A couple of days ago, a very good friend of mine was honest enough to tell me she envied my ability to write. She has my deep gratitude for her honesty and personal insight. It took me years in therapy to even begin to understand the emotion, let alone talk about it, and my friend has opened the door to this piece.
It’s taken me many years to get to the stage where I can write in this way. The testing grounds of prison, where the language of communication is intensely basic, stripped away a lot of verbiage from my skill or so my mother tells me. I’ve become more direct and to the point. It’s good to have this kind of feedback because although I know my own internal landscape has altered beyond recognition, it’s hard to know how this translates into my impact upon those around me. My friend’s generosity helped me understand a common experience I seem to have these days – other people’s silence – and it’s helped remember what it was like when I started learning about my own capacity for envy.
A lot of my therapeutic training was done in groups and I well remember the excruciating silences that would descend upon us when envy was trying to make itself understood. From my perspective, it used to seem as though everyone else knew what they were about and I was the stupid laggard. In retrospect, it’s likely that all my travelling companions felt the same way but, at the time, I was certain I was alone. My trainers were exceptional women and I yearned to have their skill and awareness but doubted if that could ever be the case. Nevertheless, I was making the attempt because the goal was so enticing.
During that period, the process of learning was, in a word, foul. Although I knew I desired the skills they possessed, my journey to attaining them for myself was strewn with resentments, bitterness and my own deep sense of inadequacy. Inadequacy is a horrible experience because it makes me feel so vulnerable. I can see now how it was the spur to learn; to overcome the problem and move beyond it but, at the time, it felt like a pointless exercise. My ‘trainee’ believed it was never going to be possible to become like my trainers and, from one angle, I was absolutely right. We can never be anyone else but ourselves. Our individuality is the only basic material we have to work with. The months and years of learning about envy meant I was brought face to face with this. The only person I could ever be was me and my internal opinion of this ‘me’ scored very low on my list of valuables. All in all, I was a very envious woman.
Therapeutic learning about envy is the painful exploration of our deepest levels of inadequacy. This may sound very masochistic and, in some ways, it is until we understand the purpose of the journey. Uncovering these deep layers enables us to discover what we believe about ourselves. This is important because many beliefs cannot withstand the light of exploration simply because they are false. In addition, feelings of inadequacy are actually the seeds of growth. Until we are aware of these, we cannot do anything about them and they remain, lurking deep within our unconscious, affecting our perceptions, attitudes and actions. As I struggled through the experience, I learned that there really were places where I was inadequate but I also learned there were other places where, despite my self-perception, I was very skilled indeed which came as something of a shock. Somewhere along the line, I had learned to despise or devalue my own natural gifts.
It was at this point that the lesson ‘flipped over’. No longer was I discovering my bitter, dark inadequacies; I was learning about the experience of being envied. Although it may sound strange, this was actually more difficult than the first stage. When we are deep in the depths of our own ‘dark matter’, we have some ability to control our experience but we lose this when we encounter the same in others. We all find ourselves at the mercy of other people’s perceptions regardless of who we are. If these are fuelled by unconscious inadequacy, then we get to experience what it is to be envied. Speaking personally, without therapeutic insight, it has little to recommend it.
Understanding that we can be envied is the start of appreciating that we have talents or qualities that are admirable. It challenges the internal perception of inadequacy, even if we disagree with our admirers. It also confronts our own indolence. Feeling inadequate can be the perfect excuse for not moving, developing or growing. We discover we are not as useless as we had believed and in that awareness, we are faced with our personal responsibility to act on this knowledge. With good support, we can evolve beyond the life we have confined ourselves to and become truly adult. If, however, it is our experience to be envied, then the opposite occurs.
When I discovered that I could be envied, many of the personal experiences I had been unable to explain suddenly fell into place. The bullying I had experienced at school during my childhood suddenly made sense. The naked hatred I had been subjected to on occasions became understandable and my own envious behaviour could be seen in context. When we are the subject of another’s envy, we stop being able to grow at all because the destructive energies we are attracting make it all but impossible. For me, this was the key to understanding why I believed so much of my internal landscape had little or no value and why, when I did find something worthwhile, I would often overdo it and get myself into trouble. If our internal themes are based on experiences of being envied, especially when we are young, then we are likely to unconsciously choose behaviour that reinforces these notions. We go looking for that which confirms what we think we know about ourselves.
