Envy This!

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

Can Parents Eliminate Envy from Child Rearing?

Modulating the role of envy in early childhood: The Biomental Perspective

"The School of Athens" (detail) Raphael, c. 1510

Normal child development is complex. This brief review will address a number of important features that highlight some critical elements with regard to the central role that emotional development and the regulation between positive and negative emotions play in early childhood. It is written from the Biomental Perspective, which is an integrative approach that incorporates scientific child psychiatry with aspects of phenomenology, philosophy, aesthetics, and pragmatic experience-near considerations. An implicit aim inherent in this is that such integrated material may be translational, that is, cross the academic/scientific boundaries into areas that are useful, and promote effective performance guidelines for parents and all those who care for children. 

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Envy may be foremost among this mix since it contributes heavily to the balance between well-being and distress/dysregulation throughout the entire lifecycle. The earliest roots of what is recognizable as “envy” largely in later life can be understood as the normal sense of “two-ness,” which will be discussed in detail in this article. Just as emotion cannot be eliminated from experience, envy and its correlate, “two-ness” cannot be eliminated; both, however, can be understood and used to promote healthy development. It is essential to emphasize that both envy and “two-ness” are and remain non-conscious, implicit psychological processes throughout life.

To appreciate this entire conceptualization, one must be open to seriously considering that normative envy, whatever forms its early psychological roots may take, is active in earliest infancy, especially the non-verbal era. The period of early childhood is highlighted because this “upstream” era is formative and especially sensitive to being shaped by parents. It is important to remember, however, that “downstream” development--the later course of childhood and adolescence--is just as crucial for emotional development but carries a different set of considerations.

I have included pictorial reference to a detail of the monumental work of art by the great High Renaissance painter, Raphael, c.1510-1511 AD, one of my own genetic, cultural forebears. Raphael is regarded as a master of balance and integrated composition. I both value and admire his contributions. This painting depicts the titans of the classical intellectual world, Plato c. 429 BC and Aristotle c. 384 BC, as dual figures engaged in a dialogue arguing polar opposite perspectives with regard to knowing—“two-ness.” Raphael was one of the first painters to master perspective taking in material art depicting the abstract perspective taking of the philosophers.

I use this image to illustrate the dynamic of what I call in this essay “two-ness” and propose it as the implied template behind all human cognition. I have argued in other contexts that this “two-ness” is an innate dispositional preference that has pervaded the structure of all philosophical, religious, psychological, and scientific systems that purport to give meaning to explaining the human condition, and even the inanimate world. In other words, the visual image of Plato and Aristotle suggests titanic forces arguing antithetical or polar opposite points of view (suggested by their pointing up/pointing down) majestically clashing in dialogue. Yet, each one represents real and meaningful perspectives that advance understanding and wisdom in diverse realms of human exploration.

While a full discussion of the aforementioned is beyond this brief discourse, the three books I’ve contributed, Ayurveda, Envy Theory, and Biomental Child Development, propose this underlying conception as axiomatic and discuss it in detailed fashion from a variety of differing viewpoints.

The essence of the thesis in this article on envy and childhood rests on the “two-ness” conceptualization. Here, it proposes that in early infancy, sensory perception and mental conception organize themselves from the start by “seeing” reality as polar opposites and simultaneously attempting to reconcile perceived discrepancies, thereby achieving varying levels of meaning, coherence, value, value judgment frameworks, and forming an emerging aspirational life-map. In this process, when the initial polarizations are too extreme and the values attributed to each become too ideal or too demonized, then excessive envy is proposed to be at play. The biomental perspective takes seriously this high value conceptualization.

Excessive envy, if not addressed and modulated properly, may become non-normative and contribute to serious conflict. The “two-ness” proposed here is an emotional polarization between the extremes of ideal versus all forms of negativization, as, for example, all forms of hatred, fear, and ill will. Negativization takes the form of seeing “black spots” on what is perceived. The two poles range from extremely good to extremely bad. They are experienced or felt as attitudes and are not clear-cut ideas. Negativization positively correlates with emotional dysregulation.

Polarized experience evokes dissonance. Since in earliest infancy, cognition is unmatured and incapable of intellectually reconciling such discrepancy, emotional strategies must be used. In the preverbal period of infancy, the infant uses its emotional tools, which are primarily nonconscious and part of its implicit memory systems, to process a great deal of information—and this persists subliminally throughout the entire lifecycle. These emotional strategies (“defense mechanisms to manage anxiety and conflict”) may span the range from avoidance and denial to blatant negation that amounts to a spoiling or aggressive deletion of what is discrepant and felt to be strange. Excessive envy is hallmarked by spoiling, which is a bitterly felt vitiation that becomes more intense with age since it becomes overlaid with added values/biases that reinforce its negativizing effect.

A fundamental proposition is that the mind’s default position is to organize itself in a dualistic manner—perceptually and conceptually grasping reality as if it were made up of polar contrasts. After this first step, modulating this extreme and rigid ideation—under reasonably healthy conditions--by environmental tutoring, learning, trial, error, and experience, softens it into more of a reality-based flexible apprehension. This is achieved by the influence of the early childhood environment, especially parental modeling and interaction. This of course interacts with a child’s own intrinsic resilience. Later on, daycare, preschool, kindergarten, and school cultures significantly add to this modifying process.

