The Treatment of Envy

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Unhealthy envy, like unhealthy anger, is a very destructive emotion. Unhealthy envy interferes with close relationships and can lead to a preoccupation with what one does not have. Due to this envious preoccupation the individual often overlooks what he or she does have. The person who is troubled by unhealthy envy may even attempt to damage or destroy what others possess. It is important to treat the psychological roots of unhealthy envy because its existence reduces a person’s overall degree of happiness and satisfaction. Furthermore, a person may waste time and effort doing neurotic behaviors motivated by their unhealthy envy.

The treatment of unhealthy envy begins with distinguishing it from healthy envy. The individual who has healthy envy acknowledges that someone they know possesses something he or she wants to have. However, the person with healthy envy lacks both the preoccupation and desire to ruin what others have. The individual with healthy envy is motivated to pursue what others have and may even try to learn from others who have obtained what they desire but have thus far been unsuccessful in obtaining. Furthermore, the individual with healthy envy is not preoccupied by what they lack and this unfulfilled desire does not cause them to be blind to seeing what they have in their life that gives them some degree of pleasure. Their overall all level of happiness is not lowered by their healthy envy but they do acknowledge they would be happier still if they were able to obtain what they lack and they see others as possessing.

Let me briefly discuss the anatomy of unhealthy envy and how REBT would treat this destructive emotion. Here is the ABC framework applied to unhealthy envy:

(A) Adversity

Someone possesses a thing, a relationship, or has achieved something which you wish you also possessed.

(B) Beliefs: Here you hold either a rigid belief or self-depreciating belief which is the basis of your unhealthy envy. Below are three exemplary beliefs:

“Susan has a wonderful boyfriend and I absolutely should have an equally wonderful boyfriend.”

“I am less worthy than Susan for not having an equally wonderful boyfriend.”

“I cannot stand the fact that Susan has a wonderful boyfriend and I do not have one as well.”

(C) Consequences of your beliefs:

Emotional consequence (Unhealthy Envy)

Behavioral consequences (You flirt with Susan’s boyfriend at a party, perhaps spread falsehoods about her etc., or seek to be seen with any man just to compete with Susan.)

Thinking consequence (You are preoccupied with Susan and her boyfriend, overlook the fine qualities you have even though you do not presently have a wonderful male companion, and do not give some men a chance because you are obsessed with finding a man that matches up well with the guy Susan has as a boyfriend.)

It should be noted I am using as the basis for unhealthy envy a coveted relationship with a “wonderful” guy. However, I could have just as easily have chosen unhealthy envy over a job another person has or the professional achievement another colleague has managed to achieved. People can hold unhealthy envy for all sorts of things others possess. In this example I have chosen unhealthy envy experienced by a woman related to longing for a male companion.

As a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapist I would try to help this woman who harbors unhealthy envy by showing her that her unhealthy envy stems from the beliefs she unknowingly holds. I would educate her about the relationship between her beliefs and subsequent emotions. I would discuss with her the emotional options she has and the benefits of choosing to feel healthy envy. Most importantly I would show her how she would have to think and what she would have to believe in order to feel healthy envy. For example, in order to feel healthy envy she would need to truly come to believe the following philosophy:

Susan has a wonderful boyfriend and I too wish to have an equally wonderful boyfriend. It is good for Susan that she has a wonderful boyfriend and it is unfortunate for me that I do not have a wonderful companion. I am no less worthy as a person than Susan for not having an equally wonderful boyfriend. If there is some strategy that Susan uses to find such good mates then I too could perhaps learn them by observing her. I may or may not choose to model Susan. If I do model her tactics, assuming I wish and can do so, that does not mean I am less worthy as a person. Even if I cannot successfully do as she does it never means I am less worthy as a person. My attempt at modeling Susan means I am being sensible and experimenting with skills another person uses that may also work for me. This is smart and sensible to do and what healthy envy will allow me to do. Finally, until I get what I truly desire I acknowledge I can stand the fact that Susan has a wonderful boyfriend and I do not have one at this time. Not having a wonderful companion is sad and disappointing and these emotions can be seen as helpful in so far as they motivate me to seek what I want. Sadness and disappointment are different then feelings of despair, depression, and unhealthy envy. Healthy envy stems from holding sensible beliefs about not having what I want, namely a wonderful boyfriend. This feeling of healthy envy allows me to simultaneously acknowledge I want something without having that unfulfilled desire prevent me from enjoying the other good and pleasurable aspects of my life. With my sensible beliefs about not having a boyfriend I will increase the chances of finding a good mate because I will feel more self-assured and not feel desperate and appear terribly envious and needy. 

The question you may ask is how does someone go from holding beliefs that lead to unhealthy envy to beliefs that lead to healthy envy? That is the art of the therapeutic process and where my skill as a psychologist comes into play. My role is to help you challenge the beliefs that lead to your unhealthy envy and help you learn a new way of thinking that will free you of your unhealthy envy. As a psychologist I will patiently show you that your unhealthy envy is doing more harm than good and that its roots are in your belief system. I will show you the specific beliefs you hold that make you vulnerable to unhealthy envy. I will discuss with you all the different ways you can undermine the rigid and self-depreciating beliefs that are at the root of your unhealthy envy. I will also help you learn to tolerate the arduous process of pursuing what you want. In order to get what you desire you will have to experiment with strategies and be persistent in pursuing your personal goals. One of the most difficult aspects of life is that it does not quickly and easily give us what we want when we work at our goal. Life often requires more time and consistent effort than we wish to give our goals. Unhealthy envy usually does not help people persist at their goals. Instead it leads to bitterness and emotional upset that undermines our efforts to get what we want.

In conclusion, as a REBT psychologist I would diligently work to show you how your philosophy about another person’s accomplishments and your relative lack of accomplishment in a particular area of life is at the heart of your unhealthy envy. Through my sessions and the emails I would send you I would encourage you to see that you will benefit from challenging your familiar way of thinking which is leading to your unhealthy envy. I would suggest an alternative way of thinking that would help you to acknowledge what you lack and to acknowledge what others have that you want. I would encourage you to see that you could unconditionally accept yourself as equally worthwhile as you simultaneously acknowledge that you do not have what others have and which you desire. This self-acceptance would enable you to learn from others. I would help you build your frustration tolerance so you could experiment and persist in pursuing what you want. With your new philosophy you would be better able to enjoy life despite not having all that you desire as you diligently pursue what is missing from your life. REBT would give you psychological leverage over your life situation and better able you to tenaciously pursue your dreams.

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Dryden, W. (2009). Understanding Emotional Problems – The REBT Perspective. London and New York: Routledge.