Envy and Competitiveness

Early in the summer of 2011, not long after we arrived in Colorado, I received an email from our good friends in Los Angeles who also own a cabin down the road from us. They had offered the use of their cabin for one week to the rector of their church, All Saint’s in Pasadena, who would be using it as a retreat while he worked on his book; they wondered if we could “keep an eye out” for him in case he needed anything during his visit, and asked if they could give him our telephone number. I’d do anything for these friends, to begin with, and the fact that this visitor was a writer made me all the more willing to help.

According to my friends, the Rev. Ed Bacon had appeared on The Oprah Show, as well as on her radio program, and apparently she suggested on air that he write a book. This aroused the interest of literary agents and led to a bidding war for his book proposal, along with a “significant” advance. Even before I met Ed Bacon, I felt envious. I’ve been writing since I was 12 and for most of my life have wanted nothing more than to be in his position. I had launched my website seven months earlier and was struggling to find my way as a blogger; I’d also begun a non-fiction book in the self-help genre and would soon be attempting to interest a publisher in acquiring it. I knew that the prospect of a “significant” advance for a relative unknown like me was highly unlikely.

On the day of his arrival, Ed telephoned me: he had missed his turn and was having a hard time finding his way to the cabin. The roads around us are difficult to navigate, so instead of trying to give him directions, I drove down to meet him so he could follow me back. I led him to the cabin; we chatted briefly before I left him, and I invited him to join us for a drink the following evening. Despite my envy and feelings of competitiveness, I liked Ed right away. I also felt curious to hear about his experiences. I’m always eager to discuss the writing process, and I had a strong intuition that talking with Ed would be a fascinating experience.

My intuition proved accurate. What followed were three memorable evenings spent together that week, one with Ed alone and two more with his collaborator Stuart Horwitz as well. I had acknowledged to myself those feelings of envy and competitiveness; they didn’t stop me from liking Ed and Stuart very much and engaging in some of the most satisfying conversations of the year. I also felt free to disagree with Ed concerning some aspects of his book as he described it. We discussed our differences with mutual respect and also found our views had a great deal in common. Ed is an enormously intelligent and erudite man; he lives his life on a much bigger stage than my own, counting Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama among his friends. Getting to know him was a pleasure, tinged a bit with envy for that book contract.

Ed’s book 8 Habits of Love has just been released by Grand Central, part of the Hachette Book Group. On Friday, I downloaded a copy to my eReader in preparation for a plane flight. As I began to read, I realized that I was approaching the book with vestiges of that envy; I found that I was in a mind-set to disagree, largely because of those competitive feelings. Remembering that week when I first came to know Ed, I worked hard to set those feelings aside and open myself to his book. When I did, I was very pleased to find how much I agreed with what Ed has to say. It’s a wonderful book.

I’d like to state my disagreements up front, getting them out of the way, because there’s so much more I want to praise. My central issue is the one Ed and I discussed over a year and a half ago: he believes that fear is what prevents people from feeling love and fulfillment in their lives; emotions such as hatred, anger, envy, cruelty, etc. are by-products of that fear. He also believes that letting go of that fear will enable us to experience love more fully and leave those destructive emotions behind. Those of you who have been following my posts for a while know this is opposed to my own views. I see anger, envy and hatred as normal aspects of the human experience; it is when those feelings become unbearable, or when the defenses against the awareness of them become too deeply entrenched or rigid that they cause us trouble.

8 Habits of Love also encourages the reader to try to feel love, and offers advice for how to open your heart to that experience by letting go of fear and cultivating certain habits. While I believe the ability to feel genuine love and compassion leads to a more satisfying life and more fulfilling relationships, I’m skeptical about trying to feel that way — or any one particular way, for that matter. In my view, by embracing and learning to tolerate the full range of human emotions within ourselves, it enables us to empathize more fully with other people in their own struggles with difficult emotions; it makes possible a kind of love that has room for the occasional surge of anger, envy or even hatred.

All this being said, I was very pleased to find how much of Ed’s guidance fits with what I believe. The kind of effort he advocates very often seems compatible with the work I do, both with myself and in my practice. For example, one of the habits Ed encourages the reader to cultivate is that of Stillness. He discusses mindfulness meditation, but also talks about other ways of developing this habit — through gardening or music, for example. In addition to cultivating stillness during my morning piano practice, I also engage in a kind of mindfulness meditation during my hikes in the Rocky Mountains.

