Seek and destroy: envy and its modus operandi
In my clinical experience envy rears its ugly head in everyday life more than it appears in the consulting room. It seems to be the case that expressing this shadowy part of the self is so wrapped in shame and the fear of negative judgement from an outsider witness that its expression is abandoned. In this act of abandonment, it leaves material of crucial significance on the outer side of the consulting room door.
So why is envy so shameful, so unable to be expressed and acknowledged? Is it because it is so destructive in terms of the ‘other’, or because of its internal mechanics and the deep, hidden, vulnerable layers within the self which birth envious reactions in the first place? Let’s explore...
Karen was a businesswoman and was married to John. The marital couple were considered as physically attractive, professionally successful and had longevity in their relationship. Neither partner had strayed and fidelity was an established connector; as were their future paced goals. They were what one might call a ‘solid couple’. One evening they attended a business event and were introduced to a single woman, Anna, whom John took an interest in at a socially engaging level. Watching - that which on the surface looked like no more than a pleasant conversation with resonant aspects between her husband and the single female - Karen felt threatened. She was aware of a rising anxiety in her chest. Her head, her logic, held no sway here. This was emotional territory. The stimuli was the threat of loss, the effects bore emotional and physical content, the behavioural reaction was to act to protect against a perceived loss. Karen verbally instructed this third party intruder to sit in a specific seat at the table “Away from the men!” i.e. away from her husband.
Fear is a hallmark of envy. When fear strikes, when threats appear, they require to be mitigated against. In this case, the strategy was to ‘remove’ and contain the threat. Once Anna was parcelled off, Karen’s emotions and body calmed as pertained to the perceived threat of Anna. However, the effects of the initial threat transformed into anger towards her husband accompanied by a heaviness in her tummy. With Anna at a distance across the dining table from ‘her man’, and an awareness that expressing this seething and primitive up-swelling of anger would not hold any rational legitimacy if recounted to her husband, Karen was able to sit somewhat pleasantly through dinner with the cohort of friends and colleagues around the large table.
However, once an energetic charge is created it must be released in some form, and in this scenario it was released in an almighty slap across her husband’s face; when after dinner and during the phase of social interaction, music and dancing, he Facebook friended Anna in recognition of their shared links with Anna’s sister.
So why is this envy? Well, envy has a lot to do with perception and self-judgement. It goes along the lines of, if I perceive such a threat in such a context, then I am judging myself to be under threat, and if I am judging myself to be under threat, then in some way I have constructed a hierarchical assessment replete with psychological and emotional content that the ‘other’ is higher, bigger, better, more attractive, and so on, than me. Henceforth, and in order for me to maintain equilibrium, they must be ‘reduced’ via a psychological process of destruction.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. For a start there’s a historical component, a rhythmic dimension, in that it may be possible that intervention was determined as necessary because Karen held a perception, a belief system, that lest she not intervene (perhaps as she had felt called to do many times in the past?) then maybe, just maybe, this would be the occasion during which her unfounded fears became founded.
History also rears its head when we look at Karen’s perceptions of herself as this is the self that reacted to and acted upon the incoming stimuli. In this particular case, Karen was a woman who felt professionally unfulfilled, a little overweight and therefore not as attractive as she would like. She was a woman who had invested time and energy into her marriage and her children often at the expense of herself and her own needs. With investments, risk becomes present and its attendant fear of loss. This in combination with her negative self-judgements, in conjunction with the presentation of Anna - an object ‘believed’ to be higher in the hierarchy and risky on the investment index – brought forth a psychological necessity to “seek and destroy incoming threat”.
Destruction of the threat is a core aspect inherent within envy. I often laugh at the early example I heard during my psychotherapy training: A woman buys a gorgeous pair of shoes and shows them to her friend. Rather than validate the purchase and coo over the design and colour the friend asks rhetorically, “Did you buy them in the sale?” Bam! Seek and destroy! Passive aggressive derision! The transformation of something which could be perceived as a non-event into a psychological event with a psychological necessity to make oneself whole by using destruction to mitigate the risk of being reduced to ‘less than your friend’ – all via an innocuous in itself pair of shoes. Never ask your friend “Does my bum look big in this?” And, especially not, if you actually look great! Trust me. You have become a threat.
In envious destruction, there are two sides to the story, two players, the suddenly vulnerable destructor and the passively or explicitly attacked destructee. In this case, Anna was one of the victims of said destruction. When she was instructed to “sit there away from the men!” her mind became preoccupied with self-judgment. She ran through the scenario in her mind and questioned what she did wrong, had she been overly friendly, had she overstepped some social boundaries and so on. Her vulnerabilities of attending the function alone peaked. Her self-assuredness depleted and she consciously became hypervigilant about averting her gaze away from the couple. She struggled to engage in everyday conversation with the cohort of strangers around the table and physically noted anxiety in her body.
The time over dinner transmuted much of the tension and her emotions gradually morphed into self-assertive mild indignancy and anger. Acting on this newly arrived space of self-assuredness, and in the mix embracing resentment in action, she happily engaged in a few minutes of cursory social banter post the meal with John. During which time they found a commonality which they concretised by becoming Facebook friends. At the point of the slap to John’s face, she left the event feeling humiliated and rejected, and sad and angry that an identity had been projected towards her which bore no truth in reality.
Another victim in this scenario was John. He was shamed by the physical wound but fearing the wrath of his wife, and empathically acknowledging her plight, he held back from any expressions of distaste and made light of it. The abandoned shame of his wife had clearly been ‘split off’ and carried by her spouse. He ‘shut down’ and allowed himself in that moment to become something he inherently was not. Weak and ineffectual. A mirror to his wife’s sense of disempowerment when faced with the perceived risk of Anna. The ramifications of this would naturally play themselves out over time in the dynamics of this couple's relationship.
Envy does not only destroy, it’s not only an aggressive survival mechanism. It turns reality into fantasy, it creates worlds that previously did not exist, it shifts identities, creates incongruence and incoherence within the self, and via projection lies and twists the truth within the ‘objects’ and the object relationships in our lives. Victims of envy must fly a banner emblazoned with the words “I am not that which you would have me believe I am”. Whilst the vulnerable perpetrators must acknowledge those shadowy and insecure parts within themselves which have been triggered in order to understand themselves more fully. Recognition of envious thoughts can thwart envious actions and such awareness can also catalyse development of those parts of the self which are open to doubt and deprecation, and negative self-judgement.
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