The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy

In Othello, Shakespeare famously describes jealousy as “the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on.” Even after four centuries, it would be difficult to improve on that. Jealousy is truly a monster that eats into you and, as Shakespeare implies, it is its own punishment.

The Nature of Jealousy

When trying to understand any form of human behavior, it is always helpful to return to the beginning. For millions of years we lived and died in tight-knit groups, roaming the African savannah, scrapping with other tribes, gathering fruit and hunting game. We are a tribal creature, hardwired to be sensitive about rank, status, and dominance. In The Dangerous Passion, evolutionary biologist David Buss even argues that jealousy was favoured by natural selection! A male who was jealous of his partner’s admirers, for example, would have driven them away, thus ensuring the survival of his genes.

When someone has greater status or rank, when they own something we cannot afford, we don’t just resent them because we want those things for ourselves; we resent them for belittling and humiliating us. The psychoanalysts wrote a great deal about jealousy and the tension and ambivalence it can arouse. Alfred Adler, the first of Freud’s disciples to establish his own school, gave a central place to jealousy and competition. Adler argued that a great deal of human behavior can be explained by a sense of inferiority and the desire to compensate for this. Many people feel inferior in some way, whether physically, financially, intellectually, whatever it may be. And sometimes this results in what Adler called an “inferiority complex.” Such feelings are unpleasant and people resent those who cause them. To compensate, they then invent unattainable goals, fail, and grow even more bitter and jealous.

Freud believed civilization itself was only possible because people repressed their hate, bitterness, and jealousy. Being a pessimist, he disagreed with Adler that jealousy could be eased by redistributing wealth. Even if that were possible, argued Freud, there would still be sexual jealousy. Remove jealousy towards those with more money and a bigger house and people would instead hate their neighbor for being more attractive or for having a more attractive partner.

Jealousy in Relationships

Perhaps nowhere does jealousy cause more harm than in relationships. Indeed, read any relationship guide, or talk to someone with lots of experience, and they will tell you that jealousy can be fatal. Of course, it can take many forms. Some cannot bear the thought of their partner’s former lovers. Others grow so obsessed with his pretty work colleague or her handsome fitness instructor that they begin reading text messages, stalking them on social media, and even following their partner about.

The causes also vary. Obviously, someone who was cheated on in a previous relationship, especially if they were naive and trusting, will fear it happening again. But jealousy can have other, more obscure roots. For example, people who endured miserable, insecure childhoods often yearn for stability and love and dread losing them when they find them. The same is true of those who were very lonely and unhappy before they met their partner. Poor self-esteem is another common reason.

Unfortunately, this kind of jealousy is poisonous. A major part of the problem is that the jealous often react badly without explaining why. This then sets off a nasty chain of events. So, for example, they may sulk, withdraw affection, or reply in a sharp, sarcastic tone when their partner speaks to them. Their partner, having no idea why she is behaving in this way, becomes irritated and begins to distance himself. The jealous person then assumes they were right to suspect an affair or to worry that he or she is still in love with an ex.

If you have found yourself in this kind of situation, you must first acknowledge it. Next, be honest with yourself. No one can be sure about another human being. You can never know whether they still love an ex or have feelings for your sister or best friend. We are complicated creatures who often struggle to understand our own minds and emotions, let alone someone else’s. All you can do is make it clear that you will not tolerate cheating and that if this happens the relationship ends. Once you have, you must choose to trust them. And you must be realistic. Your partner is only flesh and blood. Of course they are going to be attracted to other people. They may even be tempted. That may be hard to accept, but it is reality.

Mindfulness may also help. This technique involves a sort of detached awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions, neither judging nor resisting, but simply allowing them to be there. A popular analogy is with a cloudless sky. Imagine a day of clear blue. Think of this as your mind’s natural state – empty consciousness. Later, a few wisps of cloud appear, analogous to your thoughts. These thicken, darken, and lead to rain. But the empty, clear blue sky is still there. Mindfulness teaches you not to identify with your thoughts but simply to watch them rise and fall, come and go, as clouds come and go through an empty sky. With practise, you can apply this technique to those recurrent bouts of jealousy. Instead of allowing it to take you over and sweep you away, you do nothing, simply observing your jealousy instead.

Happiness, Wealth, and Possessions

More generally, some display homicidal levels of jealousy over other people’s wealth and happiness. And their barely concealed delight when such lives unravel can be nauseating to watch. Obviously, this kind of jealousy is as old as our species; no doubt the first Neolithic farmer envied his neighbor’s crops or land. Even the Old Testament, composed more than two millennia ago, lists “coveting” among the deadly sins. Indeed, one of the first great works of literature in English, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 1380s, features a character who describes an argument with her husband in which she demands “Why is my neighbor’s wife so gay?” (so well-dressed and affluent-looking), while “I have no thrifty cloth,” meaning I have no expensive new clothes.

Unfortunately, such jealousy is now intensified by social media. As everyone knows, people put up highlight reels of their life, covering their Facebook page with photos of themselves sun-tanned and laughing outside some luxury hotel, attending their son’s graduation from a smart college, and so on. And yet, though people know these are the highlights (after all, whoever puts up a photo of themselves arguing with their partner or having their car repossessed?!), they still fall for it, allowing resentment to fester.

Along with reducing the time you spend on social media (or quitting it altogether), try focussing on what you have, not what you wish you had. The old clichés are true: you probably have got a lot to be grateful for, there really is always someone worse off than you, and the grass only seems greener on the other side. Try not to think of yourself as being in competition with others. Instead, view all that competing and jealousy as a silly game you can opt out of. Remember, it is in the interests of employers and retailers to keep you fighting and striving in this way. Jealousy is a wonderful motivator. It is the reason people slog their way through the rush hour, stick at loathsome but well-paid jobs, take on ruinous mortgages, and so on. Again, mindfulness can help. Not only will it teach you to be conscious of such thoughts, it will also help you to focus on the here and now and take more pleasure in what you have.

Intellect and Talent

Some grow jealous of other people’s intellect or talent. Even the most brilliant and sophisticated can fall prey to this. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, for example, recalled being at Cambridge with Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, and A. J. Ayer, another great philosopher. Ayer, jealous and resentful of Wittgenstein’s fame and intellect, began showing off, to such an extent that Wittgenstein even commented on it. Here you have a man of exceptional intellect, unable to rise above that most base and petty of human emotions.

Even more intense, perhaps, is jealousy over someone else’s artistic talent or skill. The great Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud, for example, once spoke of the terrible jealousy he experienced from his rival, Laurence Olivier. Indeed, jealousy among great artists is legendary. The British novelist Anthony Burgess once admitted that whenever he sat down to write a new novel he felt crushed by the thought that no matter how hard he tried he would never equal James Joyce. And A. N. Wilson, biographer of C. S. Lewis, once remarked that Lewis “hated” other poets all his life, simply because that he longed to write great poetry himself but could not.

One way of coping with such jealousy is to remember that, though others may have superior intellect or skill, you do have a unique, individual personality. Instead of trying to keep up with those you admire, cultivate whatever is quirky or different in you. As Oscar Wilde puts it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, to constantly imitate others and try to match them is to become “an echo of someone else’s music.” Instead, writes Wilde, “the aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly, that is what each of us is here for.” We are not here to imitate or compete with others.

Never underestimate the power of jealousy. And never underestimate the harm it can do. If you know someone is jealous of you, be wary – it can motivate the cruelest and most spiteful acts. And if you suffer from it yourself, do what you can to free yourself before it poisons you.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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