Envy and jealousy are deeply painful emotions—but we’ve all been there. Maybe you spent weeks studying for the exam and got a B-, but your friend barely cracked open the textbook and pulled off an A. Or maybe you’ve had a crush on the same person forever, and you found out they asked someone else out. Suddenly, you’re overcome by frustration, and it feels like you’ve been given the short end of the stick.
Jealousy and envy both bring a debilitating sense of suffering and powerlessness. It’s 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.
“Envy burns, but jealousy is a thicker feeling, a sort of heaviness in my stomach and tightness in my chest. It feels hard to speak or think about anything else. It feels worse because I know it is wrong,” says Jamie, a student in Missouri. “It quickly leads to me feeling depressed and going into a funk. It can cause me to resent the other person for making me feel that way.”
Envy and jealousy are so distressing that it’s difficult to imagine how these feelings might benefit us—but they can.
Envy and jealousy—what’s the difference?
Do you desperately want what someone else has (incredible football skills, easy popularity, a new laptop)? 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.
Are you afraid of someone taking what you believe to be yours (your role in the play, your position on the team, 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).
- 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 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, lowers 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:
“Jealousy to me is a heavy, cloudy feeling that fills me up and leaves me without the ability to think about anything else except my feelings.”
“I feel guilty and insecure.”
“It feels horrible and all-consuming.”
“It feels like you aren’t good enough.”
“It feels dirty.”
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. “Remember that we must learn to manage emotions like jealousy,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and associate vice president for academic and professional success at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas. “You aren’t likely to get it right all the time; don’t be too hard on yourself, but do be thoughtful and learn from your experiences.”
What does that learning look like?
Envy—when we admit to it—can help us identify and reconsider our values and goals. “Your emotions are a result of you wanting to better yourself—you should use those emotions to motivate yourself to always work hard,” says Meko, a sophomore in Washington. “Other than that, something that really helps me is to remember that other people’s successes aren’t your failures.”
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 counselor in Montreal.
Here’s how to handle envy and jealousy.
Jealousy: “I’m jealous when my friends hang out with other people.”
“My best friend was getting close to another girl who we were both friends with. I felt so personally attacked, even though I liked the other girl a lot. They hung out a lot without me, which made me upset.”
—Riley, senior, Washington
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. “Sometimes jealousy is valid, but our emotional reaction gets out of control,” says Dr. Hanson.
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. “Be reasonable. People are going to be social and they’re going to have fun with others in addition to you. This is normal,” says Dr. Hanson.
Resist comparing yourself to others.
“Stop comparing yourself to others,” says Nic, a junior in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. “Focus on yourself and your goals and ambitions.”
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.
Once you’ve acknowledged how you feel, try not to dwell on it. Think positively about how you can move forward with your friendship.
“If all else fails, be honest. Get your emotions out in a good way,” says Shelly, a freshman in Connecticut. “Just talking out your feelings can make you feel so much better.”
Envy: “My friends didn’t have to worry about money; they got whatever they wanted.”
“I’ve absolutely felt envious of people with more money. I’m told I can’t get certain foods because they’re expensive, I worry about how expensive I am to my family almost constantly, and financial issues cause a lot of stress at home. It seems to me like money isn’t a problem for a lot of my friends—they get allowances and money for going downtown, and they can afford to take dance classes or be involved in sports or art outside of school. Meanwhile, money seems to dictate my decisions and mental health.”
—Autumn, junior, Pinegrove Mills, Pennsylvania
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 that 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.
“If I get envious, I just try to remind myself that what they have that I don’t have is for a reason. Besides, there’s probably something that they’re envious of me for,” says Carissa, a junior in Winnetka, Illinois.
“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.
“Step back from the situation and assess how they got what they did and what you did differently,” suggests Alex, a senior in Newburyport, Massachusetts. “Oftentimes, we have different focuses that bring us wherever we are. Having different results doesn’t make yours less significant.”
Adjust your perspective.
“I envied my friends because I thought that they were just so beautiful, and I really got down on myself for it,” says Rachel, a senior in Indianapolis, Indiana. “I had to step back and realize that I’m beautiful too.”
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: “My peers are more talented than I am.”
“I often feel jealous of the girls at my dance studio who are younger than me but better, stronger, and more flexible. I started dance late, and my body is not a typical ballet body, so I’m jealous of the girls who are built for it.”
—Tenley, sophomore, Salem, Oregon
We’re generally raised to believe that life should be fair—that the harder we work, the more rewards we reap. Unfortunately, that’s not always how the world works. This false sense of fairness can lead to envy, frustration, and disappointment.
Resist comparing yourself to others.
“Try not to focus on your shortcomings compared to another person’s,” says Jae, a senior in Lakewood, Washington. “Focus on being the best you that you can be instead of trying to be the best of someone else.”
Name the emotion.
This can be empowering. “Envy was a problem for me that caused much unhappiness until I recognized what it was. That changed how I felt,” says Iona, a student in Montana.
Honor and value your own qualities and skills.
“I just remind myself that I am valid and the things that I can do are good too,” says Nichelle, a junior in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
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. “Quit hating on someone who has an awesome skill and go learn an awesome skill yourself. Go be awesome!” says Abe, a student in Missouri.
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 teen health website.
Jealousy: “I was very jealous and possessive with my partner.”
“My girlfriend lives 180 miles away from me, and when she tells me about something she and a friend did, I feel jealous. Especially when it’s a guy friend. I’m the one that’s supposed to have fun with her and hang out all the time and make those fun memories, but I don’t get to often because of distance.”
—Derrick, sophomore, Missoula, Montana
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 defense—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. Hanson. 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.
If you believe your partner has behaved in a way that might undermine your relationship, give yourself time to cool off. If you’re 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, California, told the Huffington Post.
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 or phone 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.
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.
Melissa Walker, BA psychology, registered counselor, Montreal.
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