As with all of the habits, the goal of the Habit of Stillness is to release the hold of fear upon you, in the process opening your heart to the experience of love. I would say that Stillness enables you to perceive the emotional truth, whatever it may be, but the guidance offered here for how to cultivate the habit is extremely useful.

Ed also discusses the habits of Truth and Candor. The habit of Stillness enables us to perceive our own inner truth, the script by which we are living our lives, along with our internal moral compass. Truth “helps us grow — and in so doing, calls us to abandon the restrictive and anxiety-producing old truths by which we may have lived before.” Although he never uses the word, I think Ed is discussing psychological defenses. In my forthcoming book, I rely heavily on Donald Meltzer’s formulation that defense mechanisms are “lies” we tell ourselves to evade pain. I also believe that truth is to the psyche as food is to the physical body, and this seems very much in keeping with Ed Bacon’s view expressed here.

I love what he has to say about Candor, and how people may react to it with “ferocious defensiveness” even when the intention is positive. He also distinguishes it from brutal forms of honesty that conceal other motives: how supposed “authenticity” can mask “power grabs” or destructive impulses. He tells a wonderful/painful story about a summer spent at Wesleyan College when one of the counselors correctly identified Ed as a first-born child, publicly calling him “narcissistic and controlling” in a deeply hurtful way. Ed values honesty and truthfulness, but his respect for those virtues is neither naive nor simplistic. He understands that difficult truths may very well be heard when the impulse behind them is full of love and concern. The practice of psychotherapy involves the continual telling of difficult truths, often unwelcome, but within the context of a strong attachment between therapist and client, those truths can be heard and healing can occur.

I found the chapter on Community the most moving, and the most personally relevant. He tells the story of a man whose wife died shortly after the birth of their child, who found a sense of community through blogging and was able to process his grief by sharing his pain, asking for advice and receiving the support of thousands of people online. It felt very much akin to my own experience blogging and the community that has developed here, how much meaning it has given to my life and to my own inner struggles. “We all need Community,” Ed tells us, “in whatever form we find or create it, to give us courage, inspire us to change, and hold us accountable.” I couldn’t agree more.

Maybe it was a way to assuage the last of those competitive feelings — after all, we’re both writing in the “self-help” genre and addressing similar issues, even if Ed’s method is more spiritual and inspirational than my own — but in the end, I came away feeling that he and I probably deal with very different types of psychological challenges in our work. Most of the people in the many vignettes he offers to illustrate the different habits struck me as relatively healthy, the sort of person who would be open to and benefit from the kind of guidance he offers. In my practice, I deal more with people whose internal obstacles would make it extremely difficult to make use of such a book. People damaged by backgrounds of serial sexual abuse and gross parental betrayal, who suffer from debilitating shame of a profound nature, who struggle with suicidal urges or hear voices. I guess you could say that, in the end, I felt there was room for both of us within the community of caregivers!

* * *

My life has changed a lot since those evenings Ed and I spent together a year and a half ago. The audience for my blog has grown enormously, I opened my practice to Skype therapy and now work with clients in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as here in the United States and Canada. I sold my book to New Harbinger Publications and then voluntarily withdrew from the contract six months later when I felt I couldn’t write the book I wanted under their editorial restrictions. It’s a decision I have felt better and better about as time has gone on. I’m enormously proud of this book, especially the final chapters, and I know my publisher would never have let me write them the way I chose to do. I found and followed my own inner truth, in a way not very different from the guidance offered by Ed Bacon’s fine book. I look forward to releasing Why Do I Do That? — self-published and word-for-word what I wanted to write — in a few weeks’ time.

Am I still envious of Ed and the launch he received from a first-rate publishing house? Yes. Do I wish I had an Oprah to open doors for me? You bet I do. But my feelings of envy and competitiveness don’t stop me from admiring this wonderful book and wishing Ed Bacon all the best with it.

Here’s a link to 8 Habits of Love. I strongly urge you to check it out.


By Joseph Burgo

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


    1. I think the purpose of anger is to allow us to defend our deepest values. A person who cannot be angry is a push over . Anger reveals our deepest value and is the source of moral courage. Cowardice seeks to be rid of anger. In a relativistic, secular humanism, anger is a vice and not a virtue. Where tolerance is King, anger is imprisoned.

      1. Although I don’t think anger has a single purpose, I very much agree with what you say. Anger has a value, and I object as much as you do to the politically correct view that encourages everyone to feel loving acceptance for everybody else. Ugh.

        1. I disagree with the idea of having to feel loving acceptance for absolutely everyone as well, but I also disagree with equating the concept of tolerance with the concept of loving acceptance. Tolerance to me is a minimum of civility, it’s “What you do may make me angry, but I won’t physically attack you and/or scream in your face for it.” Tolerance is also to me what you give people who may be doing something you don’t like, but that aren’t doing something out and out harmful to someone else (ie. being gay).

  1. “it is when those feelings [anger, envy and hatred] become unbearable…”

    Why do they become unbearable? Is it not unreasonable to think that there might be some sort of fundamental fear that prevents us from being able to bear these feeling?

    1. Why they become unbearable is a very large issue, but it has a lot to do with underlying feelings of basic shame, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on the site. When shame is an issue, envy and jealousy become toxic (I deal with this issue at length in my book). But when there is a good-enough experience in our upbringing, then we learn how to bear our painful emotions like envy without feelings overwhelmed by it.

      1. Maybe I don’t fully understand your concepts of basic shame (I did read all your articles here), but I guess what I was trying to say is that, to me, your idea of basic shame comes hand in hand with existential fear. When the environment appears hostile to the baby (which it has no control over), it has no choice but to feel internally damaged because the alternative is a collapse of existence and sense of self.. it is better to feel that “it is my ugliness that results in the hostility around/towards me”, than “I’m a total nonentity; things that happen to me has nothing to do with me; they just happen to be bad”.. the former “solves” the problem of the latter so that one could operate with the basis of self-existence, even though one feels this existence is intrinsically damaged and ugly. And all the defences (anger, hatred, envy, etc) are to ward off this damage and ugliness (instead of having to deal with existential problems which may be more frightening)..

        1. This subject is difficult for me because it gets into the concept of the death instinct. I think that there is an inbuilt awareness of the potential for death inherent in our biology, an awareness of a existential threat to our existence. All animals have this “instinct” or inbuilt awareness. I think this is what you’re getting at. I know a psychologist who once said that shame is the emotional component of the death instinct. I agree, though I avoid discussing it in those terms because it’s so difficult for most people to relate to or understand. I would say that when attachment fails, the force toward death prevails within us, and this existentially threatening experience is at the core of shame and a feeling that we are damaged, heading more toward decay and death than growth and life. We then defend against that unbearable pain in various ways, especially through a narcissistic flight into an idealized false self.

          1. I haven’t yet come across the concept of a relationship between shame and the death instinct. It definitely explains how some of the extreme narcissistic response I’ve witnessed seemed to have come more from survival instinct (which was inappropriate and disturbing given that actual survival was never at stake in the situation). I think I understood that such feelings (as shame) become unbearable, which can lead to an extreme level of reactivity, but through the discussion above, I feel I’m beginning to understand this process on a deeper level. Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

            1. Great. I think this is a very difficult subject but it feels so crucial, so central to the work I do. As I said in my earlier reply to one of the comments, I avoid using the term ‘death instinct’ because I think it only confuses people, but when you think about survival, it makes a bit more sense.

  2. Hi Jo
    I have only just found your blog and have now subscribed. I’m a college student in the UK doing a vocational course in Therapeutic Counselling. As I’m just starting out on the 2nd half of my life, I think I’m finally ready for some ‘real’ work. You’re my happy ‘google search accident’ by the way. I was trying to find some more information about Irvin Yalom’s theory on transference and counter-transference, but just couldn’t find it. But instead you popped up. Your explanation was fab. I found the whole blog a little scary in some ways, as just the idea that I might start deliberately transferring to get what I need as a therapist completely horrifying.
    I will definitely be getting a copy of your book.
    Best wishes

    1. Hi Michele. I’m not familiar with that vocational course; is it a post-B.A. program or can you begin training right out of what we call high school here in the States (I think you might call it college)? I’m glad you found my site, but don’t be afraid or horrified! If handled properly, the transference shouldn’t be a scary experience.

      1. It is college I’m attending. It’s a Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling, taking an integrative approach but focusing heavily on person-centred, Rogerian theory. I’m really enjoying it. We have to take on trainee positions as part of our studies over the next two years and then at Foundation Degree Level in the third year if we choose to continue.
        I will take your word for it about transference, and hope as I gain confidence, it won’t feel so daunting.

