The social genius of jealousy and envy

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 our social survival — we really need them! Luckily, 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

From 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 awareness and strengths.

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 well, 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 help you celebrate the gains of others (even when they’re undeserved) without ignoring your own needs 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 think of these emotions as completely negative.

And people who express jealousy or envy 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 of 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 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 eras, 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’s 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, it does so for valid reasons. Your task is to acknowledge and welcome it rather than pretending that you don’t require security in your most important relationships. Jealousy is 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 these 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 threats 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, or 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 favor of 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 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 usually told to to share their toys, their parents, their friends, and everything else, and not to want things or people all to themselves. 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 this 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

14 Responses

  1. Cat
    | Reply

    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
      | Reply

      Woot! Cat, you got it!

  2. Pamina Mullins
    | Reply

    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!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you!

  3. elise
    | Reply

    This was incredibly illuminating to read. I just listened (twice-and took notes!) to your interview with Tami Simon. I would love to know what you think of the tendency to be painfully, acutely envious of celebrities or other extremely successful people, how pervasive and what is the meaning of that stratospheric level of envy? Thank you!!!!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Elise — part of the problem is that many stories about celebrities are engineered to engage your envy and jealousy. Celebrities are often managed and molded into projection devices, and until you see the manipulation, your emotions may just play along with the game.

      The focus of intense envy and jealousy may be connected to hatred and the shadow, when we see people having something we want or getting something we feel we deserve instead. A helpful thing I learned early on is to lean into the unfairness and celebrate the person and my own longings. So, for instance, if I see a massively untalented person getting accolades for writing, it doesn’t knock me sideways. I feel the envy, and then say, “Oh hell yeah, I wish I could be a total hack and have everyone celebrate me! I wish I didn’t have to work hard in relative obscurity! I wish I had those skills and that luck and that support system!” I’m honest about the hackiness, but I’m also honest about wanting what they have. And then I laugh and go on with my day.

      In my spiritual upbringing, I wasn’t allowed to feel these honest human emotions, and I had to repress reality, and hoowhee, did that ever NOT work! I prefer emotional honesty (with skills and ethics, of course) instead.

      Remember, too, that envy points you into your desires. You can’t become envious about something that means nothing to you. It could be that your emotions are trying to tell you something about what’s vital to you — or something about where you would like to go. If so, there’s a wonderful free book online called Wishcraft by Barbara Sher. It’s kind of dated, but it’s really quite good for channeling your envy into this world in a marvelous way:

      • elise
        | Reply

        I know that book! going to totally check it out. thank you for such a thoughtful and thorough response! You are not obscure to me! I am a novelist who barely anyone has read despite my agent and publishing deals, but there you go! I feel a lot better after reading your reply. Allowing the “unsavory” emotions to run their natural course is freaking liberating! all best!

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Envy is so wonderful when you know how to work with it. Without its support, people can allow lots of unfairness, take less than they need or deserve, and put themselves last. When it’s healthy, envy helps the world be fair for everyone.

          Something I do with writers or people I envy is to study them and their support system — to see how it’s done. It has helped a great deal in my career to be able to point to someone doing things well, and to use them as unknowing mentors. Win!

          • elise

            Amen. Love it. Based on your insight i realize that i have a lot of unknowing mentors! thank you again.

  4. Athena
    | Reply

    I am so grateful for the accessibility and richness of your work with emotions. I often refer to your posts and books when I don’t understand what’s happening internally. Rereading this post about envy today helped calm me down after a “small” but surprisingly deep disappointment relating to my material resources. I realized I can live without this particular resource, so on the one hand I feel okay. On the other hand, I noticed that the incident seemed to be an example of a recurring case of envy.

    It makes sense to me that envy is a social emotion. I think that my social environment does affect my experience of envy. I go to an elite and affluent college, and all around me I see peers with relatively easy access to a variety of resources that would take me a considerable amount of effort to attain. Growing up in a lower income bracket I was generally happy with what I had. I don’t know how to make sense of my habit of comparing my resources to other’s. Even though I have enough, it doesn’t always feel like enough when those around me have “more.” Even though I understand the basics of envy from your post, I still have a gnawing sense that my personal experience of envy is not reconciled with the inequity that is a fact of my social sphere (and the world even). There is a part of me that says “let it go” and a part of me that says this envy I feel may benefit from being “channeled,” but how? I ask. I appreciate your response to Elise and your comment about “leaning into the unfairness,” although I don’t totally understand it, it sounds like something I should try. Thank you again for the wisdom and support you offer to people working through their emotions. Blessings, Athena

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Athena,

      Comparing yourself to others is the lot of a social species. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature! And a hierarchical social species builds inequity into the system, I’m afraid.

      It’s okay to feel the envy, and to wish that you had it easier. It might be helpful to turn your gaze away from the moneyed people and toward yourself, and ask your envy what, specifically, do you want? How do you want your life to be? What’s important to you?

      Being surrounded by the elite class, if you don’t have connection to your roots, can be disorienting. It’s a whole other social world, with its own customs, culture, and reality. There is also an entirely different form of social capital, which you may not have developed (why would you, if it’s a different social class?). However, your own social capital is just as important, especially if you will return to your social sphere when you graduate.

      As a social emotion, envy may be comparing you to your colleagues and trying to help you get into sync with them so that you’ll be socially successful. However, this isn’t really supportive, since you don’t have the money to keep up. It may be a good idea to have a talk with your envy, not just about what is important to you and how you want to live, but also about the realities of your financial situation.

      What I notice is that once emotions know the score, they will support your real life instead of trying to turn you into someone else. And if your envy slips up after you have the chat, you can just gently remind it,”Envy, dear, focus on our budget and not on what those elite people are doing!”

      The skill of Burning Contracts can also be very supportive in a situation like this.

      I hope this helps!

  5. Michelle
    | Reply

    You say that emotions are always true but not always right. What do you mean by that?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Michelle. All emotions are true in that they’re responding to something, either internal or external, that is true.

      But they’re not always right, because they and you may have incorrect information, or you may be activated or slowed down for some reason.

      So let’s say that your heart rate rises and you feel very activated. You may feel anxiety or fear or excitement, which are all true based on your physical state. But they may not be right, because you might be experiencing a health condition that has nothing to do with emotions.

      This is why it’s important to track back and ask the question for each emotion so that you know your emotions are both true and right. The more awareness you can bring to your emotions, the more accurate and focused they become.

  6. Khaleda Parveen
    | Reply

    Thank you so much Karla.

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