Understanding The Technical Difference Between Envy Vs Jealousy (So You Know What’s Really Going On In Your Heart)


At one time or another, everyone has experienced the conflicts of envy vs jealousy.  Both are covetous feelings – wanting something you don’t have or wanting to hold onto something you fear losing. Envy and jealousy go beyond pure coveting, and drive anxiety about not having or being something you need.

During these COVID times, when so many of us are longing for things we don’t or can’t have, envy and jealousy can be sneaky drivers of angst. When envious or jealous feelings arise it is helpful to understand how they differ from each other, so that you can address the root cause of the anxiety that flows from them.

Envy vs Jealousy – What’s The Difference?

Webster’s Dictionary explains the difference as follows:

Though jealous and envious both mean “covetous”, only jealousy may be used to mean “possessively suspicious.” Jealousy has a possessive element with a component of rivalry. It says “you are trying to take what I have or want.”

“Envy is a disconnected longing for someone else’s advantages. It is a covetous feeling toward someone else’s attributes, possessions, or stature.”

Jealousy, in addition to its inherently possessive nature, has an active, accusatory, fight element to it. There is a fear of something being taken away – either a fear that you are losing something you have or an opportunity to have something is being thwarted.  

Envy is more of an unsettled feeling, generated by experiencing the gulf between who one is and who one wants to be.  This is the basis of Carl Roger’s theory of humanism, which proposed that “for a person to achieve self-actualization they must be in a state of congruence. This means that self-actualization occurs when a person’s “ideal self” (i.e., who they would like to be) is congruent with their actual behavior (self-image).”

Both states of wanting have an element of conflict, which creates anxiety. 

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure…. It is the experience that arises from conflict about future unavoidable pain as well as the perceived threat to something we care about. ~ Hack Your Anxiety

Why Understanding Envy vs Jealousy Matters

Knowing whether sensation you’re experiencing is envy vs jealousy, helps to direct the attention toward the core feeling and source of tension that is generating the anxiety. Envy arises from a longing for something you don’t have and jealousy arises from fearing a loss of something you believe you possess or should possess. In both cases something we care about is at risk, coupled with an absence of control. 

The thought process goes something like this: “I feel attracted to that thing I want but don’t have or to that person I want to be like but am not. I don’t know how to get what I want and even if I did, I don’t believe I could get it.” This results in feeling like we have no control and thus creates anxiety.

In order to solve anxiety’s discomfort and use it as a tool, we have to focus on what is in our control and what is practical, rather than what we WISH were the case. Focusing on things out of our control always escalates anxiety because we can’t do anything productive with the energy.

Envy and Jealousy Confuse Our Sense of Control

There are different ways we can look at control. For our purposes here, let’s look at actual vs perceived control. Actual control can further be broken down into the brain’s capacity to control and the mental gymnastics of control. 

When we talk about the brain’s control function located in the pre-frontal cortex, we are referring to  executive control, defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “the ability to carry out goal-directed behavior using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory and impulse inhibition).”

The mental gymnastics of control is more a manipulation of focus referred to as mindset control. So not only is it actual control of what you are thinking but it is also a perception of control – a way of believing we are in control simply by where we focus our attention – rather than a biological function of the brain.

In an experiment conducted at Stanford, researches describe mindset control this way: 

We propose that individuals can attain perceived control simply by reflecting on what one can control versus what one cannot. We call the mindset activated by reflecting on what one can control a “can-control mindset” and the mindset activated by reflecting on what one cannot control a “can’t-control mindset”. We propose that adopting a can-control mindset will produce positive effects on well-being, health, and job performance, whereas a can’t-control mindset will diminish these outcomes.

How Taking Control Helps Reduce Anxiety Generated By Envy vs Jealousy?

When dealing with envy vs jealousy, both states of mind involve focusing on something out there, something outside ourselves. This something in and of itself does not cause a problem. It is the way we are relating to it – our state of mind regarding that something – that is causing the discomfort (envy/jealousy). 

When we are in a state of mind of envy, we are focused on something we do not have.  And since it is something other than ourselves, we do not have control over it. As we established earlier, that is the cause of the anxiety. 

If we were to employ the “can-control mindset” we would shift our attention to what is within our control.  For example:

  • We can control where we put our attention. 
  • We can control whether we choose to follow negative or positive thoughts. 
  • We can control whether we allow ourselves to feel our emotions. 
  • We can control whether we succumb to irritability and temper tantrums or choose the words we say to ourselves and others

From a can-control mindset, envy could be addressed by shifting focus from that thing/person/situation that triggers the feeling of not “being” who we want to be to imagining what it would feel like to be who we want to be.

When you shift your attention to yourself, you reclaim control.

