by Mary Lamia, Ph.D.

Jealousy and envy sting. Imagine, for example, craving attention from a person whose focus is on someone else, or wanting to have some quality that is possessed by another person. When you experience jealousy or envy, you have measured your sense of your self against your image of another person’s value and arrived at a conclusion that triggers shame. It’s no wonder jealousy and envy feel so awful. The shame that comes along with them is an emotion that everyone dreads.
Envy is often confused with jealousy. Envy has to do with wanting the qualities, success, or possessions of another person. Jealousy involves thinking you will lose, or have lost, some affection or security from another person because of someone or something else—including their interest in an activity that takes time away from you. Thus, both jealousy and envy involve comparisons.
At times you may compare yourself with another person, but most often you will be focused upon the differences you have with them that are based on negative feelings you have about yourself. How you feel about yourself is determined to a great degree by comparing who you are—how you perceive yourself—with what you consider to be your ideals. When someone else seems to match those ideals, of course you will come up short. Comparing yourself with an idealized image of another person magnifies shame that can feel threatening to your self-esteem.
Any threat to your esteem—your established sense of self—will likely activate shame,1 and, when you come up short in such comparisons, shame is experienced as envy or jealousy.
You may idealize another person when you are envious, imagining that a quality or something possessed by them would bring you happiness or fulfillment. It may be hard to admit, but envy is a state where you experience yourself as lacking something that will lead you to be admired as much as you secretly admire the person who has the desired attribute or possession you envy. Diminishing the importance of the envied other person by devaluing them is actually related to fears of one’s own inadequacy. You are engaged in diminishing or devaluing another person when you have belittling thoughts about them, such as petty criticisms—and some of these you may discuss with your friends along with an attitude of disdain. The things you will criticize about those you envy are likely to be qualities, that you believe, other people admire.
A preoccupation with an envied other can lead you to repeatedly measure your self-worth against your image of their value. But there is an upside: Although envy can motivate you to damage the position of the person who is envied, either in your imagination or in reality, envy can also make you work harder in order to attain what the envied person possesses.
When you experience jealousy you may assume that someone else is receiving the attention, love, or adoration that you want for yourself, which is provided by someone from whom you want it. Shame is the basis of jealousy and its purpose is to warn you of a threat to your relationship with a valued person. Thus, you may experience one or more of the typical self-protective responses to shame: withdrawal, avoidance, attacking yourself, or attacking others.

When jealousy is pronounced in a relationship, a response to shame that attacks others may result in aggressive and offensive behavior. You may want to hurt the person who is a jealous rival, and behave in ways that will control the person whose bond you might lose.
Becoming avoidant when you are jealous may lead you to abuse alcohol or drugs to relieve what you feel.
Withdrawal may be accompanied by your hope that the person with whom you have a relationship will notice and re-establish a bond.
Attacking oneself may lead to all kinds of self-injurious behaviors.
Although such defensive responses to jealousy represent attempts to protect self-esteem, they also can result in depression or loneliness. Moreover, jealousy can also make you overwhelmed by uncertainty about a relationship, and the fear of shame can lead to worry or obsessive preoccupation with its status.
When you experience envy or jealousy, you have an opportunity to learn about yourself by asking yourself some questions, rather than become immersed in a shame response:
•    Are you perceiving that you are lacking in some quality that you would like to develop for yourself?
•    Are you experiencing jealousy because, actually, you want something more from your relationship than the relationship provides?
•    How do you perceive yourself and what you are doing in your life compared to others?

Emotional intimacy is complex, and if there is not enough emotional safety in a relationship, or if you have experienced childhood loss or abandonment that interferes with feeling safe, you may have a hard time working through an experience of shame with a partner that involves jealousy. Most situations where feelings of jealousy or envy are triggered have little to do with the qualities of someone else or the interest a partner may have in another person. Instead, they have more to do with our perception of ourselves.
1.    Catherall, D. (2012). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect. New York: Routledge.
2.    Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author who practices in Kentfield, California. To find out more about her books on handling emotions for kids, preteens, and young and older adults, visit