Envy This!

A deeper look at one of the mind's most misunderstood states.

Envy and the Lifecycle: A Brief Reflection

What has Envy got to do with "Lifecycle" considerations?

Developmental change from birth throughout life makes considerations of a biomental “lifecycle” reasonable and informative. The problem of labeling, however, is fraught with potential difficulties since labels may scientifically add to understanding but, if too rigidly held, may constrain further examination and fruitful conceptual expansion.

One perspective of “the lifecycle” views it as having three broad chronological eras of relative instability with its pivot point in the middle. Thus midlife is preceded by the adolescent crisis and followed by the crisis of older age. Midlife crisis has been a common sense or “face value” reality for millennia, but only formalized in scholarly literature for about the last fifty years. In the last twenty years, however, its regular occurrence has been questioned and debated by some. This indecision about conventionally apparent life crises played out many years ago when “adolescent crisis” was first recognized as a period of “sturm und drung” (storm and turmoil), then refuted based on statistical assessments. The less ambivalent recognition of a life crisis of “older age” is an unambiguous reality for most. Adolescent crisis, midlife crisis, and crisis of older age are fractal dimensions of one another. All have primary genetic continuity with the biomental experiences of infancy and childhood given the change of function, especially, for example, that sexuality provides both physiologically and emotionally in each developmental era.

Midlife crisis refers to the variable midpoint between birth and death for both men and women, and roughly spans ages thirty-five to forty-five. This potentially stressful life transitional era is felt to be a crisis in that an array of conflicts peak, linger, and are sensed as an “emergency” in nature and characterized by instability, danger, impending major disruption, and confusion about effective decision making toward some resolution. This differentiates crisis from the severe stress of trauma, which is a much more circumscribed event. A trauma by contrast is an unexpected, out of the ordinary, and overwhelming event perceived to be and often in fact objectively violent and destructive. Traumas result in biomental wounds that leave the traumatized individual feeling numb, helpless, and cognitively “out of commission.”

 Characteristic experiences associated with the midlife crisis include serious and lingering intimations with regard to the following: acute awareness of one’s own mortality evidenced by more frequent illness, pain, the signs of aging, and possibly the death of one’s parents, or peers. In addition, hints of imminent frailness are evoked by less strength and vigor, more fatigue, and a diminishment of the enthusiasm so vigorously felt in the earlier years of young adulthood. Often, having one’s own children leave home signals a qualitative shift in one’s daily routine. The midlife crisis brings with it a more thoughtful stance. Reflecting on one’s previous aspirations, life goals, dreams, accomplishments and unrealized achievements come to the fore. Work, occupation, and life roles, especially relationships, all undergo reassessment. The very loss of youth and youthful enthusiasm may become a stark awakening as one looks in the mirror or a photo to find someone who appears strikingly unlike the implicit mental image held about the self for years.

In précis fashion, when midlife crisis is significant, it is typically a depressive episode, although not necessarily a clinical depression. Such a midlife depressive constellation takes shape based on one’s temperament and earlier developed personality style—defenses and coping mechanisms. Although anxiety is always a dominant feature, other features may be under- or over-accentuated such as sadness, grief, sorrow, remorse, guilt, resentment, disbelief, or denial. This inevitable depressive episode, rather than being a misfortunate development, is, in fact, a natural opportunity for advancement. That is, if the entire process, especially in detailed fashion over time, is grasped, thoughtfully considered, reconsidered, and given the executive planning—“action-oriented short and longer-term problem solving”—required, midlife crisis becomes productive. Working through the cognitive and emotional components in this way is both reparative and salutary. Anxiety, moreover, becomes more manageable. Though dedicated periods may be needed to organize and reorganize the components of one’s lifecycle, iterative reworking over time help refine and further stabilize deeper appreciation, understanding, and graceful implementation. Self-reflection as well as psychotherapy are useful tools.

In conclusion, what is the role of envy in considerations of the midlife crisis?

Envy’s baseline mechanisms always involve an automatic splitting of that which is being considered into two almost polar extremes with idealization and devaluation judgments dynamically shifting position. Therefore, given the aforementioned propositions with regard to lifecycle schemas, splitting the lifecycle in its midpoint yields a “before” typically imbued with positive qualities and an “after” seen more negatively as a decline. Even the use of the term “crisis” suggests that each era is one in which stability is challenged by crisis in an effort to achieve an equilibrium. Attitudes characteristic of envy (“neuroticism,” pessimism, devaluation, lack of motivation, feelings of meaninglessness, resentment, bitterness, and so forth) interspersed at any point in negotiating these dynamic reconciliations, are self-sabotaging if they are not recognized and checked.

 A healthy perspective in lifecycle considerations is maintaining awareness of the reality of ineluctable change, potential crisis, and real-time opportunities for advancement. Acting on these realizations with pause, poise, and persistence brings into being a refinement of one’s emotional, cognitive, and spiritual/existential self and its interrelationship with other persons, society, and culture as a whole.

Frank John Ninivaggi, M.D., F.A.P.A., is an Associate Attending physician at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. more...

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