A teenage boy who I’ll call Sam recently told me that he was having a “problem with jealousy.” When I asked Sam what he meant, he explained that Ryan, another boy at his school, was incredibly charismatic and popular; all the other kids wanted to be around him and he seemed able to attract anyone he wanted. Sam’s feelings of “jealousy” were so powerful, so painful that at times, he couldn’t bear to look at Ryan. “He just makes me feel so bad about myself,” Sam added.
When Sam uses the word jealousy, he’s actually referring to what I would instead call envy. (I discuss the difference between the two in this earlier post.) Sam also has it backwards: Ryan doesn’t make him feel bad about himself; Sam already feels bad about himself (full of shame), and because of this basic feeling that’s he’s defective or damaged, different from and inferior to other people, his envy of Ryan is excruciating painful. Envy is a normal human emotion, one virtually everybody feels at one time or another; as I’ve said before, it also has its value, teaching us what we want to have or to be, and thereby motivating us. When coupled with basic shame, however, it becomes toxic.
I was originally trained in a school of thought which held that envy was a primary emotion, an expression of the destructive impulses that are a part of human nature. Such a view grows largely from the work of Melanie Klein, who did not believe, as many people hold, that some of us are simply born with more constitutional envy than others. In her later work, she stressed that the infant’s envious impulses are affected from the very beginning by interactions with the environment — how well the mother can tend to her baby, how anxious the parents may be, how embroiled they are in their own emotional difficulties, etc. The better the environment, the more manageable will be those inevitable feelings of envy.
While Klein is often criticized for the wrong reasons, I’ve come to feel over the years that she didn’t fully understand envy and why it can become such a toxic experience. She focused on object relations and the emotions or impulses that connect us to other people; her theories don’t include the feelings one has about oneself as a person, addressed by later theorists such as Heinz Kohut. Klein writes about guilt – the feeling we experience when we realize we have hurt someone we care about — but she doesn’t address shame and issues of self-esteem. Guilt relates to other people and our concern for them; shame relates to ourselves, the way we feel about who we are. I discussed the difference between shame and guilt in this prior post.
She’s right to believe that the early environment is important, of course, but because she doesn’t focus on the self and feelings of personal shame (the residue of failed attachment and early parental deficiencies), she emphasizes the fallout — toxic envy — rather than the root cause. This is not a purely academic issue. In my own therapy, my analyst often made interpretations about my unconscious envy — and bringing that feeling into consciousness undoubtedly had its value — but not about the shame that fueled it. I often felt as if I simply was an envious person, that envy itself was my problem.
It took me many years to understand the importance of shame and to revise my views on envy. I feel some guilt and regret about past clients who I worked with before I changed those views, and grateful to the ones who stuck around long enough for me to figure it out. In the old days, I would’ve told Sam he felt so envious of Ryan that he wanted to kill him — that unconsciously, he already had “killed” him, which was why he couldn’t bear to look at him. Today, I try to show him the link between his shame, the Ideal Sam he’d like to become to escape it — glamorous, popular, trendy, superior, etc. — and how unbearable it feels to see Ryan apparently achieve that ideal. In Sam’s view, Ryan is the superior winner and he the contemptible loser.
It’s an agonizing place to be, a place I’ve been myself, and one that many of my clients have struggled with over the years. Learning to accept one’s damage and limitations helps, leading to genuine growth and authentic self-esteem; also realizing that nobody is ideal, despite appearances to the contrary. But we live in a society where we’re constantly bombarded with images of perfection and beauty, as if the ideal really does exist, and Sam occupies a particular niche of that world where this is especially true. When confronted with someone like Ryan, who seems to have it all, it can be especially hard to remember that he’s only human, just like the rest of us.