The social genius of jealousy and envy

July 13, 2013

Welcoming jealousy and envy!

Jealousy and envy need a hearty welcome, because they are perhaps two of the most hated (and valenced) emotions in the entire emotional realm. This is a tragedy, because jealousy and envy are actually essential for your social survival — you really need them! Luckily for us, we can work with jealousy and envy empathically and shield ourselves from the deeply unfortunate things we’ve been taught about these two vital emotions.

The poor training we get in regard to jealousy and envy carries over into our language, because even though these two emotions are quite distinct, most people lump them together. In most dictionaries, jealousy and envy are treated as synonyms for each other, but they’re actually different emotions.

Becoming empathically intelligent about jealousy and envy

Cover of The Language of EmotionsFrom The Language of Emotions: Jealousy and envy are separate emotional states, yet they share a similar purpose, which is to keep you safe and well-positioned in your social world: Jealousy’s job is to arise in response to challenges to the stability of your intimate relationships, while envy’s job is to arise in response to challenges to your access to resources or recognition. Both of these emotions keep you safe and secure in your social world.

Both jealousy and envy contain a mixture of boundary-protecting anger (including hatred – so check your shadow!) and intuitive fear. Both exist to help you reset your boundaries after they’ve assessed a risk to your security or your position. If you can work empathically with these two emotions, they’ll contribute tremendous stability to your personality, your relationships, and your social viability.

Let’s look at jealousy and envy empathically:

JEALOUSY: Relational Radar

GIFTS: Commitment ~ Security ~ Connection ~ Loyalty ~ Fairness

ACTION REQUIRED: Jealousy arises in response to challenges that may destabilize your connection to love, mate-retention, or loyalty. These challenges may come from external sources, from an internal lack of self-worth, or both.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What has been betrayed? What must be healed and restored?

 ENVY: Interactional Radar

GIFTS: Fairness ~ Security ~ Access to resources ~ Proper recognition ~ Self-preservation

ACTION REQUIRED: Envy arises in response to challenges that may destabilize your connection to material security, resources, or recognition. These challenges may come from external sources, from an internal lack of self-regard, or both.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What has been betrayed? What must be made right?

When your jealousy works healthfully, you won’t appear obsessively jealous or possessive — rather, your natural intuition and clear boundaries will help you instinctively choose and retain trustworthy mates and friends.

Similarly, when your envy flows freely, you won’t appear openly envious or greedy — instead, your internal security will allow you to celebrate the gains and recognitions of others (even when they’re undeserved) without ignoring your own need for gains and recognition.

However, if you suppress your jealousy, you’ll have trouble identifying, attracting, or relating to reliable companions. And if you suppress your envy, you (and everyone around you) will be disrupted by your attempts to either receive as little as possible, or to grab whatever you can get your hands on (everyone else be damned).

I call jealousy and envy the “sociological emotions” because they can help you understand and brilliantly navigate your social world. Very few people share this view; most people fiercely valence these emotions. People who express these emotions are rarely honored; they are often called insanely jealous or green-eyed monsters, which throws these emotions into the shadows. That’s never a good idea, especially in regard to emotions that exist to identify social hazards and protect you from them.

Both jealousy and envy arise in response to risks to your social or personal security. Shutting them down is like throwing a noisy smoke alarm out the window before finding out why it went off! When you stifle your jealousy and envy, you not only lose your awareness of the situations that brought them forward, but you lose your emotional agility, your instincts, and your ability to navigate through the social world and your relationships.

Many psychologists and laypeople have classified jealousy and envy as “primitive” emotions more suited to Neanderthals than to modern-day people. This is silly. Classifying jealousy and envy as primitive and obsolete totally ignores the fact that jealousy and envy have value and purpose today (and every day).

The genius in jealousy

Jealousy is a combination of intuition (fear) and self-protection (anger) that arises in its mood state when your most intimate and important relationships are threatened.

Intimacy – and security in intimate relationships – is incredibly important to your health and well-being, so much so that you’ll actually feel physically threatened when you sense betrayal from your mate. This sense of threat can certainly be traced back to earlier times, when mate selection and retention ensured physical survival in harsh climates. However, our intimate survival issues have not lessened in importance in the modern world, because each of us still faces present-day threats to our security and well-being.

Even when you’re physically and financially comfortable, you still require intimacy and security in your relationships, because dependable mates still help to ensure your social and material well-being. Dependable mates still nurture and protect your children and your family, and they still provide intimacy, love, security, companionship, sexual communion, friendship, and protection.

Healthy and committed relationships are vital to your social and emotional well-being, and in truth, they’re vital to your very survival.

If your mate is unreliable, or if your position as the primary focus of your mate is threatened, your jealousy will arise to help you face this very real threat to your security and well-being. There is no pathology in this – it’s a natural and healthy response. However, if you don’t listen to and honor your jealousy, it will tend to drag you into a feedback loop that can make your life very uncomfortable.

