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.”

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.”

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37 Responses to Envy and Self-Sabotage

  1. Beatrice says:

    I dont agree with this because some people are envious and when some one is envious of you they can curse you without knowing. In my religion “islam” we even have a prayer against envy..

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’m not sure I undestand what you mean. What do you disagree with and how does the issue of cursing come into it. I’m interested to hear more.

      Other religions have similar “prayers”. In Judaism, for example, you might say “Kina Hora” after speaking of your achievements or good fortune; it means something like “without the evil eye” or “may the evil eye not notice”. It’s a reference to the destructive power of envy.

  2. Jenn Gracia says:

    This article has definitely given me a different perspective of my own internal issues as far as accepting compliments and positive feedback. I can’t recall ever having positive feedback growing up and it seems as though any positive feedback or accomplishments I make, I feel the need to lessen them in some way or down play my successes as much as I can. It’s almost uncomfortable to hear someone else notice my successes in certain ventures, but internally I know that I’ve done well or deserve the ‘pat on the back,’ if you will. It’s almost as if I have accepted the accomplishments internally and I don’t want to hear others recognize them. It’s something I have struggled with, but not to the point where I have sought further insight or therapy. It’s pretty easy for me to quickly accept others’ feedback and move forward without harping on it, but I always seem to feel uneasy and uncomfortable for a bit in the moment.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Maybe for you it’s not an issue of envy as I described, but more one of internalized “values” — like, your parents gave you little positive feedback, never made a big deal over your achievements, so you’ve internalized that attitude and feel that to draw attention to yourself would be boastful. There are reasons why people might feel uncomfortable with public recognition of achievement; my post describes only one of them.

      • Zbynek says:

        This is strikingly familiar.

        Though in my case, the self-sabotage has a defensive characteristic much like your friend and her lexus – at some level, there’s the instinctive assumption that the moment something is recognized as positive and valuable, the moment I am happy about something, I will “jinx” and lose it.

        So I put this wall between myself and all potential sources of enjoyment. Defensive anhedonia.

        Could be the confluence of communist and catholic mentalities in my country, or just plain old parenting? I realize the line is fuzzy, if there’s indeed any at all.

        • Joseph Burgo says:

          In addition to the factors I discuss in this post, social influences such as communist ideology and Catholic guilt could definite be at play. They work together to reinforce one another.

  3. LifeLong says:

    Although I used affirmations for many years, my path and experience in therapy ‘showed’ me that in order to make real change, one has to go much deeper than repeating affirmations over and over.

    Thomas Jefferson’s quote is spot on.

  4. George says:

    I can see how envy of others is a response to basic shame. It seems that this envy involves a perception of value in others that one lacks oneself. But I feel that devaluing one’s own gifts or achievements is not really envy but just the basic shame talking again in another way: ‘I have no value therefore it is impossible that I have genuinely done something good, and if people praise me then they are not telling the truth.’

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      George, what you’re discussing is also true. We’ve all known people who can’t feel good about anything and never believe praise. I’m talking about people who become anxious when they have something good, who are afraid something bad will happen to them if they do. I see it in dreams and fantasies. Self-envy is not an easy concept to grasp since it seems almost counter-intuitive; but my experience, it helps explain a lot.

      • anonymouse says:

        What about people who always get cursed the moment something good happens. Not a perception – I mean in real life it ALWAYS happens. And not just small stuff – big stuff. Barely getting your breath from one disaster before the next one takes over.

        Sometimes it is true, a good thing happens and life just takes it away. You can’t rest on your laurels because nature is random and that means for some people it’s quite cruel and for others it’s quite ‘lucky’.

        Judging people by the standard that this is negative thinking due to shame. Well where does the shame come from, if it is even there? What if it started as shame “maybe it’s just me!” (relative deprivation?) but if it happens enough and becomes random enough, you start to realise that even if you have intrinsic worth, the universe doesn’t care and you can’t have ‘nice things’ anyway. Build a house and a tornado comes. Build a bomb shelter and it floods. Build it, they will come – every natural disaster and then some. That’s not shame, that’s reality.

