Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.
I was really touched by the number of people who signed up to my blog after I posted Loneliness: A spiritual odyssey. It confirmed to me that, set against the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic and fractious world, many of us are struggling to make sense of life and wanting to deepen our spiritual understanding of who we are as human beings.
It sparked off an idea. I realised that I want to set aside time as 2017 unfolds to explore and write about those darker aspects of the human condition which rob us of peace of mind.
This is because once we are aware of our darker aspects we can begin to transform them into spiritual alchemy. This is where ‘the raw materials for waking up reside,’ says Buddhist teacher Pema Chrodon, ‘That’s where you connect with what it is to be human, and that’s where the joy and well-being come from – from the sense of being real and seeing realness in others.’
I have no answers for anyone else’s spiritual journey, but, through these blogs, I hope I can at least share what I am learning along my own path.
As St Valentine’s Day falls on 14th February, with all its associations of love and failed love, this seems the perfect month to reflect on the other side of love’s starry-eyed dream: those insidious green-eyed monsters, Envy and Jealousy, or Black-Sick as it is aptly referred to in Swedish. Envy and jealousy trample on our ability to cherish what we have and who we are, and we end up feeling resentful, suspicious, spiteful, and often hateful.
The difference between envy and jealousy
There is a psychological difference between feeling envious and jealous. ‘Envy occurs when we lack a desired attribute enjoyed by another. Jealousy occurs when something we already possess (usually a special relationship) is being threatened by a third person,’ says psychologist Richard H Smith. ‘Envy is a reaction to lacking something. Jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something,’
I would agree with that. But we don’t necessarily feel envious or jealous with the same intensity. I am a more envious person by nature. Fortunately the ageing process is a great leveler, but when I was younger it didn’t take much for me to think I wasn’t good enough compared to other people, especially those who I considered to be more successful. It was like a horrible creeping cold sickness, which made me constantly discontented with life.
In contrast, a friend has struggled with jealousy all her life. ‘I don’t really feel envious because I don’t tend to compare myself with other people. But as soon as I am in a new relationship, and I believe it is being threatened, I turn into a monster. I feel jealousy as an uncontrollable rage, an eruption of trust. It’s a complete fear of loss and betrayal, which makes me feel totally powerless. It takes me over like venomous froth. I become the black widow spider, and annihilate.’
The destruction that envy and jealousy can wreak on us is worth looking at in closer detail.
The venom of envy
On a positive level, feeling envious can inspire a desire to better ourselves, to achieve who we want to be or what we want to accomplish.
However, envy has a very dark side. The etymology of envy comes from the Latin Invidia, as ‘looking upon’ someone in an aggressive manner. At a deeper level Invidia translates into ‘Nonsight.
‘Nonsight suggests that envy both arises from, and results in, a form of blindness or lack of perspective,’ says psychiatrist Dr Neel Burdon. ‘Envy should also be distinguished from yearning. Whereas yearning is for the general, envy is for the particular: some particular thing that is in the possession of some particular person or people.’
Certainly, Dante’s Inferno creates a gruesome image of what envy does to the human spirit. The envious are huddled together at
the foot of towering barren rocks, their eyes sewn shut with iron wire. Since the envious derive pleasure from seeing other people’s misfortunes, they, themselves, are deprived of sight.
The thought of having my eyes sewn shut with iron wire is truly horrific, but it’s a fitting symbol of what envy can do to us.
Shakespeare (not afraid to confront the malevolent side of the human psyche) explores the depth of depravity that we all can sink to if we allow ourselves to overtaken by envy. I saw the recent production of Othello at Stratford on Avon during the summer of 2015, and I still shiver when I think of the destruction that Iago heaps upon Othello and Desdemona with such venomous glee. It makes me aware of how easily envy can switch into obsessional fixation: ‘I WANT. I MUST HAVE.
Thankfully, most of us do not turn into Iago. But feeling envious can bring out a particularly nasty side, such as scorn, snobbery, and contempt towards someone who may have no idea what we feel about them. But that’s the kind of behaviour we portray when we don’t like ourselves.
