Insights into Psychology

What Is… Jealousy & Envy

Envy: I want your...  Jealousy: don't take my....

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s terms are jealousy and envy.

The terms jealousy and envy are often used synonymously, but they actually refer to two separate, although related, concepts.


Envy comes from a sense of personal lacking compared to another person’s abilities, achievements, or possessions.  It may serve as a defence mechanism to counter shame.  Envy can be malignant or benign, with benign envy potentially being a useful source of motivation.  Envy may have played a useful role in evolutionary survival drives.  It can involve feelings of inferiority, longing for the object of the envy, resentment, and a desire to possess the qualities of the other person.  There may also be feelings of guilt over feeling envious.

The concept of schadenfreude, which involves taking pleasure in others’ misfortunes, is related to envy but with a twist; instead of taking displeasure at another person’s happiness, it’s feel good about things going badly for them.


According to Wikipedia, jealousy “generally refers to the thoughts or feelings of insecurity, fear, and concern over a relative lack of possessions.”  A sense of threat to a relationship is perceived, with a third person who represents that threat to a 2-person relationship.  There may be a fear of loss, mistrust, anxiety, anger, or concern about betrayal.  In extreme cases, jealousy can contribute to spousal homicide.

So envy is a sort of “I want your…” while jealousy is “don’t take my…”

How jealousy and envy manifest

Both envy and jealousy make an appearance in religion as well.  Envy is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins, while the Book of Exodus states “I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”  According to Islam Q&A, the Islamic Hadith makes reference to Allah’s protective jealousy (gheerah) which is provoked when followers do things that Allah has prohibited.

Envy and jealousy can first show up at an early age, and a common example of both occurs when a younger sibling is born.  One study found that dogs can also display jealous behaviour related to competition for the owner’s attention.

Building self-esteem is an important way of managing both envy and jealousy.  Benign envy can be useful in goal-setting.  With jealousy, attachment issues and problems within the relationship can be explored in therapy.

I think envy is more of an issue for me than jealousy, mostly because I don’t really have many relationships and I don’t really have anything that people might threaten to take.  But who doesn’t get caught up in a bit of envy now and again?  To me it just seems like a very basic part of human existence, and it only really causes problems if a) you can’t call yourself out on it, and b) you get stuck in it and can’t let it go.  As for jealousy, if it’s good enough for the God of the Abrahamic religions then it should be okay sometimes for the rest of us too.  As long as we don’t go killing our partners because of it.  That’s taking things a smidge too far (heavy on the sarcasm).

Do envy or jealousy play a prominent role in your life?


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The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

20 thoughts on “What Is… Jealousy & Envy”

  1. Book of Exodus states “I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”

    Most modern Jewish translations don’t translate like that any more. The JPS Bible says “an impassioned God” and I think The Living Torah says, “A God who desires exclusive worship.” God doesn’t have emotions in a human sense, the language of the Bible is anthropomorphic and describes how we perceive God, not what God actually “feels”.

    Certainly the Jewish tradition does not say to imitate God in this way, viewing jealousy as corrosive to the individual experiencing it as much as to anyone else. (Jews have, after all, often been accused to growing rich on wealth that others claimed belonged rightly to them.)

    One is allowed to be envious of good deeds and Torah study, though, because that spurs one on to improve oneself.

    1. That’s interesting. In my mom’s old Oxford Bible that I have it uses the term jealous. I wonder if that’s a difference between Jewish and Christian interpretation, or more an issue of differences depending on the various editions of the Christian Bible.

  2. I do feel envious sometimes when I see other people my age who seem to be healthy, reasonably well-off, married, with children etc. and I see that I’m stuck unemployed and mentally ill and single with no change in sight. It can turn into jealousy if I irrationally feel that they have somehow taken what I deserved, particularly if they’re people who I don’t think are very good morally or who hurt me in the past and I feel that they’ve been rewarded for bad behaviour and I’ve been punished for good behaviour.

  3. I can honestly admit, that neither plays a role in my life. To me… I happy for people that have it all, as long as it was done honestly.
    To me being jealous and experience envy is a waste of time and effort. I have plenty of other things to be concerned with.

  4. Great writing. Very interesting. I get both envious and jealous at times. But I try not to ….even though it’s somewhat of an automatic response sometimes. I definitely have to work on my self esteem.
    I like’s approach as well.

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