There are so many numerous, painful tales about the consequences of being envied that I’m disinclined to add to them here. What I will say is that, in my experience, it has the impact of a nuclear explosion within my internal landscape. There is always a moment where everything I thought I knew about myself is razed to the ground and left in ruins, nor is there any comfort or compassion within reach that might ameliorate the experience. Protests, appeals for kindness, tears and agony make no impact upon envious attackers who regard such expressions as justification for their behaviour. The force of the attack renders the envied vulnerable and helpless by removing all protection which is followed up with unrelenting aggression devoid of mercy or forgiveness. Envy attacks our very being and there is nothing we can do about it. When I came to understand this, I could appreciate how my knowledge of self had been rendered so inadequate. As the object of such attacks, we are always going to be inadequate to prevent it because that is the dynamic of the envious attack itself. We cannot change the envier because they don’t want to be changed; they believe themselves to be entirely justified in what they are doing. Nothing we think, say or do is going to make one iota of difference.
During an envious attack, the balance of polarity is severed. The healthy knowledge that we are all both adequate and inadequate is split apart, creating schizoid perceptions and behaviours. Outwardly, the envier justifies claiming the whole ground of adequacy by maintaining that the envied is wholly inadequate and lacking in any redeeming features whatsoever. In the language of emotional literacy, however, the internal experience flips this observation because, in truth, an envious attack can only have its roots in deep feelings of inadequacy and the envied has to possess qualities that are likely to be regarded as ‘more than adequate’. The natural balance of Nature reasserts itself, even if it is done within the different dimensions of our conscious and unconscious selves.
Resolving the terrible consequences of envy is a very difficult task. It involves a two-pronged approach. With those who are subject to being envied, this will probably involve supporting the individual in recognising that the attacks are unreasoned and therefore, because they are so destructive, can be shown to be so. It may also include work to empower the envied to recognise their innate talents and develop them further. Working with the envier – which assumes consent – is frequently a case of dealing with facts to begin with. The talent they admire in others, and wish they could possess for their own, needs to be examined closely. For example: such talents are often the result of very hard work. They don’t spring, fully formed, from the envied but are the result of actualised potential. Does the envier want to do the work to achieve this ability? If they do, then the object of their envy is a waymarker for their own personal growth. If they don’t, then the exploration turns to what they do want and how that might be achieved. Human life is limited by the boundaries of birth and death so, realistically, we cannot develop every talent and are forced to choose between them. Bearing in mind that the healthy polarity of envy is gratitude, we can have feelings of envy about another’s talent whilst taking responsibility for our life choices. For example: I have a life-long envy of anyone who can play the piano but I have chosen to develop different skills and have declined to do the necessary work to become a pianist myself. These days, I still feel the yearning but because I walk a different path, I can be deeply grateful to those pianists manifesting their talents for my enjoyment. In developing my own skills, I can appreciate the level of dedicated commitment to the long haul of ‘practice, practice, practice’ required to truly manifest the best a human being is capable of. A fully realised skill is an object of awe and wonder but it is not the end of the process.
‘Healthy’ envy marks the entrance to the world of human struggle and endeavour. If we envy, it shows us what we truly desire and where we need to strive. If we are envied, it shines a light on qualities we may not have known we had. It is the paradoxical experience of adequacy and inadequacy and is probably our deepest experience of human vulnerability and its power. Where envy becomes most toxic is when we reject awareness; refuse the effort it takes to develop our talent; decline any personal responsibility for our attitudes or behaviour; and indulge ourselves in the worst humanity capable of. On the map of undifferentiated human consciousness, this is the place marked “Here be monsters”, yet as the light of awareness shines in, the very same spot can also be named “The Birthplace of Heroes”.
In closing, I return to my envious friend who only needed a gentle reminder of the content of her feelings. Without her honesty, this piece could never have been written, so how can I not be grateful? Those who find this helpful for their own journey can be grateful too for she has been the source of light in this very dark subject. Between us – the envier and the envied – we have become joint creators in new conversations about what it is to be human.
Jeni – thank you so much for the gift of your truth. If you ever choose to write down your own version of this experience (and would like it published), let me know. I’d be delighted to post it here.