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The Nature of Envy

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Jan 18th 2007

I was one of the many people who tuned into the Golden Globe awards ceremony the other day. I am embarrassed to admit that I did feel some pangs of envy as I watched the glamorous celebrities pose for the cameras on their walk down the red carpet. I will also confess that I periodically feel envious of those "perfect parents" who appear to have their children and lives completely under control. Why do I experience these feelings? What exactly is envy?

Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, from the University of Kentucky, recently published a comprehensive article describing the nature of envy as well as the negative effects it can have on our mental and physical health. Historically considered one of the seven deadly sins (and appearing in two of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament), envy is a “state in which the desired advantage enjoyed by another person or group of people causes a person to feel a painful blend of inferiority, hostility, and resentment.” (Psychological Bulletin, 2007). As medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Charity rejoices in our neighbor's good, while envy grieves over it."

Dr. Smith and Dr. Kim's research suggests that my reaction to those “perfect parents” is the more common type of envy, when the person who has the desired advantage is relatively similar to you. In addition, envy is more likely when the domain of comparison is important to you. Parenting is an important role to me, so I am more likely to be envious of someone who seems to parent well than someone who excels at downhill skiing (not important to me).

Envy can be a destructive emotion both mentally and physically. Envious people tend to feel hostile, resentful, angry and irritable. Such individuals are also less likely to feel grateful about their positive traits and their circumstances. Envy is also related to depression, anxiety, the development of prejudice, and personal unhappiness.

Not surprisingly, these negative mental states can impact physical health. Envious people can feel stressed and overwhelmed. In addition, most people don't want to hang out with an envious person because they are unpleasant to be around. As a result, envious people have fewer friends overall, as well as fewer friends who will help out in times of need. Worse, when an envious person receives help, she or he tends to feel resentful that assistance was necessary in the first place.

Since envy is an unhealthy emotion, how can you prevent it from occurring? The first step is to recognize and label these feelings as envious. This may be harder than it sounds. Because envy is considered a socially unacceptable emotion, many of us deny having these feelings both publicly and privately.

Dr. Smith and Dr. Kim suggest that once you have recognized and labeled envy feelings, you can try to dismantle them with a variety of cognitive therapy techniques and strategies, including:

  1. Self-Reliance and Perseverance. To "perseverate" is to repeat an action over and over. In this instance, the term is used to suggest that you repeatedly examine your thoughts to determine whether they are envious. If you find that they are envious at any given moment, remind yourself of how these thoughts don't help your life and can actually harm it. The more you can manage to catch and correct your thinking, the easier it will be to remain envy-free.
  2.  

  3. Selective Ignoring and Distraction. When you find yourself thinking envious thoughts, quickly remind yourself that the other person's advantage isn't important in the grand scheme of things, and then focus on other thoughts (a pleasant memory, things that need to be done, etc) or engage in another activity. By distracting yourself with another absorbing thought or activity, you can stop your envious thoughts in their tracks.
  4.  

  5. Self-Bolstering involves reminding yourself of your own positive qualities and advantages. This strategy doesn't seem to reduce envy itself, but can make you feel less angry and depressed in the face of your envy.

If these strategies don't work for you, or envious emotions seem to be significantly decreasing your quality of life or impacting your daily functioning, it's important to seek help from a trained mental health therapist.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Whats wrong with Envy? - I Envy - Sep 1st 2012

Me and my older brother grew up without parents, raised by our Grand Aunt...  She kicked us out when I became 14yo.... then I split up with my bro... He's on one side of the coast im on the other, and we lost contact. 

Ever since i was a child I envied, when i seen kids being loved by their parents, kids being with their grandparents... I've always envy other people.  When I got older I moved around a lot, from place to place and never had a chance to make a good friend; you know one of those friends you always have.  I envy people who have that as well. 

Sometimes it makes me mad, or happy, fearful and fearless... I've noticed the only thing precious about life is good relationships and memories...  It only saddens me that I'm lacking both, not because im envious. 

