Envy This!

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

Melting Envy: the Brilliance of Understanding and Gratitude

All World Change Begins with Constructive Personal Activism

Eyes of Picasso by Dali

 

The ordinary course of life moves forward unevenly. Most healthy people experience relatively conflict-free lives with normative junctures of stress, conflict, illness, and unexpected dilemmas needing to be addressed. Problems and external demands, as such, are not sufficient to completely impede healthy emotional progress; rather, the manner in which they are perceived, interpreted, and managed is the real stumbling block. From a psychodynamic perspective, psychological processing speed toward resolution of problems has a great deal to do with how the degree of conflict is experienced.

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In Envy Theory, conflict is natural and ordinarily grounded on nonconscious residues of envy, greed, and jealousy. In other words, these fundamentally fear-based emotions have colored our understanding and been relegated to the back burner of nonattention. Envy darkens attention into nonconsciousnes/nonawareness. Envy 'makes' you interpret the world in a fear-based manner. Unconscious envy 'makes' people smug, self-centered, didactic, poorly empathetic, unhelpful, mean, and difficult with whom to communicate. Envy causes splitting on every conceivable level, and widens the gap between people thus diminishing the chances of affiliation, understanding, cooperation, mutuality, and all sorts of loving/constructive relationships.

The envy spoken about here is the deepest, most nonconscious root at the base of emotion. It is original and ancestral, embedded in the phylogenetic history of what it is to be human--in essence, having the capability to know, to know that 'I am naked,' and ultimately to make choices. Envy is an insular, personal, and deeply private experience; the value of trying to explain envy by bringing in others and comparisons is only secondary.

Envy is not jealousy, which is typically a conscious three-person situation wherein the jealous one passionately feels deprived of a greedily held loved one and has rivalry (envious hatred) toward the perceived superior competitor.

Unconscious envy is what prompts one to feel inadequate, incomplete, impotent, and missing out. The antithesis of this unconscious sense is the conscious experience: "I am so plain, while the other is so fabulous. It hurts when I look at you."

Unconscious envy is usually at the base of resentment. For example, when one perceives that he or she has been disrespected or even rightly reprimanded, feelings of inferiority are stirred. This is emotionally painful and may result in harboring a grudge or even wishing to take revenge. When envy is extreme, it may simmer in pathological ways. In most situations, however, individuals can manage, come to terms with, and sublimate envy's provocations.  

 Why envy? We need darkness in order to show light--the light that understanding uses to melt nonawareness into conscious, choice-laden opportunities for improvement.

The holiday season is an opportune time to revisit these ideas. Many cultures regard this season as a time when its natural darkness is countered with light so brilliant that extraordinary events have historically been heralded. Many would add that this season presents an opportunity for a real-time self-revivification. From a psychological point of view, the idea of focusing light on darkness denotes self-reflection with the aim of furthering potential self-development. Melting envy with the brilliance of understanding and gratitude is the vision advanced here. Self-development in this sense denotes constructive personal activism.

 Self-development is constructive personal activism predicated on a sense of adequate self-agency and self-efficacy. All world change begins with self-development and self-change.

 An important point to highlight here: when a healthy person who is relatively stable, intelligent, motivated, and self-reflective seeks to further understand his and her own psychological self, exploring envy can be a breathtakingly enriching experience.

 Rather than being grim and morbid as is a common fear of those undertaking such soul searching, seeking out the truth of one’s less than noble inclinations presumes moral courage and a sense of emotional adventure. Such a task assumes a set of values: it is person-centered and not electronic-centered; it demands personal integrity-- adherence and performance consistent with values characterized by honesty, fairness, non-exploitation, and equitable reciprocation; it requires compassion for self and tolerance for others; along with this, it requires ongoing respectfulness for individual differences and a cultural sensitivity so necessary in our age of globalization. The notion of respect has been given lip service but is crucial to emphasize. Respect is both an attitude and a behavior. It includes recognizing boundaries between persons, paused reflection in the face of interpersonal differences, and empathetic listening. Such listening provides the listener with a range of potential considerations that can modify previously held beliefs that have fueled envious positions.

 Having such a set of values and an enduring motivation toward self-improvement, some suggestions will follow. In Envy Theory, they are referred to as envy management skills. What follows are broad guidelines meant for adults. Although envy management skills may be taught to children, as described in my book, Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting, the following psychoeducational strategies are geared to the adult motivated toward learning conscious techniques of self-development.

 Envy management skills are sets of techniques that can be taught and learned. They involve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies that have both universal and specific applicability. Since envy has its deepest roots in unconscious processes, only a brief schematic explaining a conscious, logical approach addressing management is given here. This beginning approach nonetheless is worthwhile and may lead to further self-study and exploration that can yield over time more gratifying and enduring results.

 Three prerequisite assumptions lay the foundation for envy management skill development. First, recognizing that change is an inevitable part of the biomorphic and organic structure of all biomental life is essential. Preparing one’s perceptions, therefore, to anticipate and grasp change as real, inevitable, possible, and desirable helps restructure negative expectations that may have become a chronic frame of reference preventing change from easily occurring. Witnessing change as an adventure to participate in, not to control, but rather to identify and to work with is essential. Second, the primary measure for comparison must be one’s own self and future sense of possible aspirations. Third, in exploring and then choosing alternative pathways, the values of cooperation, reciprocation, and sharing must play a large part.