You can bring that feeling back to the present moment and focus attention on ways you already are who you want to be. Once we are feeling better about who we are right now, we can capitalize on that sense of well being and focus on one next step that would bring us even more into the feeling of being who we want to be.

When we reclaim control, that thing out there that we were feeling badly about has faded into the background and then the focus is entirely on what is within our control – ourselves.

When we are in the state of mind of  jealousy, our attention focuses on something that has been “taken” from us or is in danger of being taken.

This feeling is predicated on the idea that we possess that thing and that our good feelings are built on having that thing/person/experience in our lives. Believing our well being is dependent upon possession of those things is of course part of the problem. Seldom do possessions actually make us happy. But this is also a problem because we so seldom can control these things.

You cannot control things outside yourself: people choose to end relationships, things break, opportunities come and go. Pinning your wellbeing beyond your control will thus always always be a set up for anxiety. 

If you briefly focus on what feeling the illusion of “having” any one of those things brings up in you, you might notice feelings of security, contentment, happiness, excitement, love, etc. Once you identify the feeling you want to have, you can then detangle the feeling from those things, by focusing on the feeling in your body.

What you will notice is that those things aren’t actually causing those feelings. You can have the feeling without that thing/person/experience being there. You can begin cultivating the feeling inside regardless of whether or not you have specific things, relationships or experiences. You can take control of how you think about your needs. 

envy vs jealousyHarnessing Energy From Envy vs Jealousy To Get What You Want

When you use a can-control mindset to manage your experience of envy or jealousy, you open yourself to a super power – the power to harness the energy of “negative” feelings for your own advantage.  

It is natural to want to resist bad feeling emotions. But when you begin shifting the way you relate to envy and jealousy and turn toward those feelings instead, there is a wellspring of energy at your fingertips. 

Just like with the can-control mindset, we choose where we put our attention. In this case, it is toward the energy of envy or jealousy.

With envy, believing that you are not being who you should or could be creates an intense longing to be different. With jealousy, believing that you can not have what you really want, creates an intense feeling of lacking what you need. Both emotions are based on false self-assumptions that can be changed…

Rather than turning away from the longing and lack, try stepping into it just enough to harness its energy.

This works best if you have already done the anxiety reduction process. It gives you a felt experience of knowing that you can turn “negative” feelings into “positive” feelings.

Take the intensity of longing, shift it away from “not being who you want to be” and direct it toward what you would be doing if you were who you wanted to be.

From there you can take the feeling of being who you want to be and create a clear vision of what you can do to get there. An action plan like this delivers a sense of control over your ability to achieve what you want, which overrides the initial anxiety over not already being it or not already having it.

Control Envy vs Jealousy By Loosening Anxiety’s Grip

As stated earlier, the anxiety generated by envy or jealousy is built on a perceived threat to something we care about. When we feel threatened, we usually feel both fear and anger and that fear and anger can end up fueling some pretty irrational thoughts.

Anger is often the result of pain fueled by the fear that if it continues we won’t be able to handle it. In anger, the anxiety is about doubting our ability to handle what is to come. 

It follows then that with envy and jealousy there is an element of anger ignited by the fear that you will not be able to handle the pain of “not being” or “not having” and fearing whether the unfulfilled wanting will ever be alleviated.

Anxiety then kicks in and escalates your discomfort when you allow yourself to think that you can’t tolerate what’s happening. The more you focus on how intolerable the situation is, the more agitated and upset you become.

The solution here is to stop the downward spiral of anxiety compounded by the fear of the anxiety never ending. We do this by disentangle our fears of anxiety from the anxiety itself. Sometimes, simply recognizing that anxiety isn’t itself harmful is enough to dial it down to where it can be useful.

It is a subtle mindset shift from irrational thoughts to more rational ones.  From I can’t handle it  to I do not want to handle it, but I can and I will.  This is just another example of stepping into a can-control mindset.


By employing a can-control mindset, we control our attention to reduce the anxiety no matter what the cause. Knowing whether your feelings are related to envy vs jealousy does not change the strategy for reducing the anxiety that stems from it. Knowing the difference simply allows you to hone in on what exactly is making you feel unsteady, so you can redirect your thinking. Remember, with envy it is “not being” and with jealousy it is “not having” what you think you need. 

Redirecting attention to what we CAN control is how we cultivate what we actually need. Feelings follow from the attention and actions we choose. Feelings of envy and jealousy are usually traps and distractions away from the choices we have. To solve the anxiety these powerful feelings generate, we start by refocusing on what is within our control.


Looking for more help understanding how anxiety can be a tool rather than a burden? Check out my Anxiety Myths Navigator and discover the 12 key anxiety myths that are holding you back and how reframing your thinking can change your relationship with anxiety, and your life. Offered at a huge discount for a limited time, claim your spot here.

Photo by Tomas Tuma and Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD