What is the difference between jealousy and envy?

Jealousy and envy are quite often the subject of a therapy room and can cause untold pain and damage to relationships between people. The terms are often used interchangeably but there are differences between them.


The first difference to be aware of is that envy involves two people - one person being envious of another. Jealousy is about more than two people and involves the preservation of special friendships because of the involvement of others.

It is possible to experience both jealousy and envy at the same time. For example, you could be jealous of the attention your boyfriend is getting from a female who you envy for her physical qualities.

The philosopher John Rawls distinguishes between jealousy and envy on the grounds that jealousy involves the wish to keep what one has and envy is the wish to get what one does not have.

People that are envious can experience painful overwhelming emotions due to somebody else owning or possessing something that they do not have. For example more money, a new kitchen or a car. Envy is a symptom of desire which is rooted in a depth or well of internal emptiness and low self-esteem.

Melanie Klein (the post-Freudian instinct theorist) looked at envy in terms of child/mother relationships. She argued hate and envy to be defence mechanisms constructed to maintain safe internal worlds and envy to be the most destructive of all emotions.

Jealousy is not seen as such a primal driving force. It is more of a common experience that we might all relate to. People that are jealous may also experience anxiety, negative thoughts and feelings, and possibly obsessively thinking about events that may or may not be occurring. They will put themselves into negative situations that reinforce their beliefs.

Many confront others while others hide away and detach from people and situations. Jealousy is more a symptom of insecurity and lack of confidence in own ability to maintain strong healthy relationships with others and success in other areas of life. Quite often jealousy and love are closely linked but in the words of Havelock Ellis: “Jealousy, that dragon which slays love under the pretence of keeping it alive.”

What causes envy?

The extent to how much you love somebody is not reflected by how jealous you are around them. So let's look in more detail at both envy and jealousy.

Possible objects of envy:

  • The success of another in love, relationships or work situations.
  • The possessions of another.
  • Personal qualities of others.
  • The financial status of another.
  • Cultural differences such as strong family ties and community.
  • The perceived luck of others.

Possible underlying causes and characteristics:

  • A strong desire to have what others have.
  • Insecurity.
  • A sense of unworthiness/lack/not feeling good enough.
  • Poor boundaries.
  • Being unaware of own strengths of character.
  • Unresolved resentments, fear or anger.
  • Lack of attachment to a significant other.
  • Inflated sense of ego (possible narcissism).
  • An inability for self-reflection/or to be objective about situations.
  • Warped perception on how to be truly happy.
  • Unrealistic expectations of life.

Unhelpful behaviours fuelled by envy:

  • Malicious Acts: spoiling things for others, tainting reputations, embellishing facts and events to put another in a bad light, undoing advantages of another, inflicting misfortune, false claims, gossiping, putting down, being two-faced, open criticism, lying for own advantage.
  • Wishing others to fail rather than thinking of your own ways to succeed – can involve obsessive thinking.
  • Manipulation of situations and people for own advantage.
  • Racist or discriminatory behaviours.
  • Trying to outdo/beat others in an underhand way such as taking undue credit, bullying, harassment, gaining a support network against another by poisoning other people against the target of your envy.

What causes jealousy? 

Possible reasons for jealousy:

  • Fear of losing someone that you are attached to.
  • Thinking that someone has what you ought to have.
  • Feeling left out of situations, friendships.
  • Believing others to have more friends than you.
  • Seeing others as having more opportunities than you, better life, more experiences, more successful love lives.
  • Seeing others as better than you, luckier than you in some way.

Possible underlying causes:

  • Lack of confidence.
  • Trust issues.
  • Insecurity, a sense of not being good enough.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Previous rejection.
  • Unresolved anger.
  • History of something having gone wrong at some point, i.e. in a work situation, or perhaps a relationship that didn’t work out.

Unhelpful jealous behaviours:

  • Comparing yourself with others.
  • Having confrontations with others.
  • Feeling entitled to make demands on people, a need to sort things out.
  • Trying to control people and situations.
  • Seeking to achieve equality/fairness.
  • Looking too hard for love, to find affection and maintain relationships, possibly coming across as being too needy.
  • Expecting others to be responsible for your well-being.
  • Making assumptions about other people’s behaviour and lives.
  • Taking an unrealistic view of the world.

Talking to a qualified professional will really help you to be honest about your thoughts and feelings and gain an understanding of yourself. New strategies can be put in place so you can manage the feelings in a positive way and gain confidence in your own abilities.

This article was written by Andrea Harrn - Psychotherapist and Creator of The Mood Cards.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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