This is another in the series on emotional competence from a book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago, but (as far as I know) was never published. There are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted at the bottom.

Jealousy and Envy

Jealousy and envy are another pair of related feelings, both of which can be seen as evolving from competition, and rooted in the competition for love and care in our early family environment. The distinction between them is unclear so that they are often confused, with the terms used interchangeably; indeed most definitions of one word include the other!  As mentioned previously, as long as you are not trying to discuss them with someone else (in which case you will need to ‘rectify terms’ as Confucius put it), what you call your emotions is less important than your capacity to distinguish between them. This being the case, the descriptions presented here are offered as practical aids rather than authoritative definitions.

Jealousy can be seen as having two aspects, one anxious and one acquisitive. The anxious aspect is the fear that another will take from you something that you value or cherish, so that we speak of someone ‘jealously guarding’ a secret, a treasure, or a sexual partner. The acquisitive aspect describes the desire one has for something that another has, perhaps the same treasure that they are jealously guarding.

Envy has been described as ‘a peculiar combination of both desire and resentment fused in bitterness’. One way that envy can be distinguished from jealousy is in desired outcome: you seek to acquire an object of jealousy, but the goal of envy is simply to deprive the other party. It could also be argued that one feels acquisitive jealousy about something that someone else has, but that one feels envy towards someone who has something that you do not. The distinction being that jealousy is felt towards the object first and the person second, whereas this order is reversed in envy.

Envy can be seen as having four key aspects that make it up.

  • The first and most significant is a sense of deprivation: that in some way you are being deprived of the pleasure or fulfilment that an item, relationship, talent or reputation would give you.
  • Secondly, you must perceive someone else as having and benefiting from whatever it is that you believe yourself denied. The relationship between these two items is significant, in that we seldom desire something until we see that someone else has it. The underlying experience of lack that so many people carry can thus be triggered simply by the knowledge that someone has something that you do not, even if it is something that you have not previously conceived of as being of any benefit to you. Such is the basis of many thousands of marketing campaigns!
  • The third aspect of envy is a feeling of impotence in the face of the perceived inequality, and it is this feeling that introduces the resentful aspect of envy.
  • The final aspect is the unfounded and illogical, but deeply felt belief that it is because the other party has what we desire that we do not have it. It is this introduction of an entirely spurious causal relationship that characterises envy: a belief that life is a zero-sum game, and that if you have love, happiness, wealth, prestige, or success then I can not have it.

Such a belief is a deeply damaging one for a leader, as it can easily divert you into false competitions that are wasteful and destructive. It has been observed since at least the 15th century that comparisons are odious, and the tendency to compare oneself with others is usually not just a waste of time and energy, but positively unhelpful. The obvious exception being those occasions when you are directly competing for a role or position. When you allow your tendency to compare to slide into a desire to compete you have lost your initiative, and your energies will be directed away from your long-term goals.

Both of these emotions are painful, and if you have not felt the torture of sexual jealousy then you are a lucky person. However, jealously can trigger ambition and thus be a stimulus to action, whereas envy is an intensely painful and ultimately humiliating experience, a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating form of masochism.


The other emotions that I’ve posted on so far are:

Anger – and Emotional Competence

Guilt and Shame

Tiredness, Grieving and Depression

Feeling Bored

Feeling Hurt – Distress and Vulnerability

Feeling Good