 The following is an outline of some of the details of envy management techniques. First, one must recognize the automatic dichotomies that envy provokes: superior-inferior, good-bad, ideal-valueless, and so forth. Extreme polarizations or black and white thinking are the backdrop upon which envy works. Next, a series of self comparisons are made and emotional value laden judgments follow that provoke very strong feelings. The fight-flight mechanism gets activated. Often, this takes the form of competitive argumentation and rigid positioning and is marked by aggressivity—verbal and behavioral. The arena for all this drama is not necessarily external. It may be intrapsychic—in one’s head. Remembering that the core of unconscious envy is always a self-centered, egocentric, autoerosive sense of privation--self-imposed--and only secondarily imputed to others outside the self is axiomatic. In Envy Theory, nonconscious envy manifests in behavior as a projection from the mind outward into a world of interpersonal drama.

One must recognize the pervasive sense of ambiguity and ambivalence surrounding the polar extremes in thought and feeling. The tendency is to quickly gravitate toward choosing one or the other of these extreme ideas--typically unreasonable and at odds with the inclusive aims of another--rather than pausing to consider each or a modified version. In other words, the key is not merely choosing, but the capacity to pause. That is, to modulate one’s impulsivity.

At this juncture, a worthwhile reminder is that this conversation about unconscious aspects of envy is a conscious attempt to address unconscious processes that are deeply rooted. This admonition is needed to remind the reader that envy management skills require cumulative attention and refinement over time. Like all basic psychological attitudes and states, envy cannot be eliminated. The aim of envy management skills is to employ conscious techniques to modulate the waxing and waning of naturally occurring extreme envy and its adverse effects on one’s personality and behavior.

 Envy management helps reorient motivation from its primitive ground in a reflexive need for unconsidered acquisition to a more tempered attitude of self-development, cooperativeness, and sharing where all benefit in some way. Allied emotions shift from staid pessimism, negativity, and resentment toward more enthusiastic, option-focused thinking.

 The healthy maturation of envy is a transformative process that endures over a lifetime. Extreme envious comparisons that involve splits and dichotomies such as contrasts imputing value judgments of superior-inferior or specialness that are exclusionary become superseded by rational and realistic valuations of worth and value. As perspective taking and empathy increase, admiration and emulation come to the forefront so that each person attempts his and her personal best in the company of others deemed kin—not strangers or hostile competitors. In this spirit of mutuality and sharing, all become winners and gratitude prevails. Gratitude amounts to saying: Thank you for sharing this planet and its resources with me.

Often overlooked is the fact that the roots of forgiveness precede and pervade gratitude.Forgiveness is letting go of the grudges, resentment, and bitterness that envy breeds. Forgiveness is the process of resolution for having experienced an insult, injury, trauma, wrong, or perceived wrong.It has been my experience that the act of forgiveness, which involves empathy, compassion, and perspective taking, may be the most difficult emotional experience to negotiate. Many find it more acceptable to carry with them unresolved old traumas, which are mummified in intellectualizations and justifications obviating their resolve. This burden is not only chronically stressful for the individual, but may be the nidus triggering future conflict--in individuals and nations. Resentment is the aroma of unconscious envy, and forgiveness unaddressed breeds chronic resentment.

Forgiveness may be the heart and soul, the intuitive compassion, at the core of righteousness and justice. Forgiveness is nourishing in that it is "the milk of human kindness", and also provides the motivation propelling forward positive psychological expansion. Certainly, one may forgive the person without excusing the destructive act. It is your choice; how you choose to choose--not a legal mandate. Perhaps, the deepest meaning of forgiveness is that its 'mysterion' resides in its power to enable one to let go of the narcissistic, self-centered ego, that is, to engage in the performance of genuine love.

The ultimate reconciliation, however, is between parts of the self that have harmed each other by the autodestructiveness of envious processes. This is the essence. Forgiveness to persons! And it does begin with self-forgiveness. Self-activism starts with self-repair. As this proceeds, a new sense of gratitude emerges--self-gratitude, which, in turn, halos out toward others. Forgiveness and gratitude are synergistic counterparts whose oscillation signals the healthy maturation of envy. This focus on the individual balances the defensive tendency to look outward and identify too heavily with the group, community, or nation, and so abrogate personal self-direction in a relatively self-dependent manner.

While it may be true that the aforementioned discussion with regard to the healthy maturation of envy sets forth optimal standards, it does so knowingly. Human civilization as far as we know has been built on aspirations that have included both noble and brutal values, egocentric and sociocentric goals, and people’s dreams for themselves and their children. As each individual chooses to better him- and herself, humankind as a whole, improves.

Can "thanks" transcend deeply rooted evolutionary stereotypes reinforced over millennia by cultural learning? Must each person be straitjacketed by and live confined by his and her own biocultural stereotypes? Can members within one family, gender, ethnicity, skin color, religion, political affiliation, tribe, state, country, nation, economic class, generation, the list is endless feel empathy and begin to take the perspective of "the other?" This ability to say "Thanks" is the first phase of forgiveness and the emergence of gratitude.

In fact, "the other" to be appreciated must be regarded as a reflection of the self, merely located in another spot. This view does not diminish others, but gives all a chance to see how the one universal human being may live an embodied life---YOU!---in remarkably diverse and adventurous ways in the one human community.

 My efforts have been to introduce Envy Theory and envy management skills in a manner that has traction and usefulness. Your comments are welcome.

 

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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