against only one special virtue; but truly, envy is against all virtues and against all
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Parson’s Tale
It is election season in Canada. An election season is an excellent opportunity to observe some of the most primal psychological processes at work. As we observe politicians’ attempts to spoil opponents’ efforts for change, leaders’ fearful guarding of power, and the desperate lying of different interest groups, we have an opportunity to understand the universal psychological processes underlying envy, jealousy, and greed writ large. On a smaller scale, any adult who has existed in a political environment has seen the processes of envy, jealousy and greed at play. I have found that understanding the primal roots of envy. jealousy and greed consistently assists me in stepping out of a position of reactivity when dealing with colleagues and patients whose attacking behaviors may otherwise harm, surprise, or destroy. So in honor of Canada’s election season, the next three posts will be on the tripartite theme of Envy, Jealousy, and Greed.
We will start with the most destructive of the ugly triplets: Envy.
I use primarily cognitive-behavioral theory-based interventions in practice, but in the case of envy, it seems to me that psychoanalytical psychology provides the best explanation. One psychoanalytic writer, Dr. David Hiles of the UK (www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/papers.htm) has this perspective on envy: “Envy is one of the ugliest of experiences. At the extreme, it is the destructive attack on the source of life, on goodness itself. In everyday life, envy is a common enough experience, but when experienced unconsciously, or early in life, or when left unresolved, it can be overwhelming, and moreover it can be “soul destroying”. (For copies of Dr. Hiles papers, go to www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/papers.htm). Dr. Melanie Klein, a leading psychoanalytic theorist, defined envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it” (Klein 1984, p176). Envy is defined by Klein as an innate “expression of destructive impulses” present from birth. Envy is recognized by the desire to ruin, poison, or tear down the good qualities or contributions of others.
Sound familiar? Perhaps you have had a Mean Girl in your life, an envious colleague, a vindictive boss: what do you do? Here are my top recommendations for managing envy from others.
Have integrity. The dream of the envious is for you to hold some of their rage and negative qualities for them, or to show that you no longer have the good qualities they would like to spoil or destroy. Stick with your values. Don’t become what the envious person hopes for.
Stay humble. Remember that the spoiling attempts and the attacks are targeted where the envious person is weak: the ego. You are not your ego. Even if the envy of another does your ego damage, you are not destroyed.
Set limits. Minimize contact with people who wish to spoil or destroy your good work or good qualities. Keep to the impersonal rules of engagement in a workplace, be civil, but set clear limits on unacceptable behaviors or contact outside the minimal requirements.
Build relationships with healthy people. Healthy people can enjoy and celebrate others’ good qualities. Others’ success is not threatening to those who are healthy. Unhealthy people can’t stand to see you successful and thriving.
Keep up the good work. You may have attracted envy through your own manifestation of good qualities and your own positive efforts. Don’t let resistance to your qualities or your efforts dim your determination to accomplish a positive vision. In fact, great qualities often engender the greatest resistance. I encourage you to keep moving forward on your good dreams. “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach
Hile, D. www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/papers/htm
Klein, M. (1984) Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. London: The Hogarth Press