What Is The Difference Between Envy And Jealousy?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you go up to five different people and ask them what it means to be jealous, chances are that everyone will give you a different answer. Ask them next what it meant to be envious, and those five people might look at you puzzled, wondering, "Well, what is the meaning of envy if it's not the same as jealousy?" If you’re having trouble figuring out the main difference is between these emotions, you’re not alone.

Although the words envy and jealousy may often be used interchangeably, they have distinct definitions. Envy generally refers to wanting something that someone else has, while jealousy usually involves someone that may threaten something you already have. Envy and jealousy can be healthy, normal emotions, but when they become pathological, they may be considered delusional disorders. If you have a hard time managing feelings of envy or jealousy, consider online therapy, as it can provide a safe space to talk through and cope with these emotions.

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Are you having a hard time managing envy or jealousy?

Envious vs jealous: What’s the main difference?

Envy occurs when we desire something someone else has, such as a new car or a sense of achievement. It might also be a desire for a promotion that a coworker just received or a longing for the type of marriage your friend has with their spouse. You might envy the good looks of your brother or sister or the academic ability of your best friend; you might envy anything you don't currently have that you want.

Envy requires two people; the only two parties involved are generally you and the person who has what you desire. Envy can be an internal reaction when we see that we lack something desirable that someone else has.

Jealousy occurs when something you already have is threatened by someone else. This feeling is often applied to relationships, such as with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Jealousy could be an emotion you feel when your significant other dances with someone else at a bar. If your ex-spouse marries someone else and that person grows close to your children, that can be another instance in which you may feel jealousy.

Jealousy can differ from envy in that jealousy typically involves three parties: you, what you have (typically a significant other), and an outside force that poses a threat to what you have. Jealousy requires someone or something external that causes a fearful feeling centered on possession.

Are envy and jealousy healthy and normal?

Everyone has likely experienced feeling envious or jealous of others at some point in their lives. A certain degree of these emotions can be healthy and productive. Still, it can be essential to know the difference between these two feelings because, while they can be helpful, they can be equally as destructive in excess.

Potential confusion with these terms

The semantic ambiguity of the word jealousy may be the reason many people do not understand the distinction between jealousy and envy. Many times, when someone describes a time when they felt jealous, they may be referring to an instance when they felt envious.

Envy may be a little less ambiguous and is often used in the correct context. However, the term jealousy can make understanding the difference between the two words rather difficult. Both feelings can feel quite similar, which can also make it challenging to distinguish between jealousy and envy.

Jealousy and envy can also be experienced simultaneously. When someone attractive is dancing with your partner, you might feel as though they pose a threat to your relationship because you perceive them as having better traits than yourself. This would be an example of jealousy. You may find yourself desiring those traits as well, which would be an example of envy.

Explaining the differences and problems with using jealousy and envy together can be shown through other situations. For example, a person that wants to sleep with someone else's spouse may feel envy because they may want what someone else has. If that same person does not want their spouse sleeping with anyone else, they may feel a sense of jealousy. They may desire something they don’t have and feel threatened that someone might take what they already have. 

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Jealousy and envy can affect your health

Feelings of jealousy and envy can be very reasonable in certain situations, particularly when they are based on facts and can be resolved through communication. However, some people experience pathological jealousy, which can be harmful.

Pathological jealousy can occur in people who experience emotional imbalances or other mental health issues. Pathological jealousy can lead to feelings of extreme possessiveness, anger, and obsessiveness. People with pathological jealousy are often egotistical and mean, aggressive, or violent.

An example of someone who is experiencing pathological jealousy could be a person who believes their partner is cheating and goes to great lengths to try to uncover evidence. Stalking is often a result of pathological jealousy.

Extreme envy can also be harmful because it can lead to feelings of mistrust, resentment, and anger. Overly envious people often treat others that they believe to be better than them with contempt, and they may try to ruin the reputations of those people to get ahead. Those who live with extreme envy are often negative, critical, and pessimistic. They can be sarcastic and act indifferent to those around them.

These feelings associated with jealousy and envy can often be detrimental to a person's emotional health. They can also negatively impact the physical and emotional health of the people who are the object of jealousy or envy.

Treating pathological envy and jealousy

Pathological envy and jealousy are generally considered delusional disorders due to the individual's distorted perception of the subject of their envy or jealousy. People who live with delusional disorders can be a danger to themselves or others and may need the support of a mental health professional. 

Delusional disorders can be challenging to treat because they can appear in many forms. In most cases, a combination of medication and therapy is used to treat these disorders.

People who are living with delusional disorders may not always experience beliefs that are fanciful or outlandish. Often, their delusions are plausible. When someone with pathological jealousy has delusions that their spouse is cheating on someone, even though they have no evidence, this claim might not sound completely outlandish. However, if a person had said they believed their spouse was cheating with a ghost in the house next door, that might seem a little absurd. What can be important to realize is that both claims are delusional, even though one may be more believable than the other.

Because some delusions are believable, the signs of pathological jealousy or envy may not be immediately apparent. Many times, it is not until the jealous person begins to act out in ways that make people uncomfortable that others may step in to try to get the person treatment. People who are delusional may function normally in social events or public spaces, and it’s not likely anyone would assume that they have a mental illness. This can be quite different from other types of psychosis in which the person’s behavior can appear abnormal.

If a person experiences signs of a delusional disorder, a mental healthcare provider can help. The healthcare provider may order blood tests to rule out any biological abnormalities and may also order imaging tests such as X-rays or CT scans to observe brain structure and functioning. In severe cases, delusions can be indicative of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia rather than pathological jealousy or envy.

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Are you having a hard time managing envy or jealousy?

If you or anyone you know is experiencing delusions or intense feelings of jealousy or envy, you can reach out for advice and begin talking to someone today.

Online therapy may help you work through jealousy and envy

If you experience envy or jealousy more often than you’d like, therapy may be effective in managing and preventing these emotions from affecting your relationships with others. If traditional face-to-face therapy isn’t convenient for you, you may wish to consider online therapy, which often has more flexible scheduling options and can be done from anywhere with an internet connection.

Jealousy and envy may be linked to stress or anxiety. One study showed that online therapy could be particularly effective when used to treat symptoms of these issues. By addressing the underlying causes and helping individuals develop healthy coping strategies, online therapy can contribute to improved emotional well-being and better interpersonal relationships.

Takeaway

In the course of our lives, we may encounter various examples of jealousy and envy, both of which can impact our relationships and personal well-being. To feel jealous often means to feel threatened, due to the fear of losing something or someone we cherish. On the other hand, envy arises when we desire to achieve or possess something another person has, such as success or material possessions. Understanding the difference between these emotions can help us better navigate our feelings and relationships. 

Most people occasionally experience envy and jealousy, but these emotions can become unhealthy if they become uncontrollable or cause harm. Online therapy may be beneficial if you find it challenging to manage feelings of jealousy or envy.

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