and how I can achieve it with hard work.”

In that way, envy can be a powerful motivator. Envy is linked to competitiveness, research shows, and can drive our success. “The truth is that if you never once experienced envy and jealousy, you might end up satisfied with less than you’re capable of,” says Melissa Walker, a Registered Counsellor in Quebec.

Here’s how to handle envy and jealousy.

Jealousy: “I’m jealous when my friends hang out with other people.”

“I have a close friend who I don’t get to see very often, and I always feel jealous when I find out she’s been spending a lot of time with other friends. From this experience, I’m learning that I can be a little insecure when it comes to friendships, which is something I have to work on.”
—Sarah H., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Friends, like romantic partners, are precious. When someone is your close friend, you become vulnerable because you rely on them for support. Even though it’s perfectly normal for them to spend time with other friends, it’s uncomfortable to think that they might become best friends with someone else. “Feeling jealousy at times is normal, but it becomes problematic when it affects your behaviour. It’s not about the thinking; it’s when that thinking becomes a [destructive behaviour],” says Curd.

Recognize that your thoughts are not reality. 

You might believe your friend is drifting away and won’t be as close to you anymore, but that doesn’t make it true. “Identify what story are you telling yourself about what’s going on, and come up with at least two or three other explanations for the behaviour that could be just as likely,” says Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Psychologist, Educator, and Founder of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., a consulting firm based in Alberta.

Resist comparing yourself to others.

“I can’t control what other people do, but I can choose not to let it influence me, “ says Kate A., a third-year undergraduate student at Queen’s University in Ontario.

Calm down.

If you’re upset about a specific instance, give yourself time to cool off before talking to your friend about how you feel. It can be helpful to write out your thoughts in a journal first.

Talk to a neutral third party.

Most people have been through similar situations and it can be helpful to hear their perspective.

Move forward.

Once you’ve acknowledged how you feel, try not to dwell on it. Think positively about how you can move forward with your friendship.

Communicate.

“Talk it out with whomever you are jealous of or with. You can learn so much,” says Shana I., a second-year graduate student at the University of New Brunswick.

Envy: “My friends didn’t have to worry about money; they got whatever they wanted.”

“I feel envious of my friends who have parents that pay for everything. My parents don’t pay for my stuff so I’m jealous they don’t have to pay for anything.”
—Chrissy G., first-year undergraduate student, St. Clair College, Ontario

Envy is a primal instinct; even monkeys experience its sense of loss and resentment. In a study, monkeys were satisfied to work for slices of cucumber until they noticed their peers were being fed grapes (a tastier treat) in exchange for their labor, according to the journal Nature (2000). The animals stopped working for cucumbers and started holding a grudge toward the grape earners.

Resist comparing yourself to others.

“Don’t compare to others, only compare with yourself and your progress.”
Jamie J., first year graduate student, Yukon College

Practice gratitude.

“When you’re feeling envious, consider the things you have that you’re truly thankful for,” says Walker. “This shouldn’t be just the stuff you own but also things like your health, your talents, and the people in your life that you cherish. You could even make a list, which you can consult whenever you feel that way again.”

Review your priorities.

“Material possessions are temporary. What difference does it make if you lose something or someone has a slightly better life than you? Take pride in your understanding of the universe, and value your ability to reason over your possessions.”
—Jarod O.*, fourth-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia

Adjust your perspective.

“I often find myself envious of others, but a good thing I do to counter that is finding something about myself that makes me different. This usually makes me feel more important and makes me think that maybe there are others who actually envy something about me.”
—Crystal U., fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, Ontario

Struggling to find the positivity?

Finish the following sentences:

  • I always have a good time when I’m with . . .
  • I’ve been complimented on . . .
  • One thing I’m looking forward to is . . .
  • One of my best memories is . . .
  • I’m really proud of . . .

Envy: “I envy people who were born with an idealized body type.”