I've got back in contact with my brother through facebook, but when i see his friends, the love in his life I envy him, knowing we both came from the same place with different results, and im proud to envy him... it makes me so happy i want to cry. 

I just dont get what so wrong with Envy, why is it a sin?  Envy is not Jealousy, i do believe it can be unhealthy, but so can be anything in such a grey area.  I know the difference from Jealousy and Envy, and Admiration and Envy.  Envy is not negative thinking, or a positive response, but its a Natural Thought process, especially when lose is a natural process of life.

Im not saying im perfect for accepting my envy (im far from perfect) nor a product of hard strucken life (i never went with out food or a bed [well just for 3 straight days]).  I'm just whats wrong with Envy?

  THE ONLY THING THAT MAKES ME FEEL BAD ABOUT ENVY IS SOCIETY.

BFF Envy - - Sep 30th 2011

I'm envious of my best friend.  I'm envious that she has recently fallen in love with a man who takes her places and buys her beautiful things.  I don't argue that she doesn't deserve these things, but it makes me want to walk away from a lifetime of friendship with her because I don't have those things in my life, and am struggling to be happy for her.  My life feels stagnant, and she has all these wonderful things happening to her.  I pray God will help me, and bring something good to me as well.  I hate feeling this way, and not sure how long I can endure it.

Bridal Envy - - Apr 19th 2011

I've been struggling with bridal envy lately. Everyone around me is either just got married, getting married or having babies. My head tells me my life is on track. I'm 26 so I don't think I'm too old, I've been dating a great guy for 7 months, we have a good healthy relationship and we're keeping it on a good pace. My heart is filled with envy though... When brides "complain" about wedding planning, I just want to tell them to shut up. I'm so tired of feigning "aweeeee" or complimenting their choice of venue and flowers. Logically I know I'm doing my thing and am ok with it, I want to be with the right guy at the right time for the right reason but it's just tough when you're surrounded by people announcing they're happier than you. I don't want to be like this and I really hope I can fight it off and not let it force me to rush into things.

Working upon Goodness - Arend - Apr 3rd 2011

Semjase-Silver-Star-Center, Hinterschmidrüti

19th January 2005, 00:15

Billy

If I had to struggle with hindrances of all kinds, if I braced myself very laboriously against my existence, if the power of my thoughts and feelings and the power of my will and the body threatened to leave me, the morale and all hope began to decline and everything became endlessly very difficult within myself, in order to persevere in life and to determinedly do my duty and observe my responsibility, then I searched for my innermost perceptions and feelings, which whispered to me like a soft breeze, that there are unutterably few merry and content human beings down here on Earth because they all are pursued by immeasurable grief and sorrow as well as problems and worries that they are not able to get under control. How very much worse off than I - thus the cognition ever grew in me - these human beings must be. But as I see it, they all can find a way out of their whole adversity, if only they work upon goodness in themselves, if they dedicate themselves to reflection and thereby dedicate themselves to the source of cognition, which brings release from all miseries and evils, from grief, sorrow, problems and worries. This cognition rests in the real illustration of all things, that all is worth living, the negative as well as the positive, and that the living out of what is pleasant as well as what is unpleasant makes life worth living and brings immeasurable experiences and values. The mission of life, namely, to evolve in consciousness, and the fulfillment of this mission is the source from which the anguished, grief-stricken as well as hopeless, the problem-oppressed as well as work-loaded and worried-sick human beings constantly create new strengths, moments of rest and recovery, joy, love, harmony and peace. This is my cognition, and this teaches myself that if goodness is consciously worked upon, then the goodness becomes ubiquitous

http://www.futureofmankind.co.uk/Billy_Meier/Spirit_Teaching

Always Checking - - Mar 3rd 2011

I tend to check where the person went or what she bought then I'd feel she is so lucky to have those things. I compare how I look and sometimes I find myself trying to imitate her hairstyle and her clothes and I'd realize we are totally different. And to overcome my bad thoughts, I always look for the good things I have, nice deeds I can do and what I'm really good at.