    • Anonymous says:

      I concur, I fight myself constantly regarding praise and compliments. It almost hurts. I know it doesn’t help relationships either. When I was a kid I took on the value that to feel proud or vain is sinfull/evil… I can’t seem to shake it.

      • Zbynek says:

        I have that, except with “feeling happy or good or satisfied” at all, on top of “proud”. Self-confidence is sinful. Yay?

  5. Cheryl says:

    Read all your posts today, and this was the one that hit home. Envy is probably one of my most miserable tendencies; and have tried to rise above this, knowing it is a sad, and futile and well, human. Try the essay “Envy” by Joseph Epstein – one of the 7 Deadly Sins series – in which he notes that envy is the only one of the seven that is NO fun. Anyway — It never occurred to me to think of the discomfort I feel when something goes WELL as a kind of self envy. Don’t know as yet if this is a helpful construct — or more confusion. But actually envisioning some little nasty gremlin inside waiting to attack me for enjoying some of life’s pleasures is a lot more gripping than trying to come to terms with abstractions about early psychological makeup. Or affirmations. Slay the dragon!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks, Cheryl. I will read that essay and post something about envy and jealousy later this week. It’s a subject I’ve been meaning to address.

  6. JJ Shag says:

    Hi Joe I’m still struggling to understand this concept of self-envy. The closest I can come is this: When I was successful, I don’t remember envying myself, I was relatively happy with my success. However I did sabotage myself for various reasons though not on purpose. Now that I am struggling and no longer successful, I feel like a failure and most of the time I envy my “former, successful” self, and am baffled at how I did it, given that I feel like I no longer have the same skills or emotional abilities. Is this related to what you mean by self-envy?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think the problem with my calling it “self-envy” is that it makes it sound as if you would actually experience the emotion of envy toward yourself. I think it doesn’t show up that way; rather, it appears as the kind of self-sabotage you describe. It’s more that you have to *infer* the presence of the feeling based on the behaviors, “as if” somebody inside envied your success and therefore wants to destroy it. We could simplify the whole think and just call it self-sabotage but, in my experience, it is definitely linked to envy of other people as well.

      • Zbynek says:

        Dr. Burgo, I definitely exhibit the “anxious at own success” features you described, yet I am not jealous of other people – however, envy and jealousy in others is one of my top pet peeves, and I get quite angry when people speak and act jealously. Am I projecting, or is it something different? I realize I’m not giving you much to go on here.

  7. Beatrice says:

    It is a fact that an evil and envious soul touches the envied person in such an evil manner that it causes them harm, both physically and mentally. When a person harms another by looking at them or their property with maliciousness and jealousy. It starts when the person likes or covets a thing, then his evil feelings aff…ect it, by means of his repeated looking at the object of his jealousy. Thats what I meant..

  8. In addition to self-sabotage because of self contempt/envy, I think there are those that are afraid of being successful because they don’t really believe that they are or have a right to be…and that others will recognize this. I guess that’s a variation on the same thing, and something I’ve dealt with personally for many years. Always a work-in-progress. ;)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I agree, Kheiron. Sometimes what holds people back is this fear of being “exposed”, found out to be a fraud. I think that’s what you’re getting at.

