Envy is most often defined as some degree of discontent we experience regarding another’s possessions, advantages, achievements, traits, etc. It’s natural to compare ourselves to others. Doing so may evolve early on when we compare ourselves to siblings or others our age, whether we focus on how they are treated, including what they get to do or what things they are given. In this manner, such comparisons may inform our standing amongst others.
Envy, like other feelings, may be experienced at various intensities. It may be considered benign, as when such comparisons motivate us to improve our lives. Or, by contrast, it can be destructive for us and potentially for others as well.
Some distinction may also be made between destructive envy, as an ongoing disposition, versus destructive envy, as an episodic reaction to forming social comparisons. One study reports that episodic envy might be more situational and associated with negative feelings such as anxiety, depression, anger, and an overall negative mood (Cohen-Charish, 2009).
Envy as a motivating force
Envy can potentially be a positive force in our lives. For example, we might observe an upscale home and think, “That sure is a nice home. I imagine it would really be nice to live there.” Such envy may then fuel thought such as, “What can I do to have a house like that?” In this case, our envy motivates us for positive advancement.
This is a constructive and benign type of envy. As such, it may enlighten and aid us in forming our identity and how we wish to live our lives. Our envy may inform us regarding, not only what we wish to obtain, but also in identifying values, traits, and behaviors that are consistent with who we are and who we wish to become.
By contrast, destructive envy focuses on making a comparison that only enhances our feeling inferior to the person who possesses that thing or attributes we envy. Envy can be a destructive force in our lives. Such thinking may precipitate as well as reflect varying degrees of anger.
For example, with regard to seeing that beautiful home, we could react with: “How come they get to live there?” Thoughts such as “What makes them so special?” or worse yet, “They don’t deserve to have a house like that!” reflect the darker shade of envy. Such thoughts may ultimately fuel hatred and even aggression toward those who own such a house.
Such envy is malicious and may be accompanied by resentment, annoyance, and wishes of ill-fortune. It may ultimately fuel hatred and even aggression toward those who own such a house. We might think, “They don’t deserve to live in that house!” or worse yet, that the owner should lose possession of it, either due to financial hardship or even by flames. Unlike benign envy that is directed toward the thing possessed, a trait or behaviors exhibited, destructive envy focuses on the person.
Such desires may stem from a deep sense of “schadenfreude,” or pleasure in seeing the suffering by those we envy. Research indicates that this may at times be tied to, but not necessarily dependent on, our dislike or anger toward the other and our feeling they do not deserve what they have (Van de Ven, Hoogland, et. al., 2015).
Roots of destructive envy
The trigger for destructive envy is an already existing frail sense of self — an ego that is vulnerable to feel “less than” or inadequate upon making a comparison with others. In effect, the comparison shines a light on and gives rise to a sense of inferiority about oneself that is established long before the comparison is made. The predisposition to feel “less than” subsequently primes destructive envious thoughts of others. After all, their possessions, attributes, or behaviors are stark reminders of one’s underlying sense of inadequacy.
While we may try to suppress or repress our sense of deficiency, these feelings rise to greater awareness during the process of comparison. This experience of feeling less than may be experienced with full awareness or at a deeper level, absent of conscious awareness.
We may more likely experience envy toward others who are more like us in age, gender, class, age or education. One study, for example, emphasizes that young adults are more envious than their elders and about more things (2016). It’s as if we’re more concerned about our standing in our own “tribe” than how we match up to members of a different tribe. As a ninth-grade student, we may be more concerned about our standing with other ninth-graders than about the high school senior. As a millennial, we may more frequently compare ourselves to other millennials rather than to baby boomers.
This may also be reflected in a recent study of social media that found that the greater the frequency of social media engagement, the higher the potential for depression (Chan and Jianling, 2018). The problem is that photos of others depict a distinct moment in time rather than the true nature of who they are, what they feel and the overall context of the situation photographed. As such, when viewing others, we see a mere moment of their existence. And such a view is often as unrealistic as the brushed photos of celebrities and models featured in magazines.
Photos are two-dimensional. They offer little into the complexity or inner landscape of those in the photos. As such, they can foster quick judgments such as “They’re having so much more fun than me.” “They certainly have more friends than me” or “They are happier and not as lonely as me!” may be the knee-jerk reactions when we’re prone to low self-esteem.
The mindset that leaves us prone to destructive envy constricts our capacity to look beyond the details of the snapshot. It undermines our ability to question the full complexity of the situation or what an individual is truly experiencing. In this manner, this mindset corresponds to the constricted vision fostered by depression.
