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.
Two powerful psychological forces are at work here — idealization and envy; in my experience, they always go together. To begin with, we want to believe that some privileged people have perfect lives, full of excitement and without the ordinary pain and frustration we face in our own lives. On one level, we take vicarious pleasure in their glamorous existence; on another, there’s the secret hope that if those people manage to have a perfect life, it’s always possible that we could eventually have one, too. I’ve discussed the longing for perfection elsewhere, and its relation to an underlying sense of hopelessness. The wish to transcend the human condition and forever finish with emotional turmoil seems almost universal.
As times goes on, however, we feel increasingly envious of that perfect life we don’t have. I’ll have more to say about envy another day, especially its connection to shame; but along with hatred, it’s one of the least understood emotions, another social taboo. I’m not talking about everyday envy, what most people refer to as jealousy, as in “I’m so jealous that you’re going to Mexico!” I’m talking about a feeling akin to hatred, where the person feeling it wants to spoil the object of envy because to feel so envious is nearly unbearable. Envy is a very destructive force and most of us feel it at one point or another.
So because we envy those celebrities with their perfect lives, we take pleasure in their downfall. “If I can’t have a perfect life then I don’t want you to have one either!” Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes speaks to unbearable desire, first of all, but also to envy. When we want something that we can’t have, we tend to devalue it, make it undesirable so we no longer want or envy it. “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not Angelina Jolie right now, going through that mess with Brad. How awful!”
Actually, the idealization is often so strong many people would rather be a suffering celebrity than an ordinary person. “Sure, celebrities may occasionally suffer, but their lives are so perfect in other ways that the pain would be easy to bear. I’d trade places any day.”
Finding Your Own Way:
Think of a person you envy and write down all the reasons why you feel envious. Is it because of the way he or she looks? The money she has? His romantic relationship, or the fact he or she has children and you don’t? Maybe it’s about popularity.
Do you believe that this person has a “perfect” life? I know what you’re going to say: “Nobody has a perfect life, of course not,” and you’ll sound very reasonable. But you might still believe that the imperfections in this person’s life are insignificant, easy to manage in light of all the other advantages he or she enjoys. Really focus on the things/qualities that this person has and you don’t. How does it make you feel?
I’m not trying to stir up bad feelings or shame here. The goal is not to bring you down. Rather, I’m trying to help you get in touch with unrealistic fantasies about what’s possible in life, and how those fantasies can stir up envy. On a conscious level, we may believe that it’s other people who make us feel bad, but often it’s our own fantasies that are the problem.