One day many years ago a client who I will call Virginia* accused me of hurting her feelings by calling her competitive. This was ironic, since Virginia had spent long hours in therapy discussing her competitive feelings about her siblings, her co-workers, her friends, and even her boyfriend. But I understood what she meant. First, as psychoanalyst and author Adrienne Harris notes, despite years of social change women tend to feel our own envious and aggressive competitiveness “as a damning character flaw.” And second, competitiveness breeds envy; and most women are terrified of that feeling, whether it’s our own directed at someone else, or someone else’s directed at us.
Why is this? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
First of all, let’s talk about what envy is. Lots of people interchange the words “envy” and “jealousy,” so when I define how I’m using the word, you may decide that what I really mean is “jealousy.” Although I put a lot of stock in choosing words carefully, in this case I actually don’t think it matters which word we use – most of us dread the feelings I’m talking about, whatever we want to call them.
Dictionary.com defines envy as a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another's advantages, success, possessions, etc. So when we envy someone for something they have, we want it for ourselves, and we feel angry or unhappy that we don’t have it. That’s easy enough, right? The problem is that these feelings do a double whammy to our self-esteem. In the first place, we feel like we are somehow inferior to the holder of whatever it is we covet – long legs, thick wavy hair, a great job, a terrific partner/spouse, a beautiful home, brilliant children, success, happiness, etc. In the second place, we feel badly about the envy itself. Feeling these feelings makes us feel like we’re bad.
The British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein says that part of the reason we feel badly about feeling envious is that along with the desire to have what someone else has, we also feel like destroying them, or at least we want to damage both their good feelings and whatever it is that they possess that we believe is making them feel good. This is usually, although not always, not a conscious desire; but it is a powerful unconscious emotion that does nothing to help us feel better about ourselves.
For women, as Harris points out, there is the added feeling that we are being unfeminine, unlovable and unattractive (funny how often those ideas go together) by having these angry, antagonistic and potentially hurtful feelings towards someone else. Another psychoanalytic writer, Ruth Moulton, writes that we feel that we will lose the approval of others if we are too obvious about our desire to win, and, even today in our “lean in” times, it seems that envy is often viewed as a signal of “over the top” competitiveness. In order not to feel it we put ourselves down; or we hide our accomplishments; or we actually set ourselves up to lose. But of course these ploys don’t work. They just make us feel worse about ourselves.
So where does this leave us?
It seems to me that, to paraphrase the old idea about imitation and flattery, envy is actually the highest form of flattery. Who has ever envied anything that she didn’t admire? We want what someone else has because we think it makes them special in some way, and we think that if we had it, we would feel special too.
I think one problem with envy is that we keep it buried, away from the light of day, because we think it’s so bad; but burying it is actually what makes it fester. When we can talk about it, it often opens up into a much milder feeling.
This happens in part because it often turns out that the same person we envy also envies us – sometimes for the very same thing we admire in them. When we express our envy in terms of admiration, we often get admiration in response. And when we don’t, we often get genuine surprise and pleasure from the other person, which is sometimes just as good!
That’s what happened with Virginia and me. One day after we had started talking about her envious feelings, I said, “Does it ever occur to you that I might envy something you have?” She was horrified at first, but after we talked some more, she was curious. “What could I possibly have that you would envy?” she demanded.
I told her that there were several things that I admired and envied in her, but one important one was the way she went after her goals. “You are so single-minded about them,” I said. “You don’t let yourself get distracted. You work hard, long into the night sometimes, until you accomplish what you set out to do. I envy that ability. I seem to have an automatic internal time limit, after which I have to stop.”
She looked at me in stunned silence. “You envy that? And you don’t hate me for it?”
I laughed. “Sure,” I said, “Sometimes I hate you a little. But it’s only because I wish I had that ability myself.”
We spoke for many sessions about the idea that envy is always destructive. I had to agree with Virginia when she said, “I guess it’s destructive when it can’t be talked about. Once it’s out in the open, we get a chance to share our envy – and our admiration – of each other. Your envying me makes it much easier for me to let go of my wish to destroy you. Because now I know that I’ve got something too.”
Envy, kept deep inside, feeds on itself because it doesn’t make room for mutual admiration. Spoken about, it opens up room for acknowledgement of the fact that when we envy someone, it’s often mutual. Far more often than anyone realizes, both people have something the other wants; and that idea goes a long way towards easing the pain of any envious feelings about what we don’t have.
*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
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