Whenever I'm in line at the grocery store, like everyone else I scan the tabloid headlines. It always amazes me that so many people are fascinated by the tawdry lives of celebrities. Why, after all, does the wedding of someone we don't even know hold such interest? Why do we care about Brad and Anjelina's latest tiff when we've never met them?
I've noticed there's a cycle to the stories. First, you have the article about how Celebrity A has been spotted on dates with Celebrity B. Then there's the one confirming they're an item, followed in due course by the big splashy cover story on their wedding. Next you have rumors about bumps in the relationship. "Close personal friends" begin to hint at insensitivity and heartache at home, then come reports that the couple has separated. To complete the cycle, the tabloids run a story that details their messy divorce, with angst-ridden faces on the cover. Of course there are many different versions of the cycle; if you're Branjelina, you can spin out variations for years. But in general, the cycle runs from idealizing someone's life, followed by doubts about its goodness and concluding with its demise.
Two powerful psychological forces are at work here—idealization and envy. In my experience, they usually go together. To begin with, we want to believe that some people get to have perfect lives, full of excitement and without the ordinary pain and frustration we face in our own lives. On one level, we take vicarious pleasure in their glamourous existence; on another, there's the hope that if those people can have a perfect life, it's always possible that we could eventually have one, too. I've discussed the longing for perfection elsewhere, and its connection with internal problems felt to be hopeless. Behind celebrity worship lies the universal wish to transcend our human condition and forever finish with emotional turmoil.
As time goes on, however, we feel increasingly envious of that perfect life we don't have. This type of envy may be particularly acute for those who struggle with issues of shame, as I've discussed on my website, After Psychotherapy. Envy is one of the least understood emotions, and along with hatred, a major social taboo. I'm not talking about everyday envy, what most people refer to as jealousy, as in "I'm so jealous that you're going to Hawaii!" I'm talking about a feeling akin to hatred, where the person feeling it wants to spoil or destroy the object of envy because to feel envious is nearly unbearable. Envy is a very destructive force and most of us feel it at one point or another.
Because we envy those celebrities with their perfect lives, we take pleasure in their downfall. "If I can't have a perfect life then I don't want you to have one either!" Aesop's fable about the fox and the grapes speaks to unbearable desire, first of all, but also to envy. When we want something that we can't have, we tend to devalue it, make it undesirable so we no longer feel desire or envy for it. "Boy, I sure wouldn't want to be Katie Holmes right now, going through this divorce. How awful!"
Envy comes up in our everyday relationships, as well, and can be much more difficult to manage. It's one thing to envy a person you see only on television or at the movie theater, quite another when it's one of your closest friends or a colleague at work. Is there a person in your life that inspires painful feelings of envy in you? Is it because of the way they look? How much money they earn? Their relationship, or the fact they have children and you don't? Maybe it's his or her personality.
Do you believe that this person has a perfect life? You might answer that nobody has a perfect life but still believe that any flaws are insignificant and for all intents and purposes, they live in a perfect world. Try to get in touch with unrealistic fantasies about what's possible in life and how those fantasies can stir up envy. We may consciously believe that it's other people that make us feel bad, but on another level, it's our own fantasies of perfection that are the problem.