What’s the difference between envy and jealousy?

Penelope Trunk writes

In therapy lately I am learning to identify my feelings. Maybe you’re thinking this is elementary, but did you know that envy is about wanting something you don’t have, but jealousy is the fear of losing something you already have?

It’s my tendency to accept the written word (almost every written word, to a fault) as truth, but I read and re-read that paragraph over and over, debating that distinction and I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply couldn’t possibly disagree more.

In my minds eye, jealousy is a mean sort of emotion. Jealousy is looking at an acquaintance and wanting what they have, not just wanting it for yourself but wanting to take it from them.

Jealousy is feeling that they haven’t quite earned it. That you could somehow fit their life more than they do; you’d excel at their job, be kinder to their spouse, take better care of their home.

Jealousy is telling someone they don’t deserve their life as much as you do.

Envy, to me, is sweeter somehow. Envy speaks almost exclusively about those close to you, it is filled with a sort of expansiveness, detached appreciation for a choice, a way of life. I am fond of saying that I envy my siblings, all five of them, for different reasons each.

I don’t want to take their lives. I don’t even necessarily want what they have – Hilary’s wild pursuit of life, Lizzie’s sweet nature, Claire’s independence, Liam’s insane intelligence and Mawney’s calm blend of all of it.

I don’t want what they have, I just envy their place within it.

Envy is like being single and seeing an elderly couple at dinner, holding hands and laughing and still madly in love even after miscarriages and fights about dishes. Envy is wanting to end up in that same place through different means, but wanting it without bitterness or regret or sadness- envy is knowing that you’re halfway there already and will arrive in your own time.

It’s kind, soft, nonthreatening. It’s the desire to feel the same way about your life, rather than wanting that exact life for yourself.


This long preamble was all in order to say that while I was on the Island this weekend visiting my mum and watching Adam careen around the ice scoring goals and scrapping, I also envied my sister Hilary.

When we drove back to Ontario a few summers ago Hilary and I got into a fight – a rarity now that we’re all older. She angrily accused me of having nothing kind to say about her. She alleged that I complimented all of the other sisters, made positive comments about their appearance, their endeavors, and rarely did the same for her.

I was flabbergasted. I felt like saying “Hilary, have you MET you?”

She’s incredible. She steals the spotlight, is always the life of the party, pursues life with breathtakingly happy abandon. It seemed ridiculous that she would want, would need compliments from me, her boring older sister.

What would I say? What could I say? Complimenting Hilary feels like throwing ice cubes into a waterfall.

But she was right, I didn’t compliment her, I still don’t, as much as I do the others.

In order to be genuine it would feel sycophantic, I would be heaping it on with a shovel, I adore her wit and her fashion sense (always two years ahead of the trend), her artistic endeavors, the carefree way she makes decisions, her raucus life.

There’s just too much.And you look at someone like this, with the confidence of three of us mere mortals, eagerly embracing life, making best friends with everyone she meets, mastering Spanish, learning how to play the harmonica, performing spoken word poetry, jumping on stage, and you think “What could I possibly add to this?”

So this weekend I basked in this life, and I sat back and I enjoyed it and, yes, envied it, became inspired by it.

Being a practical sort of person, I tend to talk myself out of experiences, I struggle to find their worth. I weigh, in a very cold, rational manner, the cost of the experience against the potential benefits. And I make my decision from there.

This is a pretty sane way to make a decision, but it also becomes difficult when you’re pressed, by a sort of cold internal accountant, to justify learning French when you’re 28.

How do you find a “reason” to learn how to paint?

The accountant asks me to explain why exactly, I need to do this. Is it going to be worth the time and the money and the potential for stress and scheduling conflicts and, just what, exactly, am I planning to DO with it?

What’s the point?

It’s hard to justify. So I haven’t.

Hilary changed this.

“Why,” my accountant asks, “Why would anyone spend hours learning how to play the tambourine?”

“Because,” Hilary answers, “Because then one cold Saturday night you’ll be out dancing with your friends and the singer will spot it in your hand and invite you onstage to play with the band and you will be filled with such a wild happy joy that you think you might explode, THAT’s why.”

Because sometimes learning is the means and the end, rather than just being a bridge to future achievement.

It was fascinating and exhilarating to realize this. And I’m not going to learn how to play the tambourine, but I’m going to find my own source of wild happy joy and fill it with learning and that’s the beauty, the sweet advantage of envy.

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