Most of us are familiar with the emotion of envy whether it makes itself felt regarding another’s power, position, or personal attributes.
Envy is commonly confused with jealousy. Shakespeare’s Iago says: "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster." Jealousy concerns the possession of a person loved by another. It involves a triangular relation and the desired elimination of a rival, as in the removal of Othello for the love of Desdemona.
Jealousy refers to whole-person relationships. It draws on a time of life when other people are clearly recognized and differentiated from self and from one another.
Envy is from an earlier phase of development and is one of our most primitive emotions. Rather than being triangular, envy is activated in a two-person relationship. It is dyadic: An individual envies another for some possession, attribute, or quality residing within.
British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was the first to draw a clear distinction between envy and jealousy. Envy is experienced when another is perceived as what Klein called a “part-object.” This is a term that conveys the infant’s earliest perceptions and experiences of the first caretakers, typically the mother.
Klein studied infant behavior and argued the workings of envy first emerge in relation to the breast as a body part. In other words, the caretaker is only first perceived in parts with a focus on the breast for feeding. The baby’s limited field of vision shapes his or her partial perceptions of the caretaker. Only later, through developmental advance, is the primary caregiver understood within a broader optical field and as a separate, whole person with independent volition and agency.
Klein described an early form of separation anxiety in which the mother's breast or more accurately —the infant’s idea of the breast — was the receptacle for love and also hate that arose in moments of its absence or depletion. She deduced the baby uses the breast for the purposes of taking and receiving nourishment, but also for phantasies of evacuating frustrations and hostility. Such is the case when a baby cries with hunger without a response from the mother or has drained the breast and is still hungry. In such moments feelings of anger and destruction are projected back onto the object of vexation, the mother’s breast.
Psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar describes how emotion figures into part-object perceptions. The earliest feelings directed at the breast are limited to either love or hate, rather than a mixture of these emotions. In this way, a baby’s early perceptions of another as part-object protect against ambivalence and the anxiety associated with it. Ambivalence is a contradiction that can be hard to hold: I love the person I also despise. Feeling love and hate for the same person is a developmental advance. It can also bring on feelings of shame and guilt. These uncomfortable affects can be prevented if kept separate or split.
Klein claimed these earliest experiences toward the breast shape the experience of envy, which continues to a greater or lesser extent throughout adulthood.
Envy is a spoiling emotion. Envy wants to ruin. It involves hostility toward the good qualities and capacities of another. For this reason, it can be dangerous to be the object of another's envious sentiments. This spoiling quality is what makes envy potentially destructive to psychological development and human relations.
Psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris conveys this destructive feature of envy in her recounting of an allegory by the English poet William Langland:
"Two men walking in a wood are met by an elf. The troll promises to grant one man a wish so long as the second man receives double as much. One of the men offers to let the other be granted the wish so that he will reap twice as much. The other man ponders carefully and then says, 'Make me blind in one eye.'”
The story illustrates the wish to hurt and torment that goes with envy, the unspoken pleasure in the suffering of another even when it means harming oneself. Hanna Segal suggests Shakespeare confused jealousy with envy when he had Iago say jealousy "doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Envy is self-consuming more so than jealousy. It cuts off one’s nose — or blinds an eye — despite one’s face. While both jealousy and envy involve the desire to take something away from another, envy entails ruining it, too, even at one’s own expense. As Segal puts it, envy “aims at spoiling the goodness of the object, to remove the source of envious feelings… since a spoiled object arouses no envy” (Segal, 45).
Envy is prominent in borderline personality organization. Envy (along with shame) is also one of the main emotions in narcissist personality disorders. As psychologist Nancy McWilliams describes, “if someone has the conviction that he or she is lacking something fundamental and that such inadequacies are always at risk of being exposed, that person will envy those who seem to have those assets that he or she lacks” (McWilliams, 172).
Envy is often an unconscious state of mind because it is so painful. It lurks beneath the surface of awareness so it also has been hard to study. One way to identify envy is through the defenses against it or the psychological ways it is warded off.
Devaluation is the main way a person tries to avoid feeling envy. This is an effort to diminish the value of the thing in the mind of the envious person. Through degradation, the envied quality or capacity is muted into something less for the one who covets: What you have is not so good after all. Another common defense against envy is omnipotent control. A person feeling envy sometimes tries to take over and "own" the envy-generating qualities or attributes of another person.
Psychoanalyst Harold Boris uses the image of “black milk” as a metaphor for envy. This is a phrase taken from a poem by Paul Celan, a Romanian Jewish poet whose parents perished in a Nazi concentration camp. In his poem Death Fugue, Celan uses "black milk" to convey what the Nazis "gave" the Jews and Gypsies during the holocaust. By referencing this image, Boris highlights the destructive element basic to this emotion. He elaborates on the experience of negation that is an aspect of envy:
“Human beings have a kind of black-light to their spectrum of experience… a hole or a blank or a piece of darkness where a something should have been. Black milk, where milk was to be. Black holes where time should have been” (Boris, 111).
Envy is one of the darkest human emotions. A person dominated by envy is unable to experience enjoyment. The capacity to love and receive love is compromised. Someone dominated by this emotional tendency has difficulty enjoying what comes from another because the giver then has something that is lacking in the receiver, which compounds resentment and hostility. This is the reason that trying to help someone struggling with envy arouses aggression rather than gratitude. A destructive cycle can emerge when an individual feels that he or she cannot acquire what is envied or something just as good, when what rouses envy is beyond one's hope of attainment. Persistent envy can lead to despair and also a primitive form of hatred, remarks Otto Kernberg. Envy is then directed at others who are not ruled from within by a similar hatred.
Boris, H. (1991). Black milk—Unconscious Envy I. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 27, 110-147
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Second Edition: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process, 2nd Edition, NY: Guilford.
Segal, H. (2018). Introduction To The Work Of Melanie Klein. NY: Routledge.