Envy is a secretly held emotion. If you are envious of someone it's unlikely that you will admit it to anyone, except perhaps to someone who might also be envious of that other person and will participate with you in denigrating them. The circumstances in which you might be envious will always involve a social comparison or competition between yourself and another person. Such competition and comparison with others are a part of the yardstick by which you measure yourself--your self-evaluation. Since envy is triggered only when you come up short, that's part of the reason why it is experienced as such an "ugly" emotion. In order to adjust the measurements that will neutralize your envy, you will have to diminish the source, elevate yourself, or do both. Envy makes you work hard and it seems as though you keep coming back again and again to measuring your self-worth against that of the other person.
Given that emotions have evolved to help us, what could possibly be the purpose of envy? As an emotion that enables survival of the species, envy is related to competition and social comparison between yourself and others that are a part of your self-evaluation. Consider first the thoughts and feelings that envy creates: you want what someone else has, whatever it is that you envy in another person has limited availability, and the envied quality gives the person who has it some advantage or power. Secondly, the thoughts and feelings that are evoked when the emotion of envy is triggered in your brain can make you experience animosity toward that person and anguish within yourself. If you were a caveman you might either defer to the envied other, do something to eliminate him, or find a way to possess the desired quality. Although we are no longer cavemen, some variation of the same solutions seem to occur in the contemporary human mind.
Envy has to do with feeling unhappy about the success of someone else, or about what they have and, at the same time, secretly feeling inferior yourself. Instead of finding success for yourself or improving yourself, you may be envious and want what another person has or find yourself wishing that the other person would lose that quality or possession in order to make things seem fair. If you are envious of someone you may want to put them down, as though this will raise you up or lower everyone else's opinion of them. But it just doesn't work! Instead you may want to consider that you are feeling inferior or not good enough yourself. We really can't know what another person's life is like, but an envious person just assumes that the other person is happier or better. So in a strange way, when you envy someone else, you are giving them a compliment. But it's a compliment that can harm you and how you feel about yourself.
Envy has many manifestations, and some of them are hidden dragons. For example, it is possible to mistake attraction to another person for what is actually your envy of them. The hostility that you might experience with envy of a competitor is missing in this instance because the expectation is that you will get the envied attribute by association. Thus, you can "fall in love" with what you want for yourself that another person has--status, money, power, family ties, or intelligence--rather than with who that person really happens to be. You can imagine that you will get what you need by being attached to someone who has it. But the fate of an initial idealization is usually later disappointment. By the time you come to your senses you may experience some animosity toward them that you hid from yourself.
Your envy does not always belong to you. Your own envy of others can originate from what your parents envied or admired. For example, if your parents struggled financially and wished for more money, you might envy those who have it. Or if a parent idealized a college education that was impossible to obtain, you might admire intellectual pursuits.
People idealize when they are envious. You can imagine that a quality or something possessed by someone else would bring you happiness or fulfillment. Typically, envy comes with fantasies of having what you are lacking, and often what you might be lacking is admiration that is similar to the high regard you have for the person who has the desired attribute or possession you envy.
A significant way in which you define yourself has to do with your ideals, ambitions, and what you value. Your ideal self is what you aspire to be; the best that you think you could or should be, and often this ideal comes from social comparisons. Your sense of self is constantly measuring itself against your ideals and coming to various conclusions. If you measure up, you feel good, excited, and even elated. If you don't measure up you may feel depressed, or ashamed. Self-esteem is determined to a great degree by your own comparison of your sense of self to your ideal self. However, it is sometimes easier to project that ideal onto someone else in the form of envy.
The values against which your self is measured are likely to change as you mature and as you learn to evaluate your potentialities and accept your limitations. If you have realistic ideals and can generally live up to them, your self-esteem will not be threatened. If your ideals are exaggerated and you cannot reach them, your good feelings from successes may be short lived and you may feel that you are never good enough and will envy others. The continued hope for the impossible, the expectation that you will or can be unconditionally loved and adored, is not facing reality but rather holding on to an idealized image of yourself and an idealized version of what others can provide. If this is the case, you will need to protect your sense of self from experiencing shame, depression, disappointment, and envy.
For more information regarding my books about emotions: http://www.marylamia.com
This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.