Cover of The Dangerous PassionIf persistent jealousy is a major stumbling block for you, please look into David Buss’s book on the sociological and biological necessity of jealousy, The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. It is an eye-opening book that defends jealousy as a natural and accurate emotion – even while it chronicles the horrific abuses caused by the repression and incompetent expression of jealousy.

One fascinating finding Buss presents is that follow-up studies on couples who entered therapy to deal with one partner’s “pathological” jealousy uncovered clear instances of hidden infidelity in an overwhelming percentage of the cases (and clear instances of crippling amounts of internal insecurity in the rest). In each case, the jealousy was pointing to a truly endangering situation of external or internal insecurity and acting exactly as it should have – to alert its owner to serious threats to intimacy, mate retention, and social well-being.

Remember that all emotions are true – even when they’re unpleasant or filled with seemingly hazardous intensities. All emotions are true, but they’re not always right. When you know how to work with your emotions empathically, you’ll know which is which.

When jealousy arises in its mood state, it does so for a valid reason. Your task is to acknowledge and welcome it rather than pretending that you don’t require security in your most important relationships. Jealousy is actually an intrinsic part of love and loving relationships.

The key to working with your jealousy is to identify when the risks you perceive come from a betrayal by your mate, and when they come from your own sense of unworthiness or insecurity in the relationship. Just as it is with every other emotion, there is no real alternative to channeling jealousy; the only way out is through.

The genius in envy

Envy is similar to jealousy in that it contains a mixture of boundary-restoring anger and intuitive fear. The difference between the two emotions is that envy helps you identify risks to your position and your security in your social group, rather than in your most intimate relationships. Envy alerts you to betrayals and affronts to your well-being, but it does so in connection to the fair and secure distribution of resources and recognition, rather than to threats to your reproductive survival or your security as a mate.

Envy is powerful because it responds to powerful threats to your social position and your connection to resources (money, food, privilege, protection, belonging, and social standing). Envy stands up for you in instances of unfairness or favoritism, or when resources have been (or seem to have been) pulled from you in deference to another.

Envy has been branded along with jealousy as a primitive and destructive emotion, but since we are an inherently social species, both jealousy and envy are necessary — because they monitor our social connections and social positioning. Both of these emotions help us function skillfully within social structures.

In the modern world, we now require more money, more resources, more things, and more infrastructures just to feed ourselves than our ancestors ever did. This means that envy – which helps us connect to and monitor our sources of material and communal security – is incredibly necessary for survival in our massively resource-dependent modern lives. Envy has a crucial protective function; it exists to keep us safely connected to the social and material support we need to live and flourish.

Properly honored and channeled envy doesn’t make you warlike or submissive; it enables you to understand social structures, to work within those structures (or leave them behind if you cannot work within them), to gather and nurture resources and recognition without devaluing others (devaluing others is an exceedingly poor social strategy), and to add to your social survival skills.

When you allow your healthy envy to flow, it will bring you the internal security and intuition you need to meet and respond to the many threats and sudden changes you’ll experience in your struggle to gather resources and protect yourself honorably in our modern jungle.

Jealousy and envy in The Art of Empathy

In my new book, The Art of Empathy, I explore jealousy and envy in a number of areas, most particularly in the chapters on the development of empathy in children, and on the ways that jealousy and envy play out in the workplace.

What I notice with children especially is that jealousy and envy are essentially not allowed. Children are admonished to not have a sense of ownership or “selfness:” they’re told to share their toys, their parents, their friends, and everything else. As such, most children grow up without much healthy experience of jealousy or envy. These two emotions often get shoved into the shadow, which causes a lot of trouble.

In the workplace (and in our everyday relationships), I see that jealousy and envy actually thrive, but they do so in the shadows, and especially in the informal communication process we call gossip. In the new book, I’ve got a fun way to detoxify gossip and re-engage with the wisdom of jealousy and envy. It’s called Ethical Empathic Gossip, and my work on this skill actually started here on this website. This is an awesome skill to share with your friends, family, and colleagues, and it’s especially wonderful to share with the currently unethical and unaware gossipers in your life.

Jealousy and envy have tremendous amounts of social information and wisdom to share with you, and Ethical Empathic Gossip is a safe and fun way to engage with these emotions, learn their language, and discover their gifts. Thank you, jealousy and envy!

In the next post: The lifesaving ingenuity of Panic and Terror


Cat July 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Great insight! I learned a lot from your article as I experience these emotions frequently and have learned to repress them. I really like how you described them as smoke alarms. Our emotions are there to guide us and if we can listen, learn and react in an intelligent way we will be able to navigate through to authentic and empathetic expression much faster!

Karla July 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Woot! Cat, you got it!

Pamina Mullins September 9, 2015 at 3:48 am

Absolutely brilliant insights – and a way overdue positive perspective.

All emotions are there for a reason. Emotions are a language. Once we learn the language we have a direction finder in life that is invaluable.

Thank you so much for sharing this!

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