jacegil - - Aug 5th 2010

Growing up, I had many serious issues that all worked together to ruin my destiny. I spent my school years keeping low-profile for fear of being ridiculed. One fellow student of mine was mean to me and even slapped me on the back of my head once walking by me in class, having probably said to his friends,"Now watch what I'm gonna do to that loser guy" Guess who now lives in Florida in a nice home, nice well-paid job, two beautiful daughters, certain social status, while my very own life is passing me by. Sometimes it gets to the point where I simply wish I'd never been born.

envious - - Aug 4th 2010

I find I sometimes envy people who are not afraid to go out and buy something extravagant. We have the means to buy most of the things that I find I envy but I was brought up to be practical, especially with money.  So  whenever a friend or relative goes out and buys something that I may have entertained buying, I feel resentful. Example, I always wanted a convertible sports car. My friend just bought one...red no less.

no one's perfect - - Jul 28th 2010

i am in a newish relationship and the world i came out of was full of women after your man and they would do anything to get them.  it is up to the man to  say "no" etc.  remember, it's girls like that, that make your partner happy to come home to you and appriciate who you are

solution. - myself - Feb 13th 2010

I haven't used this product to 'treat' this as I get just an occasional thought or two! of envy. Thats probably normal,especially when one feels low. Anyway, I have used flower essences in the past with some great success. I have never used this essence but heres what it sayes...

http://internatural-flower-essences.com/ingr/ingr594029.cfm

The above are bach flower remedies but the ones I've used are http://www.ausflowers.com.au/shop/scdproducts.asp?catid=1   Not sure if one treats envy as am too lazy to go through them all! but they have been powerful in my experience.

Also because I'm slightly nuts,lol and have this beautiful song playing in the background, I will post that too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lurva0PVNy0

I hope that anyone that suffers with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings like these manages to find their balance again. Sincerest blessings.

bad behaviour = bad character - Hater magnet - Aug 27th 2009

Feel sorry for someone who treats me badly because of their emotional immaturity ?  I think not...

We all have challenges in life and it is the way we react to these challenges that determines our character.  It is normal to feel jealous from time to time, but acting out against others because of it means you have poor character and a lack of morals.

Expose haters, then ignore them...that includes "friends" and family.  Don't be a victim - you are only on this earth once.  Spend time only with nice people and let the haters fight with each other in the sandbox.

"no time to hate, only time to love"

Root of Envy - - Aug 25th 2009

I think envy usually stems deeper than just comparing. It usually comes from our personal experiences and how we are treated. When I was younger, I was a size zero and very rarely did people comment on my weight. I felt content and happy with the way I looked back then and I had a lot of peace of mind in that department.

However, since the size zero debate, I became the target of abuse from both men and women (as for the latter, Im not sure if this was envy, but I was sure that men were being truthful). This made me feel very hurt, frustrated and angry as I found it difficult to put weight on and I was being judged on something that I couldn't change or control. This ultimately resulted in feeling a torturous sense of inferiority when I saw images of women with slim, curvy figures. I was always reminded of how horrible I looked when i saw these women and resented them for being blessed with better bodies.  Now that I have managed to put on weight, I don't feel much envy, but I think there is always a part of me that is going to worry about being too thin or that there could be room for improvment.

As for women on here talking about their experiences of being envied, you've got to remember that it is them who are hurting more than you. These jealous women/girls must have been told they were ugly by obnoxious men, which is always a powerful source of feeing an overpowering sense of anxiety and inferiority. Not to mention, the images seen in the media are always an indirect way of saying "you are too ugly to be seen on TV or in a magazine". Ive always found that insecurity with regards to looks always stem from horrible personal experiences and a lack of evidence (e.g attention from the opposite sex) to prove them false. This always leads to constant anxiety and misery. As a result, they get very emotional when a man ignores them or if an attractive woman walks by. As for the latter, it is always because they assume as if it is fact that that woman is content and happy and knows she is beautiful. By comparison, the envier on the other hand is dicontent, miserable and is 100% convinced that they are unattractive and that no one is ever going to like them.

Envious people always obsess about how their rival better them and get increasingly angry and resentful about how life is unfair and how they are cursed with undesirable looks. Why would you cry about comments made by such people who have this sort of mentality? If anything, you should feel sorry for them.   

Envy: - Lynn - Aug 5th 2009

It's hard to admit-I've had envious feelings tward my best friend. She's prettier, smarter, out going, and more socail than me. She's also surrounded by her other friends just like her-and it makes me feel like the odd one of them all.. But, I never put her down in any way, and I'm never hostile to her. Anytime I felt like I was about to feel that way, I would do something else-like go home.

((I don't know what else to type))

Help?

Such a shame - byebyeHaters - Apr 14th 2009

Envy is a real tragedy since it destroys otherwise positive human relationships.  It is out of control in our society due to the new religion of "materialism".Cut one "friend" (Marina Arias) completely out of my life last year and have stopped spending time with another (Nicole Fieger) due to their envy.  It comes most commonly from people who lack success in employment and those who live their lives cheque-to-cheque (due to greed and lack of self-control).  They often drink a lot in bars and/or have expensive drug habits - this is why they are constantly broke and envious of people not in that situation.What you notice is put-downs, undermining, negativity, laughing at you, gossip, criticism, etc.  Usually it starts subtly (so you can't fight back without looking bad).  It is, however, a mistake to ignore it because they feed off putting you down like it is crack cocaine.  They will continue the behaviour and it will get worse.  Lack of success makes this the only way they can feel good about themselves (though very temporarily).  So, best move is to drop a "friend" as soon as envy symptoms appear.   Psychologists say to end a friendship after 3 negative incidents that can't be explained - ask no questions; just leave and cease contact.  The Buddha instructs us to surround ourselves with people who are a positive influence in our lifes and to remove ourselves from those who are a negative influence.  I think Jesus would agree. Peace to all.

envious in relaitionships - brianna - Mar 11th 2009

so i have incredibly terrible envious feelings towards my long term boyfriend. it gets worse and worse, and i find myself matching to everything in the articles i've been reading. i'm often incredibly mean to him, I find pleasure when he fails, and I get very very upset when I think of real life situations like college and ACT's. I read and hear people say that "I realize I have so much to live for." Well I just got over depression and continuing to see a psychologist, but I don't see worth in certain parts of my life, so I feel no need to compare that part.

 

 It's terrrible :(

PLEASE HELP - Shane - Jan 22nd 2009

I am a late teenager, and i found myself being envious of the same person for about 5 or 6 years. We went to gradeschool, and highschool together and it seems that he has every single thing that i dont, and when i finally feel like i have someone or something for my own, he takes it. Its not even that he blatantly takes it, but that he does it without thinking, and does not even notice his ignorance. We have always been friends because we hang out with the same people, and sometimes i even think of how much i wish he didnt even hang out with me or go to the same school.

I was wondering if anyone has any advice.

Thanks alot..

Yes, I feel envy and shame over feeling it. - Xavie - Jan 16th 2009

As I age, I have noticed I am more prone to envy.  I envy women who are younger and prettier than me.  I recently turned 50 so as you can imagine the number is increasing.  I cannot be around certain women because I feel so much envy. I am ashamed of myself for feeling this way. There has to be more to life than appearances.

When I was younger, I thought that older women did not like me because I was pretty. Now, I am an older woman and I do not like younger women for this reason.

I feel I base to much on looks and wish I could get beyond this because I think it would help me get over my envy problem.

help from envy - blue - Oct 27th 2008

i have come for help from envious people. i dont know how to deal with them anymore. i only have a few friends at school and i tend to concentrate on my studies a lot. other people at school just dont seem to agree with the way that i live my life; they think that i ignore them on purpose to hurt them, so they attack me verbally as i pass by. i dont want to brag, i just want everyone to get the story right. i also happen to look really good which makes the guys from school easily attracked to me. but the thing is that for now i only want to concentrate on school and nothing else, however they wont leave me alone with their poisonous, cutting commets. being envied hurts. sometimes they are so cruel with the things they say that i cant help but be depressed. sometimes i even cry. i dont know how to soothe myself in moments like that. they make me feel so insecure, so bad, that i dont even want to be myself anymore. how can i deal with them? please somebody offer some insight. thanks in advance.

