Envy This!

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

Ultimate Envy: Envying Oneself!

Envying oneself—or rather eras of one’s life—may be “ultimate envy.”

As has been the thrust of Envy Theory in both my books, Envy Theory and Biomental Child Development, envy is a fundamental part of all mental processing, not merely an isolated, atypical, or pathological condition. It is a dimensional personality characteristic. When low and quiescent, it serves to prompt comparison and contrast, and thus stimulate motivation and ambition. However, envy is typically not low, but ordinarily provoked to high levels. Thus, like other such basic human emotional and cognitive basics, it weaves intricate patterns of complexity in human behavior.

In this brief article, I would like to address, a broad developmental phenomenon, namely, the lifecycle, with a focus on the individual. It has always been fundamental to my perspective that the individual is the focal point for all psychological processes both normal/typical or distressing/pathological, and the source to begin exploration, revision, and repair.

I will address how envy unfolds to influence one’s own sense of self and course of life, often vicariously by projecting value judgments outward and attributing them onto others—or eras in one’s own life—such as the adoration of, for example, babies (innocence), children (almost unlimited potential), youth (vitality, unbridled enthusiasm), the elderly (wealth, accomplishments), and so forth. All of these “romanticizations”, when excessive (a hallmark of envy), may expand into adulations that become “idealizations” that can take on unrealistic proportions that overshadow the life eras that came before or after, and so diminish their significance and cause a lopsided view of the lifecycle in its entirety, especially as it pertains to a balanced view of oneself in perspective. The opposite pole, “vilification”, attributes extreme negative qualities to children, for example, who may be unjustifiably characterized by some with harsh terms: incorrigible, terrible, manipulative, ‘bad apple’, and so forth.

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Again, this vilification may be attributed to periods in one’s own life such as feeling unachieved or not quite as successful as desired, and so act as a developmental knot or thorny irritation preventing moving forward. The often intractable roots of such a fixation are rather unconscious and may require psychotherapeutic exploration, which in itself presumes a profound personal quest for change and great motivation.

Turning now to a consideration of the entire lifecycle as a whole, and considering it from its developmental roots but using more poetic-like imagery, one could envision the lifecycle divided into three phases with ages two years and about sixty-five years being biomental markers. Images using ecologically familiar cycles (the 24 hour day) are chosen here since they convey the ebb and flow of life’s biomorphic transitions in a more tangible fashion.

Phase I might be termed the morning of one’s life, birth to twenty-four months, during which time almost total dependency on one’s caregiver is the rule. It might also extend to late adolescence before emerging adulthood when dependency on caregivers virtually recedes. This is an era of the dawn of light, hope, expectation, and exploration. Adventure, new challenges, first failures, and repeated enthusiastic attempts toward anticipated success mark this era. Enthusiasm and new horizons are hallmarks here.

Phase II could be termed the afternoon, initially from age two and certainly by age twenty-one through older age, when gradually emerging and fuller independence and generativity occur to varying extents over the course of many years. Greater stability and settling down is occurring and greater degrees of pleasure both quantitatively and qualitatively are experienced in the decade(s) marking this typically productive and accumulative era.

Phase III then could be called the evening of one’s life. This is a time in older age when independence ironically becomes lessened and dependence again emerges. Activities become curtailed to some extent, and reflection on years of previous living arises for many. Pain and its emotional perception as suffering often becomes more prevalent and distressing, as well as impairing. Envy at this era often displays itself as bitterness, making it difficult for others to get close and use this as an opportunity to re-engage to help. Nevertheless, hearts do seem to soften and become open to the previously unnoticed gleams in children’s eyes and the vibrancy of colors abounding in nature.

This entire perspective—lifecycle as morning, afternoon, and evening---while not formally scientific has merit in that it adds an overarching orientation to the cyclical “feel” or “poetry” of the human condition.

The aforementioned review has been a very brief discussion of complex material, but its aim has been to focus attention on the theme of this small piece: the most powerful and debilitating envy one might experience is one’s own envy of a segment of his or her own life. When this happens, one in essence has objectified the lifecycle and “looked in” as an outside observer, an outsider—a stranger. This is, de facto, a splitting phenomenon that lessens personal authenticity and increases cognitive, emotional, and experiential processes best characterized by words like “fake,” and “rationalized.” It turns the whole person into individual parts or possessions unintegrated and "lumped together;" and envy thrives on the perceived desire to attain possessions once believed one had and now has lost (or never fully attained). This process is what is meant by "the ego" as the obstacle to self-understanding in Western systems. For the last 6,000 years, the East has used the Sanskrit term "Maya" to denote this cognitive default/misapprehension.

It is significant to pause here to reiterate that an appreciation of each “part”—or threshold—of the entire lifecycle is valuable since each flow era does have its own unique merits and singular beauty. This is akin to the aesthetic experience of looking at a flowing stream and admiring the dynamic beauty perceived—knowing that it is ever-changing at each moment of our perception and will be different day to day, month to month, and so forth. The centrality of each, however, must not be overvalued at the expense of underestimating the whole. Such excessive idealization risks locking into parts at the detriment of “missing” the context and becoming disillusioned and stuck in a transient developmental era that is in the process of becoming something else—perhaps, something greater or different, or differently beautiful and interesting!

This notion (part as aspect of whole; "one" as superordinate of "many") is related to a central theme of the biomental perspective, that is, “letting go.” It denotes a series of critical intermittent releases, all of which constitute developmental achievements, seen chronologically in infancy and experienced biomentally throughout the entire lifecycle. Envy matured becomes inspirational and supports motivation for self-improvement and forward growth and development.

 

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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