Envy is one of the most prevalent but least understood of all human emotions. It’s a feeling so common that you may not even be aware of when it’s haunting you. Perhaps you’ve got a good friend who recently announced that her son just got into one of the best colleges in the country. Your own child, also trying to get into college, is still awaiting acceptance from a “safety” school. As you listen to your friend describe how happy she and her family are, you find it hard to hear her over the sound of your own rampaging emotions.

Why can’t you just be happy for your friend? Why does her son’s success make you feel so inadequate? Does your child’s educational faltering make you question your worth as a parent? As you ponder these questions, perhaps the envy turns into an even uglier emotion, that of “schadenfreude.” You recall that your child relayed a story in which the college-bound son violated a sports team rule at the school. Hah! At least your own child manages to stay out of trouble.

It’s not very pleasant to experience these unpleasant emotions. Indeed, left unchecked, envy and the related state of schadenfreude can pose a significant threat even to your close relationships. Your partner might become fed up with hearing your constant undercutting of your friend’s good news, and your friend, needless to say, can become just as fed up with your thinly-disguised hostility about her son compared to your child.

In his paper on cognitive-behavioral therapy for envy (2020), New York-based Robert Leahy, of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, poses the issue in this way: “How can you wish ill of someone who has success? The answer may be, “Because we are human” (p. 1).

It’s important at the outset, notes Leahy, to distinguish between envy and jealousy, In envy, you feel threatened by someone’s status, whereas in jealousy you perceive a threat to your relationship from a third party. Therefore to unpack envy, you first need to unpack status.

Consider the meaning of the concept of status. There’s nothing inherent in person A having more status than you (e.g. as a "better" parent), other than the way you construe status. As Leahy explains it, “status is always 'local,' 'arbitrary' and dependent on the views of others” (p. 4). One way to overcome being envious of someone else’s status is to recognize its arbitrary nature. The second, and key step to overcoming envy, is to throw out the idea that attaining this particular status is essential to your well-being.

In the “Emotional Schema Model of Envy” that Leahy proposes, after you try to throw out the importance of status, you then examine your range of what he calls “valued action.” This part of the process involves looking at the options available to you once you bump into the beliefs that you supposedly have inferior status. The simplest option is to focus on your other strengths or to examine areas in your life where you shine. You and your child may have a great rapport that has nothing to do with academics, for example. Why not derive a different kind of status from this aspect of your parenting?

Treatment based on the emotional schema model, called “Emotional Schema Therapy Model,” or “EST,” follows along similar lines as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in general, in which the focus is on changing beliefs in order to change emotions. In EST, your beliefs about envy first need to be addressed before you can put them behind you.

Thus, rather than thinking that because you experience envy, you’re a bad person, you can come to recognize that envy is a universal emotion. Furthermore, you can experience envy without losing your sense of self; i.e., “you are not your emotion” (p. 8).  Envy doesn’t, when looked at in this way, have to be a part of who you are forever.

With this background, and based on Leahy’s therapeutic model, now it’s time to ask yourself how you handle envy by answering each question as honestly as possible:

  1. Do you complain about the people you envy?  
  2. Do you say nasty things about the people you envy?
  3. Do you avoid those you envy?
  4. Do you just give up on even trying to do as well as those you envy?
  5. Do you think often about how envious you feel?
  6. Do you put yourself down for being so envious?

As you can see from these questions, when the emotion of envy leaks into your behavior, your relationships both with those you envy, as well as others in your life, might suffer. In EST, you learn to turn those maladaptive strategies into more productive approaches, one by one, as you both see what’s wrong with them and then take the actions needed to change them:

  1. Complaining only alienates other people and makes you look bad, so try to stop complaining.
  2. Putting other people down can make you seem to be unfair and unpleasant, so keep your criticism to yourself.
  3. Avoiding the targets of your envy can keep you from learning from them as a way to gain higher status so don’t be afraid to get close to them.
  4. Giving up means that you’ll lose any advantage of participating in activities that could benefit you, so stick with it.
  5. Ruminating only makes you depressed; instead accept your feelings and make the best of them.
  6. Criticizing yourself also makes you feel worse, so try to be more accepting of the strengths you do possess. 

By identifying and then challenging your beliefs about envy, as well as by adopting more adaptive strategies, Leahy believes it’s even possible to “turn envy into admiration and even emulation” (p. 10).

To accomplish this final feat, you take the pragmatic step of seeing whether you can pick up a few pointers from those who status you had craved. If you can reframe your envy as a natural desire to want to better yourself, then you should be able to neutralize those negative emotions as you try to improve your own status.

Indeed, as Leahy points out, envy doesn’t have to take on the hostile form of wishing misfortune onto others and being satisfied when that comes to pass (i.e. schadenfreude). You also don’t have to suffer from depressive envy, in which you blame yourself for not having what you want, or even for feeling envious in the first place. Envy can work to your advantage in the more benign form in which it becomes a jumping-off point for your own self-improvement.

To sum up, although envy may be a universal emotion, it doesn’t have to be one that hampers your own fulfillment. Try these 6 remedies the next time your own envy bubbles up to the surface, and you’ll find yourself ever closer to that fulfillment.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

Leahy, R. L. (2020). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for envy. Cognitive Therapy and Research . doi: 10.1007/s10608-020-10135-y

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