    2. hey M, You’ll find Yalom’s Transference theory well discussed in 5th Edition -Theory & Practice of group Psychotherapy, Chapter 7, p. 201 – p.215. I’m glad you’re reading Yalom. No matter what other theory or practice of therapy one uses, his Interpersonal approach needs consideration & integration for comprehensive understanding & best outcomes.
      Good fortune in your studies & practice. Warmly, Dr Bob

  3. Hi Dr Burgo

    I have been a reader of your blog for some time. It is a go to for the times I am feeling paralyzed with emotions that I try to intellectualize away, knowing there will be something you have written which will enable me to enter the emotion and confront the truth I am expendng so much energy to avoid.
    I am a fine artist. A painting of mine was selected to be in a group show with the work of other artists whom I respect and whom I consider to be in the wider circle of my artist community. I was told by the curators that my painting is by far the largest selected because they consider it a stellar piece of art, that other artists were asked to submit smaller works and that I can expect to encounter jealousy.

    I grew up in a household where my Mother was competitive with me and jealous of any of my accomplishments that did not reflect back to her in a way that supported her needs. I grew up with much shame in the way you discussed feeling that I must be bad and doing wrong to have brought on her anger which manifested in her withdrawal. She would not talk to me.

    All this painfully surfaced with this declaration by the curators of jealousy, bringing forth my continuous mental dialogue- do I withdraw my large painting so as not to incite jealousy? Is it wrong for me to want to shine in this context – or in your vocabulary – be seen? Can I deflect the jealousy that will come my way? Will I be punished by the other artists, which has happened to me before?

    Reading your Envy and Competitiveness has helped. I am starting to be able to accept the inevitability of some of the artists feeling jealousy towards me and I am going to work on keeping in focus that this is about them and their worldview, it is not about me. That instead of feeling defensive about the jealousy it will engender, it will be really healthy if I can feel the feelings of jealousy that I would have if the positions were reversed.

    One more thing I want to add that there will be an opening reception which under the best of circumstances, is a trying experience – my painting on the wall is a surrogate me, there for viewing and comment. I will need to have worked this all through before the reception, knowing I can expect difficult emotions to come at me that evening.
    Best wishes,

    1. What you’re describing is a reality, not just your fantasy or your fear, isn’t it? In my experience, there’s a huge amount of envy and competitiveness in the artistic world, so to be concerned about it is reasonable. I agree and support your idea of keeping in contact with your own potential envy, if the situation were reversed; knowing how painful that experience can be enables you to empathize with your fellow artists. I bet you won’t even have to imagine it, either — I’m sure you can recall times when you felt envy yourself, and the memories are probably still painful.

      Good luck with your exhibition! When confronted with the inevitable envious or negative reaction, just bear in mind what those curators told you about your work, and what you know in your heart is true.

  4. Looking forward to your book Michael.

    I’m not sure about therapy needing to be unpleasant or painful. I think it is likely it will be; I would like to see more therapists interested in making it less so. -> Are therapists (who have usually spent years doing stuff they may not like in order to get their accreditation) reluctant to admit the possibility of easy achievement?

    1. Evan, I’ve been thinking about writing a post re: the way we (I) tend to focus on the problems, whether that’s inevitable or if there’s a way to shift focus from time-to-time onto the positive without being Pollyanna-ish or naive.

  5. Dear Dr Burgo
    Even though you are a stranger on a different continent, i feel very involved when you write about your own experience. Its a little silly but this time I felt proud and pleased to watch a therapist grow just like a mother watches her child grow. i don’t know motherhood yet, but reading you today evoked feelings tenderness and protectiveness; and that you may always flow through personal difficult emotions without much damage.
    I have been asked to refrain from doing an autopsy of all my emotions but i am confused whether they are authentic feelings directed towards the other or stemming from the fact that i have been hurt by my own envy and the underlying shame because of which it surfaces very easily.
    The underlying shame doesn’t diminish despite much support and tenderness from my therapist an spiritual master both for a long time now. The inner dialogue is resisting change. In utter helplessness one resorts to prayer-Please let me not be affected by other peoples grand-ness. Please help me feel okay with my place in this universe. Even though i want to be special, please help me be okay with my ordinariness because im too tired to fight and compete.
    I dont know what really helps with shame.

      1. Dear Dr Burgo
        Not just my therapist but even friends suggest that i should avoid using my head in place of my heart. But, if the intensity and authenticity of a feeling goes down by rationalizing ; the way it happened above, was it real in the first place? The positive feelings die too soon inside me.

        I am desperately trying to hold on to people in my life, trying hard to feel a deep connect with them but the depth of desperation is deeper than any other feelings i try to express. I always feel i am losing my anchors to others who are more authentic and benefit much more from the communion. Holds true for my academic teachers, psychotherapist and spiritual master.

