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Tuesday, January 7

Which Ugly Kind of Jealous Are You?

Consumed by the green-eyed monster? There’s a better option.

Until I landed in Europe, I lived just one town south of earth’s two richest humans. Gotta admit: It was sometimes a struggle to keep envy in check.(Hubby and I moved from our Seattle ’burb to a Paris ’burb last year. Now our neighbors down the road are only earth’s third-richest human, and earth’s richest woman. So much better.)

Of all the ways people differ from animals, this may be the most telling: We human folk can get really strong, dark, even obsessive feelings when we notice that other people have what we don’t. (Sure, animals steal one another’s food — I’m looking at you, crows — but they don’t spend months or years suffering, plotting, and gloating over it.)

We human folk can get really strong, dark, even obsessive feelings when we notice that other people have what we don’t.

At those moments when envy threatens to destroy their peace of mind, mature people behave one way; immature people behave another. But it’s not just A or B. Turns out there are many ways to be jealous, from the criminal to the ambitious to the kind.

Let’s amble through the annals of appalling acts abetted by envy.

Here’s a quick rundown of the many manifestations of human envy, from most immature to most adult. In this journey through jealousy, you’ll find celebrities and criminals, and celebrity criminals. Don’t let those examples distract from the larger point: Everyone is susceptible to the destructive effects of jealousy, both as victim and as perpetrator. The celebrity offenders here are fascinating, but you yourself have been on this list as well— at higher or lower points depending on both your emotional state and your maturity level at the moment you were struck by an envious thought.

Side note: Yes, I’m a therapist. If you see yourself anywhere but the bottom of this list, we may need to talk.

The Jealous Types, from most to least destructive

The criminal stalker. “I’ll get you, my pretty.” This category includes misogynistic incel spree killers, as well as the glory-seeking or vengeful killers* of Selena, John Lennon, Rebecca Schaeffer, Jam Master Jay, and others. Not all covetous creepers are full-on criminals. But even social-media stalking can skirt the edges of criminality — especially when the possessive person is setting up fake accounts or attempting to infiltrate their victim’s identity.

The domestic abuser. “If I can’t have you, nobody can.” Abusers envious of their partners’ success (or angry that their victims have found independence or love with someone else) actually murdered celebrities such as Dominique Dunne, Phil Hartman, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Dorothy Stratten, as well as uncountable numbers of less-famous individuals.

The criminal competitor. “And your little dog, too.” These are the sociopathic competitors who are angry that someone threatened to take what they wanted. Criminal competitors attacked Nancy Kerrigan, Mary Jo Buttafuco, Colleen Shipman, my lasik surgeon (yes, seriously!!!) and probably Tupac.

The green-eyed monster. “Don’t mess with the bull, young man, or you get the horns.” Less clever and more hamfisted than the barking Dog in the Manger (below), this spiteful individual urinates on the hay so nobody gets to use it. People who murder their children to deprive someone else of custody or commit acts of terrorism are the worst kind sick, twisted sociopaths. Yet the same basic mindset motivates the toddler who jealously breaks a sibling’s toy, as well as vandals who destroy works of art. If you’ve ever felt the urge to break something so someone else couldn’t have it, shoot down someone’s proposals because they weren’t yours, or engage in knee-jerk negativity, you’ve experienced the green-eyed monster.

The thief. “You got it, I deserved it, now I’m going to deprive you of it.” The worst entry in this category is the woman who kills her pregnant “friend” to steal her baby. But to a lesser degree, most acts of theft — whether stealing someone’s cupcake, their boyfriend, or their identity— come out of a belief that other people owe you their stuff.

The malignant gossip. “If you have an X you must have stolen it.” Regina George and her narcissistic queen-bee wannabes live on. They minimize and mock and question the legitimacy of anyone else’s accomplishments, even into adulthood. We have a dear friend who lives two villages from ours. She and her husband are hard-working, sensible, friendly people who happen to own a couple of very, very nice automobiles. Our friend recently overheard her racist neighbor, the village gossip, speculating that because my friend and her husband are Algerian, they must have earned their money in the cocaine trade. Vive la reine!

This scene never stops being funny. (Credit: Office Space, 20th Century Fox.)

The dog in the manger. The snarling dogs that bark at hungry cattle compulsively throw obstacles up so other people can’t succeed. They steal your red stapler. Engage in voter repression and intimidation. Advocate punitive tax codes to deprive people of their property. Take credit for your work. Ensure you don’t get access to the good life, even though it costs them nothing personally to leave you alone.

✔️ Remember me in your will. “You won the lottery? I’m so happy for you. Will you share?” These characters are notable for the brown stains on their noses. If you’ve been tempted to befriend someone because of their celebrity or their wealth, you’ve fallen into the grip of the self-interested, greedy face of envy. Real friends have no interest in their friend’s finances, don’t hope for a loan or a handout, and hold fortunate friends to the same behavioral standards as their less-fortunate counterparts. If you’ve put up with mistreatment from a wealthy or famous friend, perhaps a therapist can help you clean the brown stuff off your snout.

️️✔️ Reflected glory. “I’m proud of you. We’re part of the same tribe. As your mom, or your BFF, or your fellow congregant, your fame kind of makes me look vicariously good, so I’m pretty psyched that you won the spelling bee or American Idol. Yay for you!”

⭐️ I want one too. “Tell me how you earned your success, because I want to follow in your footsteps.” When my sister learned that our former college roommate had actually finished her diploma (despite failing and retaking many classes), my sister dropped back in and did the work to finish her own degree. If other people’s success motivates you to double down, that’s probably a good thing!

🌟 ️Sincere high five. “You invented Post-its or the polio vaccine or won the Nobel Prize or earned a billion dollars or bought a chicken coop? Woo hoo! That is seriously awesome. I’m excited for you, so if you want to brag, I’m all ears!” Sincere people are content with their own path, and don’t need a piece of your happiness for themselves. Your success makes them genuinely happy for you.

If you’d like to move yourself further down the road toward maturity, and become a person who’s truly and openly happy when other people do well, it’s useful to remember these two facts:
  1. Other people’s success or wealth or fertility or graduation doesn’t diminish you.** You are not made “less than” because Bill and Jeff earned another million dollars before you finished this sentence. Their next million, earned while you read this sentence, takes nothing from you. That you want their money doesn’t mean you’re owed their money. Their earnings don’t impact you personally in any negative way — unless you waste pointless attention thinking about them.
  2. A rising tide raises all ships. The world is truly made a better place when more people (including Bill and Jeff and you and me) are working, trading, inventing, constructing, marrying, parenting, cooperating, building, earning, and creating. All our successes actually, literally make your life better. 
So go forth and succeed, and determine that this day you will cheer somebody else’s success. It’ll cost you nothing and increase the net happiness of the human family.

* I have a policy about naming criminals: I don’t do it. Please join me in denying criminals the glory and notoriety they crave by refusing to acknowledge their names. Name their victims, of course, but let’s all stop turning snakes into celebrities.

** Yes, I’m well acquainted with arguments about income inequality. And I’ll throw down with anybody about which of those arguments have merit, and which are destructive to the increased happiness of the population on the whole. (Also: It’s sad that this footnote even has to be written. In past ages, the premise — that other people’s stuff doesn’t negate your stuff — was stipulated.)

Want to read more about Black-Belt Communication? Jump in by learning how to say Yes without feeling like a doormat:

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LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, lives with her husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also the director of The Relationship Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns.