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Jealousy and Envy: The Emotions of Comparison and Contrast

Jealousy and envy are emotional transformations of shame.

Are you craving attention from a person whose focus is on someone else? Do you desire attributes that are possessed by another? When you experience jealousy or envy, you have measured your sense of your self against your image of another person and arrived at a conclusion that was motivated by the biological signal of the affect of shame. Technically, from the viewpoint of affect theory (Tomkins, 2008), an affect is the biological portion of our emotions. Thus, envy and jealousy are emotional transformations of the affect shame.

The emotion of envy is often confused with jealousy. Envy is directed at another or others, wanting their qualities, success, or possession. Jealousy involves thinking you will lose, or have lost, some affection or security from another person because of someone or something else—including their interest in an activity that takes time away from you. Both jealousy and envy involve comparisons and contrasts. Comparison suggests similarity or equivalence, whereas contrast focuses on differences. At times you may compare yourself with another, but most often you will be focused upon contrasts based on negative feelings. How you feel about yourself is determined to a great degree by the comparison and contrast of your sense of self with what you consider to be your ideals, which may be projected upon another person. Contrasting yourself with an idealized image of another person magnifies shame that can threaten your self-stability. Any threat to your esteem—your established sense of self—will likely activate shame (Catherall, 2012), and, when you come up short in such contrasts, shame is experienced as envy or jealousy of another.

You may idealize another person when you are envious; imagining that a quality or something possessed by someone else would bring you happiness or fulfillment. Envy is a state where you experience yourself as lacking something that will lead you to be admired as much as you secretly admire the person who has the desired attribute or possession you envy. Fearing any eruption of inadequacy or disappointment in your self can motivate you to protect yourself by diminishing the importance of the envied other by devaluing them. You are engaged in devaluing when you have belittling thoughts about another person, such as petty criticisms. The things you will criticize about those you envy are likely to be qualities that you believe other people admire in them. A preoccupation with an envied other can lead you to repeatedly measure your self-worth against your image of their value. Although envy can motivate you to damage the position of the person who is envied, either in your imagination or in reality, envy can also make you work harder in order to attain what the envied person possesses.

When you experience jealousy you may assume that someone else is receiving the attention, love, or adoration that you want for yourself, which is provided by someone from whom you want it. Shame is the basis of jealousy that warns you of a threat to your relationship with a valued other person. Thus, typical self-protective responses to shame are experienced: withdrawal, avoidance, or expressing anger at yourself or others (Nathanson, 1992). When jealousy is pronounced in a relationship, an anger response to shame may result in aggressive and offensive behavior. You may want to hurt the person who is a jealous rival, and behave in ways that will control the person whose bond you might lose. Becoming avoidant when you are jealous, or withdrawing from the relationship, may be accompanied by your hope that the person with whom you have a relationship will notice and re-establish a bond. Even so, avoidance and withdrawal can further lead to sadness or loneliness based on past experience. Jealousy can also make you overwhelmed by uncertainty about the relationship, and the fear of shame can lead to worry or obsessive preoccupation with its status.

When you experience envy or jealousy, you have an opportunity to learn about yourself by asking yourself some questions, rather than become immersed in a shame response: Are you perceiving that you are lacking in some quality that you would like to develop for yourself? Are you experiencing jealousy because, actually, you want something more from your relationship that you are unable to obtain from that person? What do you think of yourself and what do you want to do with your life? Being close to others can trigger shame, and subsequently the emotions of jealousy or envy, especially if you do not value yourself or have experienced childhood loss or abandonment. Thus, you may need to recognize that your feelings have more to do with yourself in relationship with someone else.

For information about my current book, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website:


Catherall, D. (2012). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect. New York: Routledge.

Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.

Tomkins, S.S. (1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.

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