Over the past couple years, some roller-coaster personal circumstances have given me a lot of opportunity to think about jealousy and envy, what they are and what they’re not, and the difference between the two. I’m not an especially jealous person by nature, but I know all about envy. I used to conflate that with jealousy because it was what I understood. I could see jealous thinking as a trap, but I couldn’t really get how people were caught in it.
But here’s the distinction as I’ve come to understand it: Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is wanting someone else not to have something. That could be something they do have, or it could be something they might have. You might want the thing for yourself, or you might not, but you definitely don’t want them to have it.
More recently I’ve been thinking about the subtler trap of thinking that you want something because other people want it, or want it for you. Is there a word for that? There must be, right? It’s the feeling that exists somewhere in the intersection between gaslighting and FOMO and comforting familiarity and normative assumption. I’m not really talking about broader cultural normative assumptions (e.g., “girls want boyfriends” or “boys like sports”) but individually-specific assumptions, like I’m good at math and I want a career, so I ought to study accountancy, or everybody puts red onions in salad and that’s how I’ve always made mine, so I’m going to keep putting red onions in my salad even though somehow I always end up with a lot of onion left at the end that I then throw away. And then one day you look up and think, you know, I actually fucking hate accountancy, or hey, these onions are crap.
And it turns out the upside of envy is that it’s one of the triggers that can wake you up to this type of trapped thinking, if you’re paying attention. Because if I envy so-and-so’s career or their choice of salad, maybe that’s a feeling I can learn from. I don’t have to be hung up on that — I can just use it to understand myself better.