Envious People Are Everywhere—You Might Be One

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are there a lot of envious people out there? How do we know when people are envious, and what should we do about it?

Most people feel some sort of envy of others, even if they don’t acknowledge it—including you. Learning about envious people and where envy comes from can help you be less envious, and navigate situations where people are envious of you.

Read more about envious people below.

Envious People Mask Their Envy

In the previous law, we looked at some of the idiosyncratic traits and feelings people hide. Now, we’ll look at an emotion everyone hides—envy.

No one wants to consciously acknowledge envy of others because it would necessitate feelings of inferiority—to want something someone else has, we have to admit that the other person has it, which makes them superior. As a result, envy is rarely expressed as envy, even to ourselves. 

For example, if you’re angry at someone, you might hide it from them, but inside, you know you’re angry. If you lose control and your anger leaks out, the other person will be able to recognize the emotion as anger, and often, they’ll be able to figure what caused your anger.

If you’re envious of someone, on the other hand, you’ll transform this feeling into something else. Often, you’ll decide that the person has whatever you don’t because she’s lucky, ambitious, or underhanded—she doesn’t actually deserve it. Then, you can feel anger or resentment at the unfairness. Because your envy is buried under layers of other emotions, other people can’t usually tell that what you’re actually feeling is envy, and they see only anger or resentment, which is confusing and therefore more painful. Envious people often use this tactic.

According to Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst, some people are predisposed to envy. It starts right from infancy—they resent their mothers whenever they leave, and they’re hostile to their fathers or siblings for taking their mothers’ attention. Unlike most of us, who experience envy when others get attention but also gratefulness when we get attention, enviers can’t see past what they’re not getting. They’re never satisfied, and they’ll feel this way their whole lives. 

There are two types of envy:

  1. Passive envy is the everyday envy we feel whenever we encounter someone superior to us. Sometimes, passive envy drives us to do something to release the tension—for example, make a mean joke—but there’s no long-term harm. This kind of envy is a fact of life, so all there is to be done is put up with it.
  2. Active envy is a much stronger, maintained form of envy. The feeling can’t be vented in a quick release like a joke. This envy, because it’s so uncomfortable to feel, often transforms into righteous indignation, which can motivate us to harm the person we’re indignant or envious of. Actively envious people enjoy the pain of whomever they envy.

It’s important to study this law for two reasons:

  1. Realize that some of the confusing attacks in your past stemmed from envy. Once you understand people’s real motivations, it’s easier to get over painful breaks in relationships.
  2. Predict envy attacks so that you can avoid them.

In this law, we’ll learn how to manage toxic types of envious people and to control our own nature.

Manage Toxic Types: Warnings, Triggers, and Enviers

When people’s envy is triggered, they display nonverbal cues and give themselves away through their actions. Everyone shows these signs occasionally as part of passive envy, but if you see a pattern or combinations of signs, you might be dealing with active envy and envious people.

Cue #1: Microexpressions on first meetings. When people initially meet you and feel envy of others, they haven’t had time to go through the mental gymnastics of transforming envy into something else, so you’re most likely to pick up on it in these early encounters. An envious microexpression involves the eyes drilling into you with disdain, the nose sneering, the chin jutting out, and the mouth turned down. Usually, the person tries to hide the expression with a fake smile after the fact. If someone envies you, you can sometimes provoke this microexpression by telling them about some good or bad news you’ve just received. They’ll look disappointed by the good news and joyful at the bad.

Cue #2: Paradoxical praise, which is a compliment that’s also a put-down and feels hostile. There are three versions:

  • Implying unadmirable motivations. For example, if you wrote a bestselling, popular novel, an envier might praise how much money you’ll be making, implying that that’s the only reason you did the work.
  • Bringing up negative audience members. For example, if your novel was a murder mystery, an envier might comment on how serial killers will probably love it.
  • Praising something you lost. For example, if your spouse leaves you, enviers will comment on how wonderful she was.

Cue #3: Sincere, irrelevant criticism. When people criticize you but you haven’t actually done anything to deserve it, they may envy you.

  • (Shortform example: Your coworker criticizes you for spending too much time around the water cooler and seems to sincerely think you’re a bad person. In reality, however, you don’t spend very much time at the water cooler at all.)

Cue #4: A love of gossip. Gossip is an easy way to vent envy because it involves sharing negative things about others. If people gossip to you about others, assume they talk to others about you. You can identify potentially envious gossipers because they get animated when they gossip, and the subject is usually that everyone’s not as good as they think they are. More obviously, you might be able to tell if someone’s a gossip if you hear of a rumor being spread about you, or if the people you know act more coolly towards you than usual.

Cue #5: Desire for friendship. Becoming your friend is a good way to get close to you, learn your flaws and insecurities, and then exploit them to hurt you. You can identify people who are only trying to get close to you to hurt you by studying their feelings toward you: When you first meet them, they’re overenthusiastic, and in later interactions, they bounce between critical and warm.

Cue #6: Clues in the past. Enviers often have dramatic breakups in their past, and they always blame the end of the relationship on the other person.

Envious People Are Everywhere—You Might Be One

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert Greene's "The Laws Of Human Nature" at Shortform.

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  • Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
  • How you behave differently when you're in a group
  • Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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