Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein had a special relationship with the green-eyed monster, envy. She spent a lot of time listening to people of all ages—while on her hands-and-knees with very young children in the playroom, and while sitting comfortably behind her adult patients reclining on the couch. She heard from all of them about the widespread experience of envy in daily life and the particularly painful toll it takes on the experience of being human.
Envy is painful for two main reasons—one which we probably are all aware of and one which is less accessible, more unconscious. The conscious experience of envy is that intense desire to have what someone else has. It is the Aching Want, the Painful Longing, the Maddening Craving in the presence of someone else who has it, enjoys it, even flaunts it. Beauty, money, possessions, power—we admire it and want it for ourselves.
Consciously, what is so painful about this aspect of envy is that it is based in a feeling of deprivation. We feel small. We feel inadequate. We feel poor. We feel that something is wrong with us. We might even feel something more acutely painful: We might feel like we are losers.
This aspect of envy tends to spoil our sense of goodness about ourselves. It undermines our ability to appreciate what we do have because we are so focused on the fact that someone else has what we don’t. If the experience of envy ended there, it would be painful enough.
But Klein discovered that this is just the beginning.
The trouble with envy starts to escalate as we imagine that if we could have what our neighbors have, then we would be happy. In the unconscious mind, happiness becomes equated with completeness. If we could have what they have, that we don’t yet have, then we would possess everything, lack nothing. This is the ideal bliss we are all longing for, at some very base and basic level.
Perhaps you can see how fantasies about envy really get going. We imagine that someone, somewhere out there—the object of our envy—does have everything and lacks for nothing. And we are unable to face the reality that this cannot possibly be true. People who are rich or beautiful or talented or owners of marvelous houses may have something special. But everyone lacks for something. That is the human condition.
Yet envy does not see the whole picture. Envy focuses on bits and pieces which fuel our sense of deprivation, entice us with the possibility that we could “have it all,” and frustrate us beyond belief with the pain that someone has what we do not—and it makes them perfectly complete! This is where Melanie Klein’s second discovery can be seen. Klein believed that—at a deep unconscious level—envy is not just based in desire to possess something good. It is based in hatred of the goodness itself.
This is why envy is felt to be the deadliest of all the seven deadly sins. It is an attack on goodness itself. In the face of the reality that someone has something that we want but cannot have, the common human response is to want to spoil it for them. Not just to want to have it for ourselves, but to ruin it for them. On a small scale, this is the source of gossip, pettiness, mean-spiritedness, and scandalmongering. On a larger scale, it is the source of mortgage schemes, terrorism, imperialism, and racism. It’s hard to be good. It’s easy to make someone else bad.
Envy is deadliest when it remains unconscious. When we do not claim responsibility for our envious impulses, we tend to project them into others: She is envious of me; I am not envious of her. We are under attack from those people because they are envious of us, not because we are envious of them. It is very easy to stay stuck in the belief that we are protecting ourselves against other people’s envy and not see the green-eyed monster within.
In reflecting about my blog, I realize that I have put off writing about envy for a long time, feeling unable to do it justice in so little space. But I guess there is something to learn even in that. That all we can do is what we can do, and try to be satisfied with less than what we wish for.
So, here is my take:
Envy is in all of us. It cannot be escaped. Yes, it can mellow with age, experience, and hard emotional work as we grow to be more grateful for what we have and more secure within ourselves. But to some extent, envy will always be with us, influencing us as an essential part of our inner emotional lives. As a result, the only real "antidote" to envy is making it conscious. The best way to defuse the power of envy is to recognize that it is in us, not just in the other guy. If we claim it as our own, we are able to influence it, contain it, and discipline it.
This is one of the simple yet ironic truths of psychoanalysis. What is relegated to the unconscious wreaks havoc. What is claimed by the conscious brings the chance of relative freedom from it. So it is with envy. We must get to know it so we can do something about it.
Copyright 2014 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.
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