  9. Uponthehorizon says:

    Hi Doc Joe,
    I happened upon your posts searching for symptoms of depression i was/am currently experiencing after completing a stress indicator instrument scoring at 534 on a scale of 0-300. (I have since requested the support of those closest to me and stepped back from my work schedule and am examining what is in the “pot” so to speak that has been stirred up by this stress)
    I grew up in a family with 2 powerful controlling victim co-dependents. Mother with a heart condition bound by fear and anxiety, and a 5 years older brother who became type A diabetic at age 7 and a workaholic father who just did his best to ignore or appease and escape in his work.
    This portion of your article stuck me “possession of something so valuable put her in grave danger” Growing up I was saddled with contempt and the guilty context “You’re the healthy one! You’re the one who stands to benefit! When we die you’re going to get everything!”
    So, since i was small (i’m 45) my brother was allowed to express his frustration and rage for life’s unfairness towards me through envy i.e. by threatening me, smashing my toys, bikes, then motorcycle windshield, denting my cars, criticism, rivalry competition, passive aggression, etc.
    As a result, i end up with a guilt and a bondage of fear of reprisal based upon those real experiences for obtaining nice things or success or just being “too” happy. (This had got to the point where when at my friends house i would only feel comfortable accepting coffee in a “chipped coffee mug”)
    Given that “other envy” can have a debilitating influence not only in one’s mind, but in reality, have you or others done more work on this subject? I feel frustrated with myself that i would allow others petty envy and jealousy to cause me to play small in life, especially when i have my own family and employees that depend on me being free to provide greater opportunities, yet even such a noble cause does not outsmart my own guilt which circles back to point a crooked finger of judgement at “my own benefit”

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      This sounds like a different issue from the one I’m describing … and yet, I wonder if you haven’t internalized all those hostile envious people and you now have one inside of you. Even though we tend to focus on other people’s reactions to us, it’s often our own attitudes that are the real problem. I’d want to focus on YOUR anger, YOUR destructiveness, YOUR envy.

  10. LikesPie says:

    I’m sorry to write so long after this was posted, I just had to comment on this because its really provided an incredible understanding of what i’ve been going through for the last year or so. I am in a wonderful long term relationship with an old friend of many years, on whom I and a number of my friends were interested in while we were in school together . He briefly dated one of these friends years ago, when we were teenagers, and at the time I felt totally crushed about it. They broke up rather dramatically after a few months, and my friend was heartbroken over it. It was six years later before he and I started to date, but I have noticed over the last year I have been obsessively analysing my own feelings about the relationship, while simultaneously terrified of finding any which may indicate we should break up, as I have been so happy in our time together. Basically i have been terrified of irrationally sabotaging the relationship. This post has made it clear to me that some component of this links to self envy, I am finally in a loving happy relationship (somehow with the person with whom i experienced painful unrequited feelings) and I have a voice which tells me I dont deserve it or him. I’m sorry for the length of this post but I feel it has illuminated something which has been tormenting me and for that I wanted to thank you very very much.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re very welcome and your comment wasn’t at all long. I’m glad when someone discovers a post I wrote long ago — it makes the writing come back to life.

  11. Sherry says:

    This was an interesting take on self-sabotage. I thought that self-sabotage was that voice that says “You’ll never make it. Why even try? You’re a loser anyway. So don’t get too high on your horse. You’ll just look all the more ridiculous when you fall off.” So I am trying to comprehend this self-envy concept. Yet I also know the fear of envy from other people, having been many many times the victim of envy. As a child and as an adult. I know that I physically fear OTHER people’s envy. Even sometimes am terrified of it. So much so that I have always dressed down my acheivements and even uglied myself physically so as not to attract attention. I literally become afraid when someone compliments me. And it seems with good reason. I have had siblings physically harm me because I was the favorite. Friends go after my boyfriends. A colleague steal my work and then sabotage my career. Let’s not even consider what men can do when they desire a woman (or child for that matter) a bit too much. These are things that frankly leave one preferring to not be attractive, smart or successful if that’s what it brings. All the while…. carrying around the type of voice I mentioned up above. So I do not fully understand. Also. I am new to the envying other people. It is simply not something I ever suffered from. Not that I was sure of myself, note the voices up above. I simply think I was busy surviving. Until therapy awakened the monster. Well many monsters, though envy is the one I dislike the most. And that too is confusing. Because once that monster awoke, well let’s just say there are now arguments in the head that get rather ugly. Because how do you deal with envying someone because you have spent most of your life self-sabotaging so have not acheived the things you know you are capable of? So you are both envious of others who seem to succeed and not torture themselves for it. All the while attacking yourself with voices of the likes up above. And then attacking yourself even more because you know that your self-sabotage has kept you back. And also afraid to succeed for what envy it may breed in others. And now, thanks to therapy, you get angry at yourself because you know that your own envy is keeping you back because it paralyzes you too. And oh, I forgot. Also worried about the pain your happiness causes in others… It is a very vicious circle, with fairly vicious barking on all sides. I had been tempted to consider all this a mid-life crisis… But… I am intrigued by this self-envy concept. Wondering if that may be the key. And shame? Ah, now that is one I know well. I am impressed with your thoughts and will explore more. Thank you.