 

The Biomental Developmental Perspective:

A number of components play a role in shaping all human development: genetic, neuromaturational, temperamental, the child’s innate resilience, the effects of the environment on facilitating, suppressing, or introducing novelty, the profound impact of intimate human relationships, as well as the occurrence of unforeseen and random events. The material and psychological dimensions of these elements act in unified fashion to propel development forward.

Traditionally, mind and body have been spoken of as separate and virtually distinct. In fact, it is language that requires a descriptive vocabulary that by its very nature must dissect that which is unitary. The use of language, in other words, reinforces a sense of “two-ness” or plurality on multiple levels. For us to “know” and understand by using language, an analytic process of breaking apart, splitting up, and then attempting to put together and synthesize apparent discrepancies must occur. Of course, this, in itself, is not “bad” but its mechanisms must be recognized and understood in perspective. In many philosophical systems, this has been termed, “the problem of the one and the many.”

I have coined the term “biomental” to address this hidden assumption and put emphasis on the unitary quality of human growth and development. The apparently single processes such as “emotion,” for example, are complex amalgams both in makeup and in how they are originally generated and then maintained. This caveat is mentioned to indicate how complex the human condition and all aspects of it, such as mental functioning, really are even though brief reviews such as this tend to generalize and may overly simplify material that is multidimensional in its profundity.

The biomental perspective develops the framework for the book, Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting.

The reason to hone in on envy is that this unique attitude—“envy”-- integrates both emotional and cognitive frames of references early on and adds a lasting attitudinal bias to all mental perspectives throughout life. In other words, envy is a the base of noticing differences, and then imputing value judgments of superior versus inferior to that recognition of difference. This process over time sets up strong personal attitudes that reinforce values and preferences. These then drive behavior and contribute to how choices are made—consciously and unconsciously or reflexively.

Envy, therefore, whether raw or in its more matured state (admiration and gratitude) is the amalgamation of emotional color and form that gives balance/imbalance to the composition of one’s life.

 

Developmental Basics: A Simplified Overview

Cognition (process) and intelligence (product) are the basic faculties of knowing. Cognition presupposes sensory perception--awareness of the external and internal environments, and cognitive abilities--the range of mental processes that makes sense out of what is experienced. Cognitional abilities are mechanisms of intelligence. Perceptual and sensory functions, especially vision and hearing, mature early in infancy. The areas of the brain (cerebral cortex) that mediate more complex intellectual functions are unmatured at birth and only slowly mature and come on line during early childhood. They reach an important peak at about eighteen months when symbol formation, conceptual ability, and language capacity begin to take shape, and start to facilitate longer-term memory and conscious awareness with more conscious recall. It is now generally recognized that full brain neuromaturation (and cognitive skills) may only be attained at the end of the third decade of life. Thus, while the development of intelligence is active in childhood, it has a very long developmental trajectory for its more matured consolidation.

Most infant researchers recognize that an infant’s receptive understanding is much greater—although less easily measureable—than is the direct expression of its understanding. However, contemporary research with its sophisticated protocols has shown remarkable skill at measuring an infant’s comprehension in its conceptual development within the first six months. They trace this progression through eleven months, and see it refining itself at the key age of eighteen months.

 

Important “take home” points:

Vision/seeing is a primary receptive modality in early infancy, especially since there is no developed speech and language in the first year and a half—the preverbal period. The rudiments of cognition and knowing—mostly in the infant’s awake and implicitly conscious state-- structure themselves with noticing—noticing differences, experiencing a biomental dissonance/distress, and then trying to reconcile this sense of discrepancy or “two-ness” between differences.

The first six months of life, therefore, are primary gateways to perception. Babies have innate cognitive equipment to process data, but rely heavily on input from the environment—parental modeling—for information used to shape already forming attitudes, feelings, and ideas. Although I am concentrating here on vision, I would add that taste and touch are also central. Parental love, biomental warmth, and engagement are experienced through taste and touch regularly. Early infancy is a protracted state of dependency and receptivity. Observational exposure, however, in this unique context may have lasting imprinting effects.

 

The Second Half of the First Year:

Babies’ normative anxiety to a stranger—stranger anxiety—seen typically at about seven months suggests awareness of a capacity for some conceptual differentiation and a fear response to perceived discrepancy and danger. It is evidence of an infant’s ability to discern differences and indicate an awareness of the familiar (“mother”) in contrast to the strange (“other”). This lasting phenomenon is a very clear-cut behavioral expression of possessing a sense of “two-ness.”

To precisely pinpoint when an infant is first distinctly aware of “two-ness” is complex and certainly depends on how “two-ness” is defined. One way would be to define it as an awareness of the presence of multiplicities of units in a single field. These are grasped as existing in some sort of coherent, contiguous spatial context—many within one, or many and one. More detail with regard to these ideas is beyond this presentation since it reaches into abstract philosophical theorizing, and how this may correlate with brain maturational capabilities in infancy.

