Envy and Jealousy

In his collection of essays on the Seven Deadly Sins, Joseph Epstein singles out envy as the most painful of those sins to experience, with none of the ancillary pleasures that go along with, say, lust or gluttony.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, nobody wants to feel envious or to acknowledge feeling that way to others.  Like hatred in our culture, it remains a taboo subject.  It might be acceptable to admit you feel “jealous” that a friend has a trip planned to Europe or bought an expensive new pair of shoes; there’s a good chance you could one day go on such a trip yourself or add to your own wardrobe.   Jealousy, in this modern sense, means:  “I admire what you have and wish I could have something just like it, too.”  Jealousy is the cleaned up, socially-acceptable version of envy.

Almost nobody would say, “I’m envious that you’re better-looking than I am.”  You can’t change the way you or the other person looks.  Few people would admit, “I’m envious that you have a spouse and children while I haven’t had a relationship in years.”  To admit to such feelings acknowledges a level of hatred most personal relationships can’t tolerate.  For the truth is that envy, the green-eyed monster, wants to destroy what it cannot have.  The “solution” to envy — the way to find relief from the suffering it causes if you can’t have what you envy for yourself — is to make the envied object less worthy of that emotion, by spoiling or destroying it.  Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes speaks of unbearable desire but also describes a psychic mechanism (spoiling) active when envy comes into play.

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Envy and Self-Sabotage

I’d like to offer some reflections on the role of envy in self-sabotage based upon my personal and professional experience.  Bear with me; my conclusions might not seem obvious at first but I’ve seen them borne out again and again in my practice.  Let me start with the incident that triggered these thoughts.

Earlier this week, our friend Diane came over for dinner.  A family member had recently sold her a used Lexus sedan at a remarkably good price, a real “steal”; at the end of the evening, as we were walking her outside, I asked her how the new car was working out.  She immediately became visibly anxious and said, “I don’t have a new car.”  At that point, her significant other said, “Diane doesn’t feel comfortable having such a nice car so now we have to call it mine.”

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Celebrities — Why We Love and Hate Them

Whenever I’m in line at the grocery store, like everyone else I scan the tabloid headlines.  It always amazes me that so many people are fascinated by the soap opera lives of celebrities. Why, after all, does the wedding of someone we don’t even know hold such interest?  Why do we care about Brad and Angelina’s latest tiff when we’ve never met them?

I’ve noticed there’s a cycle to the stories.  First, you have the article about how Celebrity A has been spotted on dates with Celebrity B.  Then there’s the one confirming they’re an item, followed in due course by the big splashy cover story about their wedding.  Next you have rumors that there are signs of trouble in the relationship.  “Close personal friends” begin to hint at insensitivity and heartache at home, followed by reports that the couple has separated.  To complete the cycle, the tabloids run a story that details their messy divorce, full of bitterness and recriminations, with angst-ridden faces on the cover.  Of course there are many different versions of the cycle; if you’re Brangelina, you can spin out variations for years.  But in general, the cycle runs from idealizing someone’s life, followed by doubts about its goodness and concluding with its demise.

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