Envy is not the same as jealousy: REBT conceptualisation


Both envy and jealousy can be healthy or unhealthy emotional states, but we have no words to make that distinction. We often confuse the two emotions but they are really quite separate and distinct, although often experienced at the same time.

Jealousy can be better thought of as ‘anxiety about a threat to an important relationship’, while envy is the emotion we experience when we strongly desire something that someone else possesses, a thing, a talent, a quality, an experience etc.

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We confuse the two emotions frequently when we say things like ‘you’re on holiday and I’m jealous’, or ‘I’m jealous of your job’. What we mean is ‘I’m envious of your job, or your holiday’. So why is it important that we make this distinction? Surely, it’s just a straightforward mistake and most people know what we mean anyway. One of the reasons why we would do better to make the distinction is that both of these emotions lead to different types of behaviour. When we’re jealous, or anxious about a threat to our relationship, we tend to exaggerate the threat and this can involve lots of checking behaviours, and a neediness that can damage the relationship we want to protect.

Envy is a secret and often hidden emotion, and because it can be both healthy and unhealthy we often ignore its presence. If we are unhealthily envious of something someone else has, we have an extremely negative tendency to try and destroy, or devalue that thing. Healthy envy leads to constructive measures designed to help us to attain that thing. Unhealthy envy leads to destructive measures designed to acquire it from others through devious means and to deprive them of it, and if those measure don’t work, to attempt to destroy it, or devalue it.

Envy is an important emotion and is even listed as one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, and it is often hidden and covert. It is very common for people to seek psychotherapeutic help with emotions like depression and anxiety, but it is extremely rare for someone to seek therapeutic help for envy. Even so, “envy, to qualify as (unhealthy) envy, has to have a strong touch – sometimes more than a touch – of malice behind it. Malice that cannot speak its name, cold blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancour, and spite all cluster at the centre of envy.” ₁
In the modern world advertising is designed to trigger envy in all of us. Advertising seeks to make us desire strongly something that others, often featured visually, already have and enjoy. Envy leads to avarice and greed, and if unchecked, can lead to extreme unhappiness, even misery. “Envy is usually less about what one lacks than about what other people have.” ₂ Envy always results from the comparison of the self with others, and its destructive force lies in what that comparison then leads to behaviourally.

In REBT we make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy envy, and we only concern ourselves with its unhealthy expression. Even so, it is always helpful to help clients develop an improved awareness of envy and the role it plays in all of our lives. Once recognised it can be modified and ameliorated to make it less of a destructive force in our lives. Françoise de La Rochefoucauld once wrote, “In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something that is not displeasing to us.” ₃

If we want envy to have less of a negative impact in our lives, and on our relationships with others, we would do well to create a better awareness of envy and its behavioural tendencies.

Ian Martin, CCBT Lecturer

1. Envy – Joseph Epstein, Oxford University Press, 2003
2. Envy – Joseph Epstein, Oxford University Press, 2003
3. Reflections on Various Subjects – Françoise de la Rochefoucauld, 1665 – 1678

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