L’Invidia. Angelo Bronzino. Wikimedia Commons.
“Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
- Envy and Jealousy Are Not The Same Thing.
These two terms are close in meaning but they definitely are not the same. Jealousy is usually defined as an emotion involving things, or more often people, that we fear may be taken from us. It usually involves a triangular relationship and the emotions of possessiveness and rivalry.
Munch graphically illustrates the triangularity of jealousy in several of his paintings. Notice the green face in this image!
Jealousy. Munch. Wikimedia Commons.
“The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves. ”
Jealousy. Munch. Wikimedia Commons.
“Surrounded by the flames of jealousy, the jealous one winds up, like the scorpion, turning the poisoned sting against himself. ”
Envy, on the other hand, involves resentful feelings about what others have that we do not ourselves have and very much desire.
It can be destructive of the person who feels it and the person it is aimed at.
The painting below depicts ‘Invidia,’ which means ‘a looking upon,’ and is the source of the ‘evil eye.’
Here, she is eating her own heart, showing how destructive of the self envy can be. Invidia has green eyes; here is the origin of the phrase ‘the green eyed monster.’
“As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a person.”
Jacob de Backer. “Invidia .Envy, One Of The Seven Deadly Sins.” C16th.
2. We All Experience These Feelings
“To err may be human, but to envy is undoubtedly so.”
At times, we might all feel envy of other people; there will be aspects of others, their lives, appearance, possessions, talents, skills, that we might wish we had. These are universal feelings, part of the human condition.
Many psychoanalysts, such as Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud, have regarded envy as one of the central emotions behind much of human behaviour.
Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, for example, is rooted in the son’s unconscious envy of the father and desire for the mother.
The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who wrote the famous book Envy and Gratitude, defines envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it.”
Klein regards envy as originating very early in life and as a primitive and basic unconscious emotion in all of us.
3. Feeling Envious Doesn’t Automatically Mean You Are A Bad Person
The philosopher John Rawls describes envy experienced towards others by a very deprived person as ‘excusable envy,’ a natural, understandable and very human emotion.
Many people might feel ashamed of their envious feelings; it is not seen as socially acceptable to be envious.
Yet envy is linked to admiration and it can actually be inspiring for people to try to achieve something of what they envy for themselves.
Envious feelings can actually be motivating. Seeing what others have and feeling envious may stimulate us and give us the energy and drive to move forward in our own lives.
4. Envy May Be Unconscious And Come Out In Other Ways,
Destructive, spoiling envy, however, can be dangerous.
It may emerge in disguise, manifesting itself as prejudice, bullying, gossiping, racism, hypocrisy, malice, spite, criticism, competitive or undermining behaviour, hatred, threat, manipulation, or violence.
“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.”
A fictitious, yet graphic, example of envy that shows itself as threat and manipulation may be found in the wonderful poem Overheard On A Saltmarsh by Harold Monro.
I remember well this poem being read by our English teacher at school when I was very young.
The teacher had great expression in her voice and I found the poem very stimulating to my child’s imagination.
How envious of the nymph’s green glass beads was the goblin, how much did he desire them and how exciting was it to hear the nymph’s final, withholding, definite ‘NO!’
Coping with others’ envy is not easy. How does the nymph in this poem cope? Actually quite well, assertively, clearly. She does not get angry and is not swayed by the goblin’s threats or manipulations.
(Image: From Twitter, @crowned4success.)
(How might we cope when we are the subject of an envious attack? If you have ideas about this issue, do write to me in the comments box at the end of this post.)
5. Envy Is Usually Kept Hidden.
As we have seen, we can disguise our envy under many other behaviours. Envy is rarely admitted and is stored and secreted away from public view. Often, it is hard to admit to ourselves that we feel envious.
Such hidden envy lurks menacingly in the shadows of our psyche; it is distressing to face this, yet there is equal discomfort in constantly having to keep such feelings down.
This extreme sense of dissatisfaction and resentment that lies behind powerful feelings of envy can be very debilitating and destructive of the self.
Having to hide an ever-growing green-eyed monster inside ourselves is draining of our psychic energy and extremely uncomfortable.
“Silent envy grows in silence.”
6. Envy can be very destructive when acted out
Envy is a common and natural feeling, but to act it out impulsively, when one is not conscious of these underlying feelings, can be destructive and dangerous to self and other.
In everyday parlance, the term acting out has come to mean showing bad behaviour. In psychoanalytical terms, however, it means that we express our hidden and unacknowledged conflictual feelings through our behaviour, rather than being able to acknowledge such feelings.
Thus, for example, if we feel envy, we may act it out in the form of criticism or ridicule.
Schadenfreude is a term which refers to those who experience pleasure in others’ misfortune. Often, the root of this pleasure is envy.
“To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.”
Sometimes envy can be hidden under layers of obsequious behaviour. We may not even recognise it ourselves.
Watch Dickens’ grovelling Uriah Heep, and his ‘umble’ ways, hiding a deep and vicious envy of David Copperfield:
7. Learning to Manage and Control Envy.
In order to maintain our own inner peace and happiness, finding ways to manage any destructive envy we might feel is important.
Otherwise, like Invidia, we might find that we are harming ourselves.
What might be some of the roots of these envious feelings?
- Making assumptions about other people’s lives.
“Get real”: much envy is based on fantasy and unrealistic expectations about another’s life being perfect. It may look like that but……
“Our envy always lasts longer than the happiness of those we envy.”
Many people covet other people’s lives without knowing what goes on inside those people’s minds.”
- Feeling inferior, feeling not as good as the other who is the focus of one’s envy. Having low self-esteem and feeling insecure in one’s own life.
- Feeling depressed about or dissatisfied with one’s own life.
- Unresolved anger and resentment from the past, perhaps involving sibling rivalries.
How can we deal with all this?
- By developing self- awareness – Ask yourself, “what am I unhappy and really discontented about in my own life?” Try to get in touch with what might be happening unconsciously, if necessary through a course of psychotherapy, exploring where this envy really originated in the past and how it gets played out in the present.
- Learning how to be a real friend.
A real friend is one who his happy for you when you are and can share your joy at happy times.
“The worst part of success is trying to find someone who is happy for you.”
Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.”
“Because they feel unhappy, men cannot bear the sight of someone they think is happy.”
Thinking about the difference between having and being. The psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm explained
“Human beings had two basic orientations:
HAVING and BEING
HAVING: seeks to acquire, possess things, even people
BEING: focuses on the experience; exchanging, engaging, sharing with other people”
Life is surely richer, and we will be less beset by envious feelings, if we can focus on who we are and who others are as people, rather than on possessions.
It is, ultimately, real relationships that matter, caring and sharing, not being acquisitive or unkind, and consequently discontented.
Have few desires.”