About envy in a nutshell

Füzes Nóra | psychologist, junior consultant

Füzes Nóra | psychologist, junior consultant


What to do with it?

Of all our feeble human emotions, envy is the least presentable. It’s relatively rare to meet someone who will boldly, even proudly, say “Yes, I consider Csilla to be more creative, competent and even prettier than me in finance, and even younger and, to be honest, I’m bloody envious of her“. But whether we admit it or not, envy is a universal human emotion that quietly grows but inexorably resides in all of us.


Unfortunately, although it is a common trait, we cannot afford to ignore it. But let’s look at why this unpleasant feeling sometimes gets us and what we can do about it…

The paradox of irrationality

The obsession with envy relentlessly focuses our attention on things we don’t have. But beware! Often it also draws our attention to things we not only don’t own, but don’t even like or need. The reason is that envy is not based on the actual use or value of the thing, but on comparison.

The main message is:

he has it, I don’t and that makes me less.

Often the subject matter itself is completely irrelevant, or I don’t like it at all, or I’ve never thought about it before, “I wish I had one….”. The mere knowledge that someone else is enjoying something that is missing from my life and I feel helpless in getting it is enough to make me feel dissatisfied.

“This peculiar form of envy seems to subvert the universally accepted, enlightened principle that man is motivated to act only by his own benefit, his own well-conceived interest and desire for acquisition… We see the harm of others as more important than our own benefit.”

On reflection, there is something quite incomprehensible in this. We’ll break our hands and break our legs to get something we so often don’t need, just because it hurts that the other person has it. Let’s rather be equal in our own misery, just don’t have to put up with someone else having it better than me. This is what Donald Davidson calls the “paradox of irrationality”, according to Elena Pulcini in her book Envy – The Art of Sadness.

When envy comes to the surface

This difficult and shame-filled emotion can surface in any area of our lives. In the workplace, power relations, competition for recognition and money are most often responsible for professional envy. Left untreated and latent, it can have a damaging effect on relationships, development and effectiveness, so it is worth taking it seriously.

When someone, having overcome a sense of shame, does bring to the surface the envy within, it is often found that there is something more than mere human “badness” behind it. Usually we find emotions such as anger, resentment, sadness or disappointment masked. Acknowledging, articulating and expressing these feelings in a safe environment is in itself liberating and healing, but the difficulty is that they sometimes remain hidden for too long. However, our envy and the emotions that go with it can reproduce themselves, fuelling the revenge and gloating that slowly but surely poison both the individual and the environment.

How can we recognise it?

We usually like specifics, such as “If someone narrows their eyes, it means they are jealous.” No, unfortunately this is not true, or at least only half true.

The primary channel of envy is indeed the piercing, penetrating gaze, but it is almost imperceptible because of its shameful nature.

Often, the compensation for envy is the exaggerated devaluation of the other person, the spreading of gossip and malicious rumours, but often the opposite is also true, namely praise. It is worth looking at exaggerations and microaggressions rather than specifics. Since there is no such thing as perfect suppression, signs of envy will unconsciously surface in one way or another.

What can be done about it?

1. Self-awareness: as a psychologist, I recommend first and foremost facing oneself. This is the origo to which we can always return and which is certainly worth the effort in the long run.

2. Awareness: take it for granted that all people, including us, can feel envy, anger, frustration and they can feel all of these towards us. We don’t have to deal with the envy of others, but we are responsible for dealing with our own.

3. Greater perspective: Relate things to themselves and consider the context.

4. Focus: focus on our own goals and strengths. Sometimes we spend an unreasonable amount of time analysing the achievements of others, rather than spending that time on improving ourselves.


– Tóth, L. (2011) Envy at the workplace. Management Science-Budapest Management Review, 42(2), 33-48.

– Elena Pulcini Envy – The art of sadness