Coping with Envy

A woman discovers that someone has taken a key and scratched the finish on her new car. A man has made a presentation about a new product and finds his colleagues strangely quiet. Another person has made real efforts to help a friend in distress, but is made to understand that nothing works, his help is worthless. In a classroom where students are seated by academic standing, those in the middle and back show disdain for the “brains” up front. Another person experiences discomfort in receiving gifts or compliments.

What gives? Why do people behave this way? These are examples of behavior driven by envy, a phenomenon often overlooked in everyday life. Unlike greed, which seeks to possess the good thing someone else has, or jealousy, which fears to lose the love or the good thing one has to another, envy is pained at what another person has and desires to spoil it. Envy is an urge to spoil or devalue what is good in another. Envy is born out of the pain of emptiness, of lack; the urge is to regain some internal balance by denigrating the goodness (the wisdom, kindness, wealth, help or compassion) of the other. My cup is empty; I can’t tolerate the fullness of yours, so I spoil it. Destructive envy represents an urgent need to spoil so as not to have to experience the pain of lack.

As Iago says to Othello,

Beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eye’d monster
which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
(Othello, Act III, Scene iii)

Shakespeare uses “jealousy” to refer to what we are calling envy.

Curiously, we are often unaware of envy. It’s such a bad feeling, hard to bear, that it “leaks” out in behavior. Perhaps we are more sharply aware of envy when we are its target, like the person whose achievement of a Ph.D. is denigrated with the phrase “Piled Higher and Deeper.”

A person in the grip of envy finds it difficult to receive from others because of the pain of seeing that another has what he does not. His capacity for enjoyment is diminished; he cannot freely take in goodness. While ultimately “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” one can’t be a joyful giver until one can receive with gratitude. Generosity is born out of the experience of fullness.

I think that envy emerges when the relationship between giver and receiver is disturbed in such a way that the receiver feels diminished by the giver. The receiver experiences the giver as superior, or as giving resentfully. This is a danger in helping relationships, such as psychotherapy or pastoral care, and requires helpers to be aware of their motives.

Envy is a spiritual problem. It is counted as one of the “seven deadly sins.” A person in the grip of envy can’t tolerate, much less celebrate, the goodness and grace of God. I recall a man who often described God as a “cosmic sadist” who tortured him with great promises of happiness and healing, but didn’t deliver. In those moments he got rid of his bad feelings by calling God “the Obscenity.” He nursed his resentment rather than opening himself to nourishment.

The opposite of envy is gratitude. How does one come to gratitude? It emerges when one can take in nourishment with pleasure, and delight in its source. As the author of the Magnificat writes, “He has filled the hungry with good things.”

One might make a serious effort to cultivate gratitude, turning from counting lacks, insults and hurts, or cultivating resentment, to an intentional effort to count blessings, to live gratefully. But envy does not respond to a quick fix, to problem-solving or to self help.

The process is more one of healing or of conversion. The task is to resolve the resistance to taking in love, which is something to work out in relationship. This might involve a gradual journey into the depths of emptiness with a psychotherapist who can tolerate being the target of primitive envy and hate. S/he will have to contain the bad feelings until that point where the client can rediscover trust and take in nourishment, enjoy the exchange and feel gratitude. The healing relationship could be with a spiritual guide or director, helping the person to let go and open up to experiencing God as loving. In either case, forgiveness and transformation are mediated in a sustained relationship.

Alan L. Chisholm, M.Div., is Director of the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute at St. Bartholomew’s. A Diplomate of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a New York State licensed psychoanalyst, he is a priest in the Episcopal Church and has been a pastoral psychotherapist since 1973.

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