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.”
Have you ever known people like Diane who feel uncomfortable having something nice, who are made anxious by good fortune? I’ve known a number of such people, in both my personal life and practice. As I closed the door behind Diane, my client Jeffrey the writer immediately came to mind. I discussed him in an earlier post on psychotherapy issues in manic-depression. Let me describe what happened around the time his novel was about to be released.
One day in session, he was discussing the advance praise from other writers that was to appear on the jacket and opening pages of his book — extremely flattering blurbs, full of admiration for his prose and characters. As he described them, he sounded scornful. At first I thought he was feeling contemptuous of the other writers — he’d said before that he believed some of them hadn’t actually read the novel and had simply offered fairly generic
praise. As he continued, I eventually realized he was expressing contempt for himself and his creation. When I said as much, he acknowledged that he indeed felt scornful of his achievement although objectively, he knew it was a wonderful thing to be published. He went on to mention that he was having a very hard time writing some public relations materials that the publisher had requested — the sort of thing he could normally write in about ten minutes with little effort. He’d struggled for hours and couldn’t manage to complete it.
Jeffrey had been in treatment for a number of years by that point and it’s difficult to recapitulate the history of our work together. It might help to know that Jeffrey was an extremely envious person. Because of his own basic shame, he tended to idealize other people, and in particular the successful writers he knew. In fact, he often felt a poisonous sort of hatred for them, a wish to tear down and belittle their achievements though he never actually expressed it to them aloud. This is a familiar cycle to me: unbearable shame coupled with the idealization of other people, which then stirs up a brew of toxic destructive emotions I would label envy.
In our session, I told Jeffrey there was a part of himself that hated him for his wonderful achievement, that wanted to tear it apart and ruin it. Now that he was the successful writer, he envied himself just as much as he had always envied those other writers for their success. Belittling and scorning his own work was both an expression of that envy, as well as an effort to make the book less admirable than he really felt it to be, in order to ward off further assaults. But the envious attack on himself was nonetheless so powerful that it was affecting his ability to think and write — thus his difficulty with the public relations material. (I hope to write about this kind of attack on one’s one ability to think in another post.)
Diane isn’t my client and I don’t know her well enough to describe her internal dynamics in such detail. Suffice it to say that she obviously felt that to be in possession of something so valuable put her in grave danger, no doubt because other people would envy her for having it. In the end, she had to disown her treasure in order to protect herself from the envy of others … and possibly from her own envy, as well.
Finding Your Own Way:
If you’re a person who suffers from this particular difficulty, I have some advice for how to cope with it.
First of all, it helps to personify the envious part of yourself, as if there’s an enemy who lives inside you. Imagine there is somebody in there who hates you for anything good that happens to come your way, who wants to spoil it for you. You’ll have to defend yourself against these envious attacks. Watch carefully for the kind of scornful, belittling thoughts that arise and stand up to them; don’t just let them run you down.
In my view, it’s not really as if; there actually is a vital and active part of you inside with its own agenda. It is relentless and will not go away. This is one of the many reasons why I believe affirmations have little value; with such a persistently destructive adversary, you need to do battle. You need to resist this envious part — protect yourself and your own internal goodness from self-sabotage so you can rejoice in your real achievements. This is a never-ending job.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”