The Difference Between Envy and Jealousy

Many of us find it difficult to differentiate between envy and jealousy, here esteemed forensic psychotherapist Dr. Patricia Polledri author of a new book “Envy in Everyday Life” explains to to us:


In discussions with people about what they understand by envy, I have been struck by how many times the word ‘jealousy’ is used instead of ‘envy’. It is important to distinguish between them, although the two are often closely linked and overlap. So let me define the difference between jealousy and envy.

Primarily, envy occurs in a two –person relationship, while jealousy always appears in a relationship involving a group of three.


Basically, envy arises when one person feels they lack what another person has and wishes that the other person did not have it. The first person does not want what the other person has for himself, but spoils it so that the other person cannot enjoy having it. This is the unique feature of envy; its lack of any positive aim. The only obvious gain would seem to be sadistic pleasure at the joy of another person’s harm.

As all envy is destructive, it is often accompanied by a persecutory conscience leading in turn to loneliness and feelings of isolation. Envy can consume the envier, who lives on a treadmillit has been described as follows:


When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain.

Even if envy is denied or ignored, it will still continue to fester … because, don’t forget, envy is a mushroom of an emotion that flourishes in dark places.


One of the qualities most envied in others is peace of mind. Other enviable qualities are sweetness and innocence…the absence of envy in the other. To the envier, the envied person “has it all”, good looks, brains and wealth. But the crowning advantage is that they are good people.


Jealousy, on the other hand, occurs when a person either fears losing or has already lost an important relationship with another person to a rival. Jealousy may be felt in many different ways, but typically it includes fear of loss, anger over betrayal and insecurity. Jealousy implies that there is someone or something we want to possess. We do not become jealous when our partner dies. The threat must involve the loss of the relationship to a rival; whether this loss is feared, is actual and present or is a fact of the past.


The commonest examples of jealousy involve romantic relationships. But sibling jealousy is also well known, and jealousy may also occur between friends, employees with the same boss, students of the same teacher and so on.


With jealousy, three people need to be involved: the couple and the outsider who is jealous of them and wants to split up their relationship. We all carry the ‘jealousy gene’; we are born with it and I believe it is, unlike envy, innate.

This is because our parents were united in their sexual relationship in order for us to be conceived. We are on the outside of that triangular relationship from the day we are born.

In adulthood, love scorned is a central theme in the loss of a beloved to another. When this happens, or there is a threat of this happening, jealous passions soon erupt.


The following example is from a well-known journalist and author who, in her column in a Sunday magazine, describes this painful triangular situation in her reaction of jealous possessiveness when she thinks her husband is with another woman…


About once a year something triggers off a really bad attack of jealousy, and I turn into a raving maniac, all perspective blotted out. ‘He’s late home from work’, I reason, ‘He must be with another woman”. Or he’s early. ‘He must be feeling guilty about having a boozy lunch with her”. And so on and so on, lashing myself with misery. Once the octopus jealousy gets me in its stranglehold, it is almost impossible to wriggle free.


The characteristic experience of this type of jealousy is that of anxiety and insecurity. This is the difference between jealousy, involving a triangular relationship and envy, which involves only one other person.

Here, love is the primary issue, not hate. However, jealous anger and resentment can be quite as cruel, malicious and spiteful as envy. What differs is the focus – love lost; the direction of the anger is towards the rival; and the possibility of a resolution – love regained and retained.


By contrast, in my clinical experience, envy is a more primitive emotional state and is not concerned with relationships at all. It needs only one other person.

Definitions of envy emphasize feelings of hostility, spite and ill-will. Envy is a directed emotion; without a victim it cannot occur. It is also called envy when a person withholds something from someone else out of spite and the other person is not aware it is happening.


Here I can give an example of something that happened to me when it was my turn to host an annual alumni gathering of work colleagues. I was preparing a dinner for ten people and I asked a colleague to inform all of the others of the date, time and venue. I had assumed that she had done so, but it had ‘slipped her mind’. I was left with a table full of food and no guests, feeling a complete fool. When I called her, doubting my own judgement, and worried that I had got the date wrong she replied: “Oh no! You poor thing! I was waiting for you to reconfirm the date!” I had innocently trusted her to pass on the details. This is an example of inaction – withholding something by ‘forgetting’ to pass on important information. It is always deliberate but it is never out in the open. In her mind, I became a ‘poor thing’, instead of the competent forensic psychotherapist that I know myself to be.


Begrudging and a sense of injustice are characteristic of envious people, who take pleasure in depriving others of what they have or could have – without deriving any sort of advantage themselves. Such individuals go to great lengths to inflict harm and unhappiness. Envious destructiveness is deliberate. The envious person denies goodwill or love towards the recipient of their anger. What he/she wants is to remove the bilious anger and bitter vindictiveness from within himself, to get rid of it and put it elsewhere. Any relief is temporary, because the sauce of his torment is not in what he envies, but in himself.


As a society we are consumed by material gratification, for example, if I am jealous that you have a shiny new car, I will work harder and I too can have the same car.

But, if I am envious of your shiny new car, I will slash the tyres behind your back, or tamper with the brakes, so you can’t enjoy having it.

Both envy and jealousy are of great importance in social life and can be powerful motivators of human behaviour.

* Dr Patricia Polledri new book, Envy In Everyday Life (published by Clink Street Publishing) is available from 28th June 2016 RRP £9.99 paperback, RRP £3.99 eBook is available from online retailers including amazon.co.uk and to order from all good bookstores.