Destructive envy is disempowering
Engagement in destructive envy disempowers rather than empowers us. Each time we embrace destructive envy we rob ourselves of agency. In part, because we may we suppress or deny such feelings we become more vulnerable to them — sensitized to their influencing without our full awareness. We may then experience discomfort, tension, and even some arousal of inferiority that we then attribute as being caused by others.
At its core, we then experience arousal of shame with ourselves for not “measuring up” as well as when even acknowledging envy. The comparison then becomes a challenge to the story we have formed about who we are. Experiencing anger or being aggressive may then serve, like much of anger, as a distraction and reaction to our internal suffering. In the process, we subsequently lose sight of dealing with and addressing both our feelings of being less than and the work we may need to do to feel better about ourselves.
In the context of my work with clients, many grow to recognize and acknowledge envy they experience toward others who may not have to deal with the kind of suffering they experience. “They don’t get as depressed as I get!” “I’m sure they don’t feel the same anxiety I have around people!” and “I’m angry that I have to do work to feel better about myself and they don’t!” are just a few examples of statements they make regarding such envy.
Only when they choose to let go of the destructive envy — and the anger that accompanies it– do they become more able to make the changes they seek in counseling. They recognize that they are deciding to make a choice.
The choice is realized when we are aware of engaging in destructive envy and decide to transform it into benign or motivating envy. The constructive choice is made when we decide to cultivate this more constructive perspective.
In part, this may involve mourning and grieving. It requires making peace with the fact that no matter what we do there will always be others who are smarter, taller, richer, more attractive, more confident, and even have more “toys” than us. And, as I emphasize with my clients, others may in fact have it easier so that they grew up more confident to deal with the comparisons they form. This is a reality that we must all negotiate at various times in our lives. And it is part of developing resilience that allows us to face challenges and to flourish in our lives.
Take a moment to picture yourself standing in a single file of people whose order is ranked by a specific attribute–such as height, weight, appearance, wealth, intelligence, etc. No matter what attribute you identify there will always be others who seem better off in front of you, and worse off behind you. You may find that you need to look at those behind you in order to build up your self-esteem and alleviate feelings of being “less than”. Or, you may find yourself often looking ahead of you.
Overly focusing your attention on those in front of you or behind you will contribute to making your happiness appear elusive. This occurs when you have to depend on feeling superior to those behind you to feel better about yourself. Similarly, if you are prone to destructive envy, looking ahead may only remind you of your diminished sense of self.
This is vastly different from looking at others ahead of you may inform you about actions you wish to take, values you wish to embrace. It similarly differs from looking ahead of you for mentors, individuals who may help you achieve your goals, support your values and fuel your motivation to do well.
Here are some tips for helping you move past destructive envy:
- Be mindful to recognize when you are comparing yourself to others.
- Be mindful to recognize when your comparison triggers benign or motivational envy or destructive envy.
- Recognize that your envy tells you more about how you feel about yourself than it does about the other person or their traits, achievements, possessions or behavior.
- Remember that genuine, positive self-esteem is something that only you can cultivate in yourself–through work on your self.
- Remember that genuine self-esteem is founded on comparing ourselves to ourselves.
- Be mindful that positive self-esteem is built upon your appraisal of yourself including improving your skills, overall resilience to life’s challenges and engaging in self-compassion.
- Engage in mindfulness practices to expand your awareness to make these choices. These have been found to help transform destructive into more benign reactions (Dong, Yanhui, et. al., 2019)
- Allow yourself to mourn and grieve that you may not have had the advantages that others may have.
- Actively work to remove barriers to reaching your goals rather than be engulfed by destructive envy.
It is important to remember that most of us may feel envy from time to time. The key issue is whether it is benign or destructive in form. And if it is destructive, remind yourself that you do not have to address this challenge alone. Seek out others who are supportive and nurturing and who may provide you with guidance and support — whether with friends, family or professional counselors.
Cohen-Charish, Y. (2009) Episodic envy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(9), 2128-213 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00519.x
Van de Ven, N., Hoogland, C., et. al. (2015). When envy leads to schadenfreude. Cognition and Emotion, 29(6), 10007-1025. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2014.961903
1. Thorpe, J. R. (2016). Why do we envy others? 7 things to know about the psychology of feeling green. Bustle. Retrieved from http://www.bustle.com/articles/174232-why-do-we-envy-others-7-things-to… (regarding comparison to our own group)
Chang, L. and Jianling, M. (2018). Social media addiction and burnout: The mediating roles of envy and social media use anxiety. Current Psychology. doi:10.1007/s12144-018-9998-0
Dong, X., Xiang, Y., et. al. (2019). How mindfulness affects benign and malicious envy from the mindfulness reperceiving model. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. . https://doi.org/10.1111/sjop.12596