Psychologist Dr Mary Lamia explains that envy is linked directly to our self-esteem. ‘You may idealise another person when you are envious; imagining that a quality or something possessed by someone else would bring you happiness or fulfillment.’
But, of course, idealising someone else does not bring us happiness or fulfillment. So this is about taking back our projections, and recognising that we need to work on our own self-acceptance and self worth.
The wrath of Jealousy
Fatal Attraction must be one of the most chilling films ever made about jealous rage. I will never forget that bunny-boiling scene or Glen Close’s character, Alex Forrest, rearing out the bath at the end of the film, knife in hand as she tries to destroy Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) for abandoning her.
As we see in the film, jealously is an over reaction to an intense fear of losing love, and feeling totally out of control of the relationship. Sadly, it is responsible for so much emotional abuse, domestic violence, and crimes of passion (when a partner or spouse discovers infidelity and commits murder in the heat of the moment).
In lesser extremes, jealousy makes us behave irrationally and unreasonably. The other day a friend, in considerable distress, told me that she had been speaking (innocently she insists) to a close friend’s husband at a party when she felt her hair being painfully yanked. She spun round to see her friend standing right behind her, white-faced in jealous fury. Her friend yelled at her to stop flirting with her husband. It ruined the party, and their friendship.
I also knew someone who often worked away from home. But when she got back, she used to smell the sheets on the bed to see if her partner had been unfaithful to her. She knew she was being absurd but she couldn’t help herself. Obviously, her suspicion, completely unfounded, had a very negative effect on the relationship.
‘Jealousy is rooted in the desire to protect what’s important to you,’ says psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo. ‘It signals to others — not only the relationship partner, but also the rival — that you’re going to fight for the relationship.’
In other words, healthy jealousy gives out a signal to our partner that we care. But if we are being devoured by it, it is vital to take responsibility by finding ways to express our fears to our partner or spouse, or to seek professional help if our feelings are spiraling out of control.
Envy or Jealousy: which is worse?
Jealousy, in itself, is not considered as one of the seven deadly sins. However, envy is. ‘Through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it,’ warns the Book of Solomon in the Old Testament. Perhaps this is why many religious scholars argue that of the seven deadly sins the two most prurient are envy and greed. One feeds off the other.
Child Psychologist Melanie Klein identified that envy develops earlier than jealousy. ‘Envy is anger feeling that another possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or spoil it (for example, a pre school infant fighting another over a converted toy). However, she says, that to feel jealous we need to identify a potential sense of loss of love: feelings rather than impulses that develop later.
Dr Neel Burton is clear that envy is worse than jealousy. Envy, he says, ‘is mean and miserly, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins. Our envy is hardly ever confessed, not even to ourselves.’ But, he argues, as jealousy is about the tangible fear of losing someone we love, it is a lesser evil, and therefore more easier to admit.
What can we do about feeling envious or jealous?
‘Envy is ignorance’, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and poet who died in 1882. A sentiment that Canadian theologian Jean Vanier agrees with. ‘Envy,’ he says, ‘comes from people’s ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.’
I think this is the key to getting to grips with both envy and jealousy. The first step is to learn to accept that envy and jealousy are part of the human condition, and therefore part of our own psyches. Every one of us on this planet experiences both to one degree or another. Some of us may feel more envious. Some of us feel more jealousy, and some of us will feel envious and jealous in equal measure.
The second step is to confront why we feel envious or jealous. This is always triggered by the core belief that, for whatever reason, we are not good enough. Deep healing can take place when we are brave enough to recognise it.
The third step is to understand that there will always be people who trigger envy and jealousy in us. Rather than allowing this to consume us we can consciously choose to explore what the situation is teaching us.
The fourth step is to acknowledge the intense suffering that envy and jealousy cause both to us and to other people, and to commit to doing something to change it. I am not saying any of this is easy. But, to break the hold of these green eyed monsters, we have to accept our vulnerabilities and flaws.
We can start with small steps by expressing gratefulness each day for the things we have, and for the people in our lives who genuinely love us and have our best interests at heart. We can also take courage in both hands and admit to our human fallibility, in which resides, as Pema Chrodron says, the raw materials of who we really are.