Shame and How It Produces Envy

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.

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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    Hi, your Social Network article really hit home and now I can explain why. I a 45 years old female who spent 43 of those years trying to figure out what’s wrong with me, who I am & why I am like this. Labeled as an alcoholic for self medicating, then recovery & still I know I’m not right. Finally, at 43 I’m diagnosed with BiPolar. Now my addictions are gone, my head is clear & the puzzle pieces of my life are falling into place. I just came to the realization about 2 weeks ago that my sister & I are the results of an abusive mother with NPD. I knew we were emotionally & verbally abused but could never verbalize it. Then there were all the other characteristics I couldn’t explain & resented so much.
    When I saw the movie Social Network the character Mark Z made me furious. His lack of ethical behavior of every kind, I found appalling. I’ve owned my own business so I could relate to that sense of betrayal. But just his character in general I found to be extremely upsetting and didn’t find any of his methods of success morally or ethically acceptable. Shortly there after my NPD Mommy asked me what I thought of the movie, so I told her. Talk about supplying fodder for some Narcissistic opinion blasting, buckets full I tell you. She adored Mark Z’s character, couldn’t empathize with the other guys at all. MZ couldn’t do any wrong. The anger I felt towards her was unreal and I couldn’t explain or rationalize why the anger was there and why it was so strong. Sure she never worked a day in her life & couldn’t know what it was like, but come on, this is common sense, you don’t treat people like that. Yet, to her this guy was perfection. Back then I never understood NPD, with my wealth of knowledge now my reaction to that situation wouldn’t have been anger it would have been a shake of the head & whisper under my breath “Yeah, you would relate to him you selfish bitch” and smile. At least now I know she owns the disorder not me, I don’t have to take it personally anymore. It’s refreshing.

    I think we could use an individual’s reaction to Mark Zuckerberg’s character as a kind of Rorschach test: I’ve had a few similar experiences, where people who clearly have major narcissistic issues respond positively to his character. I think the narcissist idealizes the superior, contemptuous “winner” who triumphs over the weak “losers”. Sorry about your mom, Marci.

    Yes, that would be a good way to field out someone’s values. It reminds me of your post about Charlie Sheen and those who supported him during his “meltdown.” It would seem that people value success over character, and I wonder if some people live vicariously through the Zuckerberg’s of the world and inversely support them because they themselves are envious of their success and have a hard time with their own failures and thus don’t want to point out others’. Or they themselves are narcissists and recognize those traits in themselves yet also deny them. I often hear the comment, “Well, most people have to have an ego to become that successful,” or even some famous people who readily admit, “I’m a narcissist,” as if that is OK. Sure, we all have an ego, but that’s different from being egotisistical and self-centered, stepping on people on the way to the top. “He’s laughing all the way to the bank…he doesn’t care what you say.” Sad.

    wow, good to read that post, im struggling with such feelings myself at the minute as i go through therapy.

    i thought i was doing well as i have started to feel my feelings more but just lately they are overwhelming in their physicality. it feels excruciating but reading your post does help and make me realise i am on the right track, i need to feel to heal.

    god its the hardest thing this therapy lark, but its good to hear some positives from your post ie “learning to accept ones damage and limitations etc helps”

    ireally hope that is true,

    thanks for talking about these diffiult and often avoided subjects


    Hi Sarah. Hang in there. What you say really is true — there’s no way to grow without facing all those painful and difficult emotions.

    Very interesting blog, I always love to read what you have to say. It may go above my head but somethings I do understand.

    Thanks, Sonjia. I try to put things in everyday, understandable terms, but sometimes I feel the need to square it all with my theoretical background and training.

    I have felt this way before about a friend who is popular, outgoing, beautiful, etc (and still do on occasion, I’m not completely past it), and its such an exhausting feeling… shame/envy can really wear you out! But at the same time, its so difficult to let go completely of your Ideal Self.. because, speaking for myself, I believe it is attainable in some ways. So where is the line? When does letting go of your Ideal Self become motivation to grow? Are they inter-related?

    As a side note, I love your posts about shame and envy. I find them especially helpful.

    Hi Catharine. I don’t believe that the ideal is ever attainable, and I think that holding onto ideals actually makes it harder to grow. From my experience, once you let go of ideal, you can then understand what’s actually possible and work toward it. That can mean an awful lot of growth and change but it will never be ideal.

    This may sounds like self pity, but I’m finding that my own shame – which is really a kind of self-hatred – has its roots in having never felt valued, cherished, loved, or known by anyone in my family. A rejecting, sneering, bullying father and a mother who acted as his dutiful servant set the stage for feeling envious of other kids who seemed to “have it all.” I wonder if Sam had any similar experiences in his own family.

    Thanks for another great post.

    I think with Sam, there has been a lot of harshness and perfectionism in the family, though not much overt sneering or contempt. It’s much more subtle than that, but nonetheless deeply felt.

    Hmmm- very interesting.
    Ive expressed my mother issues in past email- just wondering why i live with
    Ridiculous shame- while my mother seems to envy ME! ? (as so many have told me)
    I see it as anger and resentment never envy .Correlation??? Or not related??

    Joseph says:
    “I think with Sam, there has been a lot of harshness and perfectionism in the family, though not much overt sneering or contempt. It’s much more subtle than that, but nonetheless deeply felt.”

    And you know, the more subtle the more damaging. Worse still, not only does poor Sam feel bad about himself, because of the FOO issues, but such is his plight that he cannot believe the Ryan and other “Ryans” have their own problems too. Absolutely no one has it all. Ever.
    I find it so hard to imagine that there are parents who do not cherish, uplift and give kindliness to their children. Intellectually I understand that such parents have in turn probably been treated poorly and unkindly by THEIR parents, and so it goes on.
    I feel for people like Sam.


    Could you or any of the other readers offer specific strategies for learning to accept one’s damage and limitations? This is something I have personally struggled with going through intensive cognitive behavioral therapy!

    In my experience, it’s not an issue that CBT can help you deal with because it’s not a question of techniques or strategies. You might want think about something more psycho-dynamic in nature.

    Hi there,

    I have been really interested in this article.

    In my experience, CBT is as much about testing beliefs about yourself as it is techniques, and I have found it really really useful in dealing with lots of the issues being discussed.

    Although the terms are different (negative core beliefs = ‘inner ugliness’ / shame), I think CBT can be very relevant here, particularly Melanie Fennell’s work.

    It might be that the ‘rule’ being tested is something along the lines of ‘If I’m not perfect, I will be rejected’, and so options are either striving for perfection, or testing out the results of exposing limitations and treating ourselves with kindness.

    I think this is one area where lots of different models and types of therapy have something really valuable (and sometimes fairly similar) to offer.