Why The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down

Wanting something that others have is typically human. We might desire certain of their psychological attributes, qualities, physical, occupational, or even intellectual characteristics. But what emotion lies behind this process? In this article, we explain.
Why The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down

Last update: 10 February, 2023

Why are people who stand out from the rest criticized so much? As a matter of fact, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down because envy is an extremely human emotion. We desire what others have and, when it’s impossible for us to obtain it, we attack it so that it loses value, becomes small, and stops shining. However, there are some big-hearted people who, despite feeling envy, recognize it, but don’t allow it to take over their behavior.

When someone shines, they should be allowed to shine brighter. Indeed, the greatest stories, most beautiful works of art, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries would never have happened if every nail that stuck out got hammered down. It’s the responsibility of the rest of us to encourage the qualities of those around us so that they grow higher and delight us with the things that make human beings so unique and extraordinary.

Envy lies behind the saying that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down

Envy derives from the Latin word, invidia, which means ‘to regard maliciously’. The Cambridge Dictionary defines envy as “to wish that you had something that another person has”.

Envy is a social emotion. Unlike other emotions, envy requires something more: another person to direct it at.

The moral assessment of envy is usually pejorative. However, it can’t be immoral if it’s experienced by all human beings, and envy, as an emotion, fulfills this function. Therefore, feeling envy is far from immoral. It’s a normal fact of life.

“Envy is one of the emotions that are most difficult to admit, especially because, with it, it’s assumed not only that one covets what others have, but also that, in some way, one recognizes inferiority with respect to the person who possesses what one desires.”


The problem with envy is how we behave when we experience it. For example, have you ever felt envious of a friend, but felt good about what was happening to them? Or, did you try to boycott them? The difference between these two kinds of behavior is extremely important.

Guy envying a coworker
Envy is usually one of the most difficult emotions to recognize because it implies feeling inferior in some way.

Social comparison

Social comparison plays an extremely important role in envy. Through social comparison, we build our self-concept and self-esteem. In effect, the people around us are the starting point and criteria when it comes to valuing, validating, and modulating our own abilities. When we’re outperformed in these, we experience envy.

“The experience of envy depends on the self-relevance of the aspects that are being compared, that is, of the issues that are actually important when it comes to establishing one’s own self-concept.”


What factors explain envy?

For Smith, Diener, and Garoznik there are three factors that could enhance the fact that human beings experience envy:

  • The frequency and intensity of experiences of envy in the individual’s life.
  • Feelings of inferiority.
  • Resentment and perceptions of injustice.

“Thus, the experience of envy (longing for what belongs to others and the desire for misfortune of the person who owns it) is related to resentment due to the sensation of injustice, hostility and feelings of inferiority.”


Healthy envy

Despite the relevance of social comparison in the genesis of envy, it only occurs and generates this emotion in the issues that we consider to be valuable and relevant. We call healthy envy the kind in which, despite the desire to possess what belongs to others, we have no ambition to take away the object we desire from them.

While the feelings of dissatisfaction are still present and unpleasant, there’s also a new feeling: the desire to grow and excel. For Parrot and Smith, there are six emotional stages that describe healthy envy:

  • A desire for what the other person has.
  • Hostility.
  • Admiration for them.
  • Global resentment.
  • Feelings of inferiority.
  • Guilt.
Woman with sent to another
According to Rawls, healthy envy is characterized by a strong inclination toward what others possess, accompanied by restlessness or impatience, as well as the determination to improve oneself and admiration for the other.

As we’ve verified, envy is a human emotion that impacts social relationships, weakening or strengthening them. Knowing how to detect the moments when we feel it can help us regulate and articulate it from its positive side.

Being grateful for what we have and rejoicing for what others have is a good route to achieving peace and mental tranquility. Don’t you agree?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Montañés, M. C., & Iñiguez, C. G. (2002). Emociones sociales: enamoramiento, celos, envidia y empatía.
  • Crusius, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2014). La envidia. Mente y cerebro, (65), 16.
  • Carrillo, G. N., Morillas, A. M. B., Segura, I. V., & Expósito, F. (2016). ¿ Qué es la envidia?. Cien. Cogn.(Granada), 10(3), 70-73.
  • Ormeño Karzulovic, J. (2018). Envidia, resentimiento e igualdad.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.