“I envy people who [got lucky] with an idealized body type. I wish I could have been blessed with my mother’s metabolism, but I was not. I judge others critically on their appearance to make myself feel less insecure. I have been trying to fix this problem by smiling in the mirror. School has taught me ways to become happier with who I am, and be less concerned with who other people are.”
—Rachel W., third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

The media generally tells us that there is one idealized body type and that we should do whatever it takes to attain that ideal. However, the concept of “ideal” differs from person to person and culture to culture. We’re also taught that life should be fair—that similar behaviour produces similar results. Unfortunately, that’s not always how the world works and that’s certainly not how our bodies work. This false sense of fairness can lead to envy, frustration, and disappointment.

Resist comparing yourself to others.

“Use your envy as fuel to help better yourself, while also keeping in mind that there are things you can’t change about yourself and your life, and that you should accept them.”
—Joanna N., a third-year undergraduate at St. Clair College in Ontario

Name the emotion.

This can be empowering. “Recognizing those feelings and allowing yourself to experience them is a very normal function of being human. It’s OK to feel jealous or envious, but it’s not OK to act on those feelings in a way that is negative, that harms yourself or others,” says Maria D., a fourth-year undergraduate at Mount Royal University, Alberta

Honour and value your own qualities and skills.

“Why get jealous over something I can’t get? I am satisfied with what I have. I believe in my abilities and work.”
—Samuel T., second-year graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland

Channel your envy into determination.

Set goals and focus on encouraging yourself to achieve them. “Even if you don’t end up in first place, you’ll still be further than where you started, and you can be proud of that,” says Walker. “I envy people who have a car since I can’t afford one. I try to motivate myself to work harder and save money to buy a car as my goal,” says Caroline P., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of New Brunswick.

Nudge yourself away from self-pity and discouragement.

“Break the cycle of negative thoughts and stop talking negatively to yourself. Pretend you’re cheering up a friend and talk to yourself with those same encouraging words,” says Dr. Laura Offutt, a physician and founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, a health and wellness website based in the US.

Jealousy: “I was very jealous and possessive with my partner.”

“I have certainly felt jealous when people would blatantly flirt with my girlfriend. To get over that, I had to recognize the feeling, accept the jealousy for what it was, decide that I trusted my girlfriend (whether or not I trusted the accusing party), and put my energy into other emotions instead.”
—Maria P., third-year graduate student, St. Clair College, Ontario

You likely consider your partner a valuable part of your life. When it feels like someone is threatening to take that away, you instinctually go on the defence—and get jealous—to protect what’s “yours.” “Jealousy is often a very strong emotional reaction, and since it is closely related to anger, we often strike out at those around us, doing more harm than good,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, a Psychologist and Associate Vice President for Academic and Professional Success at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, USA. In a survey by Student Health 101, almost four out of five students who responded said they’d felt jealousy in a romantic relationship or crush.

Recognize that your thoughts are not reality.

You might believe your girlfriend or boyfriend is interested in someone else, but that doesn’t make it true.

Accept and admit to your jealousy.

Allow it to exist. Sometimes, being mindful and accepting of an emotion is enough to diminish its hold on you.

Calm down.

If you believe your partner has behaved in a way that might undermine your relationship, give yourself time to cool off. If you are agitated, wait at least a few hours before talking with them about it. “Deal with it without acting out and nip it in the bud. Don’t fly into a jealous rage. Try to act mature, and don’t put the blame on anyone,” says Walker.

Acknowledge that you are not defined by any single part of yourself.

“People who are really good at shifting how they think about themselves to always highlight the positive are really good at tamping down on jealousy,” Dr. Piercarlo Valdesolo, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California, USA, told the Huffington Post last year.

Resist texting.

Texts and emails can’t capture tone of voice and may read as more aggressive than you intend. If writing helps you get your thoughts out, try writing a letter without sending it, or just jotting down some pointers to bring up in a face-to-face conversation.

Talk it over.

Find a friend or another sympathetic listener. “It helps to voice it, no matter who you tell. Getting it out and in the open will help stop you from obsessing over it,” says Walker.

*Student names have been changed

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Article sources

Dale Curd, Psychotherapist and co-founder of ChangeBullying, Ontario.

Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist, associate vice president for academic and professional success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas.

Laura Offutt, MD, teen health expert, author, and founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Psychologist, Educator, and Founder of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., Alberta.

Melissa Walker, BA Psychology, Registered Counsellor, Montreal, Quebec.

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