    • Ann says:

      Hi Dr. Burgo,

      I read this post with interest and was going to write a question in the comments section when I saw Sherry’s post above. She and I seem to be suffering from similar issues. Like her, due to envious people around me, I am terrified of inciting envy in others. I don’t tell people about my accomplishments and keep a low profile appearance-wise. Now that I am beginning to turn some things around in my life, I don’t know how to let myself be my best when I am still haunted by the fear of others’ envy. I have even cut the original punitive envious people out of my life, but as my life improves I see my friends changing (I’m not always available anymore now that I am succeeding and putting time in at work) and certain colleagues outright hostile. My question is, if you’ve spent your whole life dealing with being a nonthreatening nonentity, what are the strategies I need to learn to cope with being a powerful beautiful benificent person? How do I prevent or manage or mitigate the envy others may have towards me?

      Thank you for this website!

      Ann

  12. Tom says:

    This is a part of my personality that I’ve been struggling to understand for some time. I’m a moderately successful newspaper reporter, and find it very uncomfortable – almost unbearable, in fact – to look at printed articles that carry my byline. It gets worse as the prominence of the story increases, to the point that I feel almost ashamed whenever I get my name on the front page of a big publication. Something similar happens if I get praised for a story; I generally end up feeling inexplicable guilt.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this. Hopefully I’ll be able to use this to begin getting a better insight into myself.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s very interesting. I recently had an article appear on The Atlantic’s website and I felt extremely uncomfortable. It was exciting and I was proud, but I also felt very vulnerable. I think that there was some shame involved, as if something might be revealed that I didn’t want others to see.

      • Zbynek says:

        Sorry for posting in a hibernated thread (again), but… this is very interesting.

        I think the possibility of negative critique is a major (if not the deciding) factor in those feelings you both describe (and I suffer from as well). What seems striking to me how overblown the threat of negative feedbacks and its consequences (which, let’s face it, are close to none) seems to be psychically. Can this be the result of habitually over-negative feedback from parents early in life? Is it that whenever we are “on display”, we habitually assume we will be shamed and it makes us uncomfortable in advance?

        • Joseph Burgo says:

          It could be as a result of that negative feedback early on, but the fear you describe when “on display” might also be a result of the what I refer to as basic shame or core shame on this site.

  13. Mike says:

    Your closing paragraph about resisting the critical part of yourself felt very dire to me. I wonder if it’s healthy to be at constant war with yourself. Are you familiar with the theory of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? They expressly reject the battle metaphor, and believe that if you “lay down your arms” and step off the battlefield, you can eventually find greater peace and growth. Maybe in the end it’s just a difference of metaphors more than actual methods, but I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      I don’t feel as if I am at war with myself. I feel that I have different “parts” and it’s my job to be in charge of them all, to juxtapose careful thought and experience against some of the destructive aspects of myself.

  14. Cassandane says:

    Hello Dr Burgo,
    This post of yours was incredibly meaningful to me – almost all of them are, but this is the one that felt like light lightbulbs going off.

