There Are Two Types of Envy—Benign and Malicious—But Both Can Affect Your Friendships
Picture this: Your best friend calls you in the middle of a hectic work day to share the news that they just got a promotion, with a hefty salary increase attached (hooray!). While you’re happy for them, you also realize you feel something else…envy. After all, you’ve been plugging away at your job for years without even the prospect of a bonus, and considering your current financial situation, you *really* could have used that kind of extra income.
You should be over the moon for your BFF’s huge win, but instead, you’re more than just a little bit salty. This may leave you feeling like a jerk for not being more excited, but according to licensed therapist Deborah Vinall, PsyD, author of Gaslighting: A Step-by-Step Recovery Guide to Heal from Emotional Abuse and Build Healthy Relationships, this reaction is completely normal. While you shouldn’t feel guilty or strange for experiencing envy, you should know that not all forms of the emotion are created equal.
Before diving into the two main types of envy and how they can impact your friendships, it’s important to understand why envy and its close cousin jealousy are not the same thing.
The difference between jealousy and envy
Jealousy typically occurs when you already have something but feel threatened at the prospect of someone taking what’s yours. It typically stems from fear of being replaced. Jealousy is the feeling you get when your romantic partner flirts with someone else or when your parent gives extra attention to your sibling.
Envy is the painful emotion you feel when you wish you had what someone else has. Unlike jealousy, envy stems from desire, not fear, says Dr. Vinall. While jealousy is external and revolves around attention from others, envy is internal and involves coveting someone’s possessions or life situations.
“When you allow unhealthy envy or jealousy to simmer, you draw energy and attention away from focusing on furthering your own goals.”— Deborah Vinall, PsyD
Benign vs. malicious envy
Despite its infamously negative connotations (it’s one of the seven deadly sins, after all), modern psychological research suggests that envy isn’t always so bad. Back in 2009, Tilburg University researchers proposed that there are two types of envy that humans can experience: malicious envy and non-malicious, or benign, envy.
What is benign envy?
Benign envy, says Dr. Vinall, is rooted in personal security and self-confidence. With benign envy, we become fixated on what others have and how they got it. Studies show that this form of envy can spark inspiration from within yourself to improve your own life and motivate you to change for the better.
“The primary difference between benign and malicious envy is personal security or insecurity,” says Dr. Vinall. “You may envy a friend for her success, wanting the same for yourself, and be inspired to increase personal efforts in that direction.”
Because this form of envy allows us to recognize that the accomplishments of others don’t lessen our own, we’re able to use it as a source of inspiration to better ourselves. Seeing others reach their goals, then, becomes a source of motivation: When we see our friends crushing it, we feel energized, not defeated, or bitter.
“When you are secure, others’ success is not threatening,” adds Dr. Vinall. “You can both desire to have what they have while feeling genuinely happy for them.”
What is malicious envy?
Alternatively, malicious envy is rooted in insecurity and occurs when we feel angry about the successes of others. Malicious envy is much more sinister than simply wanting what another person has: It involves believing that the other person doesn’t deserve it as much as we do. This type of envy can lead to feelings of resentment and even result in us rooting for our friend’s downfall, according to Dr. Vinall.
“It causes you to feel unhappy at the success of others, believing it dims your own star,” she says. “If your envy is fueled by insecurity, you may feel threatened by others’ success, and be driven to tear down your friend, sabotage her success, or minimize the accomplishment.”
Besides poisoning close friendships, this form of envy can keep us from reaching our full potential, Dr Vinall adds. Unlike benign envy, which can foster internal motivation and help propel yourself toward your goals, malicious envy fails to move you forward, directing your energy instead in an unfruitful direction.
How to deal with envy from others
If your friend seems a little green with envy lately, your first instinct may be to write them off as a bad friend. Instead, try to recall a time where you felt envious of them. Being on the receiving end of envy can be a huge test of empathy, according to Dr. Vinall.
“If they contributed in any way to your success, communicate that with gratitude,” she says. “Empathize with your friend’s feelings, and express hope that they, too, will experience their own heart’s desires.”
That being said, Dr. Vinall says you shouldn’t allow their envy to dull your shine. If a friend constantly attempts to undermine your accomplishments, it may be time to re-think your relationship.
“Know that it is not your job to manage others’ emotions,” adds Dr. Vinall. “You don’t need to minimize or hide your good fortune or accomplishments.”
How to deal when you feel envious of others
It’s normal to feel envious of our friends from time to time, especially when we’re going through a rough patch personally. What’s important is that we acknowledge that their good fortunes are wholly independent of our own, says Dr. Vinall. Dwelling in our envy draws energy and attention away from furthering our own goals and “holds you in a negative mind space, which extinguishes creativity, optimism, and goal-directed behavior,” she says.
Understanding the difference between the circumstances of your friend’s life and your own can help contextualize their successes, as well as any possible feelings of inferiority you may be experiencing. Consider the factors that led up to their good fortunes and where they are today. Was it sheer luck, or the product of all their hard work? Did they have access to resources you didn’t? Are they simply at a different stage in their career or life than you are?
When envy rears its ugly head, try to center the love, admiration, and awe you feel toward your friend, and use those feelings to fuel your celebration of them. “Remember that few things in life are truly winner-takes-all, and your own life path has limitless potential of its own,” adds Dr. Vinall. “Then get back to work at making your own dreams come true!”