 

Additional Crucial Biomental Developmental Milestones:

The infant’s motor behavior also clearly can suggest its awareness of “two-ness,” by its experience of being at one point in space and being aware of another point in the distance. An example is the ability to point. This distinct event is first seen at about nine months when neuromuscular integration and intent to substantially influence another person are sufficiently consolidated.

Child developmentalists refer to this era as one of joint attention, which is a sharing of interest—both attentional and emotional-- in an object with another person as well as the recognition that both participants acknowledge their shared interest. Peek-a-boo games, smiling, and clapping indicate the normative development of a capacity for surprise, fascination, and feelings of joy. These phenomena herald that the balance of emotional regulation are positive. This has monumental psychological significance in that it indicates objective evidence that the infant is not experiencing its existence as insular, but rather as interpersonal and socially embedded.

By this time in the first twelve months, we see the infant with some awareness of itself and others, and able to point out what it chooses to point toward. Later on, between ten and fourteen months when the phenomenon of social referencing becomes evident, the typical infant and toddler look toward and may approach something, but sense some ambiguity, and so look back toward parent for guidance, usually through a facial expression of approval that suggests safety or indicates a need for avoidance. It is here that parental/cultural/environmental influences obviously appear to exert strong effects on the child’s choices. Children’s behavior and preferences are now clearly taking on specific direction that typically becomes reinforced with further environmental tutoring over time.

During the toddler years, biomental maturation expresses itself in a number of remarkable advances: walking, beginning to speak, and the ability to say “No.”

These developmental achievements herald a burgeoning capacity for psychological complexity, preference emergence, and more choice. The “two-ness” attitude is seen in the “black-and-white” thinking that becomes very apparent in the preschool and early school years. Typically, it softens as more healthy mental integration accompanies interpersonal experiences and learning over time.

 

Conclusion:

The aforementioned has been a very broad and general survey of earliest infancy to indicate the importance of the development of the capacity for a sense of “two-ness.” While “two-ness” has cognitive dimensions (e.g., understanding objects as separate and distinct), and interpersonal dimensions (e.g., the infant gradually sensing itself as separate from mother and sensing mother and father as distinct from one another), I have emphasized the emotional dimension (e.g., strong feelings determining value laden attitudes).

Envy Theory proposes that envy is a primary dispositional attitude whose deciphering template recognizes the world by first attempting to position reality into one of only two opposite ends of an emotionally laden polarized spectrum—superior (ideal) or inferior (valueless). In typical development, almost instantaneously, an attempt is made to equalize this toward a view more in accord with the nuances of reality, a view less prejudiced and negatively biased.

Modulating the role that normative envy plays in early development is possible. Parental tools to modulate this in both infancy and childhood can be suggested.

It helps to be open to considerations that normative envy is an attitude at play in very early childhood. If this is accepted as a reasonable proposition, guidelines can be considered. Intellectual understanding alone, however, is not sufficient to provide an infant with the nurturance required for healthy development. The “milk of human kindness” is a complete response from and between two human beings that transcends mere intellectualized generalizations. For each of us, valuing the goodness of this “milk” and not envying or spoiling its beneficence can be challenging! Given the aforementioned, the following simplifications may be useful.

First, recognizing an infant’s innate disposition is possible and necessary, especially early on. Family involvement is essential. Temperamental proclivities may be apparent in the neonate, and span the spectrum of very active to less active, very responsive to less responsive, very sensitive to less sensitive, and so forth. In the first three months, a baby’s disposition is becoming recognizable; by six months, it is much clearer. Parents can adapt their own style of parenting to suit both the infant’s needs as well as the interactional needs of the infant-caregivers, and parents themselves. This, in itself, helps the infant to modulate its biomental rhythms spanning physiology to psychology.

Modeling and behaving in a way that demonstrates kindness--a modulating attitude suggesting balance and proportion, not extremes--exposes infants to environments conducive to biomental balance and integration. The healthy maturation of envy, therefore, may be given a chance to emerge as a sense of admiration and gratitude. De-emphasizing polar contrasts in value judgments, especially idealizations versus demonizations (perceived “black spots”) fosters the healthy maturation/modulation of envy in powerful ways.

In childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, the conscious derivatives of envy organize and become much more recognizable and experience-near—both personally and seen in others and society. Some of the more conscious derivatives of envy are jealousy, greed, and exploitation. Envy and possessiveness are also correlated; these, in turn, provoke possessiveness, greed, and exploitation. Simply put, modulating excessive envy and what I have termed the sense of “two-ness” early on in life may minimize trends toward emotional dysregulation and help to balance a healthy developmental trajectory.

A word of caution: developing a “sense” is the preliminary step that prepares a child for the culmination step: performance. It is only in doing, perhaps, at first, practice, then, with motivated, voluntary intention, that true refinement in empathy occurs. All this practice and “doing” occurs in the emerging character of the individual through learning from experience over the lifecycle.

These strategies may appear simple, but they foster empathy and the gradual development of perspective taking. They help children respect the fact that a balanced world—subjective and objective--is composed of multiple points of view, different shades of meaning, a variety of contrasting emphases, and that, together, these comprise the brilliance that gives meaning to the human portrait.

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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