    I have spent my whole life sabotaging myself. When I graduated from college, I went to bed for a week, ate nothing and drank only water. I even missed the graduation ceremony, in the process alienating my best friend who was counting on sharing the event with me and who couldn’t understand why I didn’t show up. Graduating from college had meant a tremendous amount to me because, as a teenager, I had been refused the privilege by my step-father, who thought that not only was it pointless for a girl to go to college (yes, this was the Middle Ages – New Zealand in the 1970s), but my wish of studying archaeology was laughable to him.

    At the end of last year, I lost the best job I ever had because I couldn’t bear the stress of success and waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I engineered a problem with my boss.

    Years of soul-searching (and therapy) have finally led me to understand that, far from being the heroic, kind and loving human being I thought I was, I am actually someone completely different. I did something early in life that filled me with such shame I do not yet know how I will learn to live with it. Until a few days ago, I had kept the full and conscious knowledge of what I did from myself because of how bad it was. This is my story: my father had incestual relations with my sister and I before either of us was 5 years old. I used my intelligence and the 18 months’ head start I had on my sister to make her a shield so that my father would take her instead of me. We shared a bed when we were little, and used to fight over who slept on the side of the bed nearest the bedroom door. Our mother’s solution was to make me sleep at the foot of the bed while my sister slept at the head. This was meant as a mild punishment for me, since being at the foot was a somewhat derogatory position, but I had started the fights and was the eldest. I, however, saw it as a victory because obviously my father would not think to look for anyone sleeping at the foot of the bed. In order to scare myself so much that I would forget about the intense shame I felt at using my sister as a shield, I had nightmares over and over of skeletons falling through the window on top of me as I slept at the foot of the bed. This developed into a fear of death that has caused me many panic attacks over the years. I now see that inducing such intense fear was a diversion tactic I employed so that I could still function in spite of the crippling shame I felt.

    Sadly, as I recognize my own thought processes and actions in many of your blogs about shame, envy and narcissism, I realize this survival tactic has had limited success. I have survived to the age of 57, but I do not think I have thrived. I am not a very nice person. My adult children see through me and don’t want to be around me. I do not really understand why they shun me, as I had thought I was giving them a nurturing and safe childhood. They don’t see it that way.

    In addition, now that I am unemployed, I find myself glad to be shielded from the falseness and politics of the corporate world by my husband who has a good career…and realize that by dragging my feet in getting another job, I am using him in the same way I used my sister.

    I do not know how I will learn to deal with all this. I know this sounds strange, but now that I have had this revelation about my past, I feel as if an old friend has finally come home and entrusted me with a great secret. I feel more whole, more part of the human race. I understand that I acted out of a need for survival at a very young age in an impossible situation. I wish I had made a more unselfish, heroic choice, but I did not and I cannot undo it. Whatever else I do, now that I have entrusted myself with this explosive information, I think I must simply accept it and continue on…wherever that leads.

    Thank you so much for the time, effort and expertise you bring to this blog.

  15. Jenny says:

    I am very glad I happened across your website and am looking forward to hearing from you about my question. I have been the object of envy on several occasions in my life. The pain and loss were tremendous. As a result (I have recently realized), I have gained quite a bit of weight and have purposefully made myself unattractive. I am also underemployed. I have two masters degrees but no one at my job knows that. I have made no attempt to escape my lower level position for 11 years. I don’t think many people acknowledge that being envied is dangerous and real. I am stuck on Robert Greene’s first law of power, never outshine the master. My question is, is it possible to be safe from envious wrath and still be successful on life. Can i to drop the weight, regain my looks, and get a high paying job without risking envy from others for doing do and without feeling the pain of other people feeling lesser than. I want to be free and happy but succeeding in life has only caused me pain in the past. Nowhere on the Internet can I find advice on this. I feel this problem us not talked about . Thank you!!

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      You can’t avoid arousing envy in others because you can’t control how other people feel. The envy is THEIR problem, except to the extent they impinge upon you. Then it’s your job to protect yourself. Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position in relation to people you know to be toxic and envious. Watch your back at work. Steer clear of people who make you feel bad about your success.

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