        1. In answer to your first question, I think it can go either way. Thinking can be a means of moving ourselves away from emotion in order to make it less threatening. It’s a subject I discuss in my forthcoming book, where thinking itself can become a kind of defense. But thinking can also be a way to “hold” the emotion and bring it into relation with other feelings. The fact that feelings of, say, envy, diminish as a result doesn’t mean they weren’t real.

          As for the second part, I’m not entirely clear on what you’re saying. Do you mean that the desperation interferes with your connection to others and pulls you away from contact? And are you saying that your desperation is about not being able to connect with others, or is it about something else?

          1. Dear Dr Burgo
            thank you for your response..
            Envy does come back with the same intensity despite having intellectualized it previously. One of my CBT professors said that if you keep swinging from feeling emotional about inadequacy to intellectualizing it, you will always feel drained. I don’t know any other way.
            As for the second part, I guess i am trying to say that I feel exasperated when i see other people benefiting more out of a nurturing relation than me. They are perhaps more genuine in their attempt to connect while I am not.I am plagued by shame and want to quit from the existing therapeutic environment, all the while feeling angry with myself, and others for being “my competition”.
            So for your second query;yes, I am desperate to be genuine and real because
            I am losing people to others.

  6. I wouldn’t say that Ed’s ideas are more “spiritual and inspirational” than yours. From my perspective, so much of the self-help genre could have this subtitle: “How to Root Out Negativity to Become a Wonderful Person Like I Have.” I come from a “train wreck childhood,” and have tons of shame, so I find the rampant idealism in the self-help world very toxic; I avoid it like the plague. Your ideas are so refreshing because you specifically counter that idealism and ground your thinking in the reality of the human condition. I honestly can’t think of any other public figure who does that. The subtitle for your self-help books could be: “How to Actually Do a Little Bit Better in Life and Relationships.” This is much more inspirational to me, with all due respect to your friend.

    1. I love that subtitle though I wonder how many of those books would sell! You put it very well, Susan; I try hard to counter the idealism in the self-help field, and I think for that reason, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.

  7. Another strong post J. I too lean more toward the Fear understanding cz it’s simpler. And it’s sure true that our 3 variations on these themes are likely equally healing, perhaps to some extent of different people, & in slightly different ways. Your generous flexibility about theory becomes you [pun intended]. Dr Bob

    1. I agree, Bob. And I think whatever your theory or approach, the generous, caring attitude of the therapist (or rector) is what makes the difference.

  8. “when attachment fails, the force toward death prevails within us, and this existentially threatening experience is at the core of shame and a feeling that we are damaged, heading more toward decay and death than growth and life. We then defend against that unbearable pain in various ways, especially through a narcissistic flight into an idealized false self.”

    Thanks, I had not made that connection before! Thank you for that

    Regarding what you summarised as your area of disagreement with Ed, my first reaction was “could both of those points of view be valid at the same time?”

    1. Yes, I think they’re both valid. It’s not either/or, as long as one remains open-minded and doesn’t strive for some idealized and loving image that hides the darker feelings.

  9. I’m really looking forward to reading your book! You describe two different paths, yours and Ed’s. What we have learned from your path (not contrasting it to Ed’s by the way) is to maintain our integrity in our writing. I am a writer and also finishing up my Masters in Counseling. Your articles and story are inspiring. Thank you! Mindy

    1. I agree that integrity and honesty are at the core of effective writing. Even though Ed and I may differ on some issues, his book definitely fits the bill.

  10. I look forward to reading both your book & the 8 Habits of Love. My experience with the spiritual vs. psychological aspect of self help has been that the two are really intertwined. I had to have forum you mentioned to be free to feel all those ranges of human emotions & process my truth, but the spiritual aspect is also huge as without it, there’s not much hope for me in just my humanity …

  11. All very nice for Ed, but it’s *your* book a couple of friends and I are waiting to buy!

    A friend sent me your post on The Narcissistic Mother. As the child of one, I’m hooked and have spent the afternoon reading as many of your posts as I could.

    I’m also the sister of a raving narcissist. Will you post on narcissistic siblings? Please.

    By the way, your writing is gorgeous. (I’m a writing instructor.)

    1. I want to tell you that i was very moved by your comment. I don’t think anyone has ever said anything quite as wonderful to hear as “your writing is gorgeous.” Beyond wanting to be a father and have children, I have never wanted anything more than to be a good writer. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    1. And yes, I would love for you to review my book. I’ll have advanced copies within the next week to 10 days. I’ll send you an email and you can let me know your mailing address. Or there will be eBooks available, as well. Thanks!

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