Envy is the misunderstood emotion, often mistaken for jealousy, its mutually baleful sibling. There is a difference. When we are jealous, there is a third party involved, e.g., I feel threatened by Sue’s feelings toward Jared. When someone, anyone, whose positive feelings such as attraction, admiration, or love, toward someone else threatens our receiving the same from those persons we feel jealous. Or it may simply stir in us that which we might feel insecure about in ourselves. Envy, on the other hand, is a two-party emotion. I want, e.g., power, beauty, wealth, good fortune, etc., what someone else has. These two emotions are often confused partly because sometimes both emotions are activated by a given situation. For example, I feel jealous about Sue’s feelings toward Jared because he has certain qualities I believe I lack which makes me feel envious. Feelings of jealousy can elicit feelings of envy and vice versa. It can be complicated.
The psychological sources and effects of envy
Where does envy come from? Mankind has acknowledged envy’s destructive influences since the beginnings of civilization. We find envy in Moses’s ten commandments and identified as one of the seven deadly sins by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. In the twentieth century, the object relations theorist, Melanie Klein, proposed that envy develops in malevolent opposition to gratitude beginning with the infant’s relationship to its primary caregiver. According to Klein, when the infant’s needs are frustrated, destructive impulses ensue. Envy develops from the impulse to destroy something someone else possesses, in this case the caregiver’s love and comfort, if it isn’t shared or offered. Gratitude arises instead when the relationship with the desired “object” is generous and offers gratification. While Klein believed these emotions arise from innate drives, one needn’t accept this is true to understand the logic behind how this emotion arises out of relationships that begin with our primary caregivers.
Envy potentially exists in any given relationship but is especially problematic when it develops between a parent and child. The child’s envy toward its parent is presumably the source for patricide in the classic Greek play, Oedipus Rex, that inspired Freud who regarded the resolution of this conflict as the crucial rite of passage in order to achieve psychological maturation. According to Freud, resolution is achieved when envy and jealousy are replaced with identification with one’s rival, in this case one’s parent. Envious rivalry between mothers and daughters and from a parent toward its child, on the other hand, is portrayed in children’s stories about witches, beldams, and aging beauties.
The sociopolitical influences and uses of envy
Envy has also been identified as a source of influence in society at a broader scale. Philip Cushman, in his book, Constructing the self, constructing America (1995), has proposed that a capitalist society such as the United States manufactures feelings of insecurity such as envy, what he calls “the empty self,” in order to promote its economic agenda to sell products, including popular self-improvement books and instructional programs, even psychotherapy, to its constituents. What more compelling case for Cushman’s claim is there than what is found today from the effects of social media on the internet and the recent congressional investigations and revelations from the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen?
It has been proposed by others such as the sociologist, Helmut Schoeck, in Envy: A theory of social behavior (1966), that liberal political systems of modern civilization, such as democracy and communism, were generated as a common force in society for the purpose of diminishing feelings of envy by those less able to enjoy the benefits of wealth and prosperity among its members. Schoeck’s contribution was to propose envy as the source of a common critique of so-called liberal political systems based on the rationale that they promote mediocrity.
These critiques of collectivized liberalism may also be found elsewhere from such disparate theorists as the psychologist, Raymond Cattell, who in his “law of biosocial coercion toward the mean,” decried the leveling influence “the environment” may have on innately determined capacities such as intelligence and personality, the existentialist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who took a jaundiced view of the influences of sacred institutions of civilization, such as religion and science, on human potentials, and for the 19th century journalist, Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinist ideas that led to the eugenics movement. Even the sentiments of erstwhile presidential muse, Steve Bannon, represent further examples of those who have made claim to the stunting effect such political systems can have on a society to which Schoeck attributes envy as the culprit.
A more generous reason given for liberal political systems such as democracy and socialism would, of course, posit man's basic goodness to create a more altruistic, egalitarian society; a more sanguine perspective on capitalism would acknowledge how it promotes industry, initiative, and progress. Regardless of one’s political sentiments, in either case, envy has been identified by some experts as a malignant influence that either can inhibit human potential or exploit human behavior even at a broader, societal level.
How do I deal with feelings of envy?
Here are some tips if you are struggling with envy:
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Robert Hamm Ph.D