Can't take it - caps lock - Oct 15th 2008

I am an envious person..I really can't handle the feeling anymore. Everytime I see the person who I envy, I just want to close my eyes and I just want that moment to end. I just wan him out of my life. But, I can't.

Feeling envious - - Oct 9th 2008

I hate feeling this way too.  I wish I could love myself every day.  And stop wishing I was someone else.

 For years i had a terrible self-image and when I look back at picutures I realized how good I looked and slim not heavier like I thought. 

 I wasted so much time feeling terrible instead of good.  Why????

So, I am desperatly trying not to carry on this way for the next 20 years.  but it's hard. 

I did not fully understand envy - me - Aug 8th 2008

I did not fully understand envy until I read about it in my bible.  There is nothing admirable about envy, infact, envy is hateful, selifsh, self-centered and very insecure person.  I did not understand why this person I knew, would use me when it was convenient, in other times hated me, and then said I tried to be like her, when in contrast, it most seemed like she was jealous of my life and marriage.  I understand now, and those people are not pleasant at all, and beware of their friendship.

why to be envy - malak sayed - Jul 11th 2008
actually,if we think deeply in this case,we could vividly see that not all ppl around enjoying a perfect life,its that we just see things superficially.we might enjoy many things more than those ppl whome we do envy,the time they just dream to have.so simply just thank god for what u are,an work on urselves to be the best.and trust me many other ppl do really wish to be a mini u.

Envied One - Thena - Mar 22nd 2008
My envier attacked me verbally - that is she judged me and my relationship with my husband and the problem is that she made me feel horrible and I did not respond to her attacks and now the problem is that I feel humiliated and diminished. How do I get rid of this damaging feelings to my health? 

Painful envy - Willow - Dec 11th 2007

Claudia, that could be me talking. I have problems with envy too and I know they stem from low self esteem and low confidence and are an ingrained habit going back years. I know all this but I'm finding it so difficult to combat and with it comes guilt and shame because my worst, deepest envy is of those friends closest to me and it's painful even admitting it to myself. I fear letting them down because they are so generous towards me, which makes me feel a much lesser human being as a result.

You are not alone - but there is little out there to provide comfort or help and it seems to be rather a taboo subject. I have begun CBT but fear that it might take more than a few sessions of it to make any difference at all. A self help group might be a good idea but I don't think any exist. Good luck with battling against it, and try and hold onto the thought that you are  worthwhile person even if you don't  always feel you are.

A victim of envy - ET - Oct 10th 2007
I can understand how difficult it must be to suffer from envy. I have recently been the subject of an envious business partner. His envy was all consuming and he seemed to blame everything that happened to him,including his financial position which was due to his own overspending, on me. His envy led him to severe depression and he found temporary relief from his sadness by overspending which just compounded the difference between himself and me. As a result over several years he became impoverished as I became wealthier. No matter how much I did it was never enough. We could never pay him enough. As a result he decided to leave our firm at the worst possible time for himself which I believe will compound his bad situation even further. The only consolation I have is that now he no longer has somebody to blame for his situation. We often pity the person with envy but it is important to remember the subject of envy is often made to feel guilty for his/her success. It is a form of vengeance.

message - janeth - Oct 8th 2007
it really helps,it makes me learn

- - Sep 24th 2007

I hate having these feelings and feel awful about it. One friend that I admitted my envious feelings to asked the following question .

Would you want to be that certain peson that you are feeling envious towards? The answer would probably be NO. Maybe even Hell No!!!  It is then that you realize that you have a good life, and good things to be grateful for.

Hope this helps

feeling envious all the time - claudia - Jul 21st 2007
 I have a huge problem with envy.. but the weird thing is that i envy people who dont have as many advantages as me..  My envy feelings are taking over my life and i cant be happy because of that.. i dont know what to do.. its creating problems to me and my husband.. its not me the one that has the fault, its my brain that keeps thinking about how happpy other people are and i am not..

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