Similar to how Africa has the ‘Big Five’ – the elephant, lion, rhinoceros, leopard, and cape buffalo, Melanie Klein has her ‘Big Two’ – unconscious envy and projective processes. Arguably, they are simultaneously the most unavailable to conscious awareness in most people and far and away the most important mental components in daily life. Love, which is much more accessible to conscious awareness, would be the only other relational emotion or mechanism that rivals in importance.
First, let’s start with a useful definition of envy:
1 – It is a two-party relationship at a ‘part-object’ level (i.e. a part or aspect of a person).
2 – It is based more on hate than love, which is really a centrally important point, although there is an implied component of admiration.
3 – The central issue is a comparison of oneself to someone else, in terms of (1) a quality, (2) a capacity, or (3) a possession. The discrepancy felt between the self and the other is the pain we refer to as envy.
It may not be immediately obvious when I say this, but without a doubt, unconscious envy is the most disputed and, if you will, controversial issue in all of psychoanalysis. To many, it is a horrific idea that an infant could come out of the womb and immediately declare, “Mom, why do you get to be the big one who has everything, knows everything, and can do anything, while I have to be the small, helpless, shitted up baby? I hate that! Why don’t you be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy?”
So much for our idealization of infancy as a time of sugar and spice and everything nice! I think the real difficulty is that we have to come to grips, each and every one of us, with our own envious hatred as a fundamental baby level emotional reaction of which we are capable of suffering daily, if not hourly. The solution to this core element of the dark side of human nature, with which we all come into this world amply equipped, is to do the right thing and blame it on mom! [Joke]
What I mean to imply is that this is done more subtly, in the form of suggesting that an infant’s envious reaction is a forgivable response to deprivation (i.e. forced upon it by a bad or neglectful mother), akin to justifiable homicide. There is no doubt that deprivation can increase the intensity of envy, but one would then expect that receiving what one had not gotten originally in life would solve the problem. However, it almost never stops envy from continuing rampantly in that individual’s personality.
This is immediately obvious when you study the lifestyles of the ultra-wealthy and observe two things. First, they never feel they have enough – whether it is things or money. Second, they are always comparing themselves to someone else who is imagined to have more of something. The root of these attitudes is always linked in part to deeply unconscious envy.
That envy began as an infant, when mom had everything and the infant felt he had nothing by comparison. That attitude continued at a deeply unconscious level throughout the wealthy person’s lifespan, but was transferred from mom to whatever the person later decided to value, whether it’s wealth, power, influence, notoriety, knowing the rich and famous, etc.
Why is Envy Such a Hot Button Issue?
At this point I would like to highlight several things that make this topic so difficult for people to engage and wish to explore.
1 – The most central issue is that unconscious envy is potentially so painful that it is almost always dealt with the instant it is unconsciously felt. That is to say that before it ever reaches consciousness, the personality is taking steps to defend against any experience of the pain. So it is a topic that is rarely addressed directly, whether it be in therapy, until a therapist initiates a discussion about it. Even in daily life, as people enter into gossip or hostile discussions about others, in which unconscious envy is actually at the foundation of the negative talk, envy is not directly mentioned. I will expand on this when we discuss the defenses against experiencing envy.
2 – The second major impediment to the awareness of envy as a conscious construct is that its origins are so early in life that it’s very difficult to wrap one’s mind around the concept. That envy starts with the infant’s reaction to mom after birth is much earlier than any of us can consciously remember once we are grown up.
3 – A third impediment, more subtle but very powerful, is linked to the natural human tendency to idealize infancy. We seem universally predisposed to see it as a time of innocence and goodness, which turns out to be completely at odds with the concept of unconscious envy as developed by Melanie Klein. Her idea was that it is the mother’s actual “goodness and generosity,” which are ultimately the most enviable of all things or characteristics in life related to mom. I once heard a comedy skit whose clever central was about being “molested” by mom who “made me suck on her breasts for months after I was born – I’m taking the bitch down!” Were that sincere, it would perfectly embody the earliest essence of unconscious envy.
4 – A final complication to the saga of trying to wrap one’s mind around unconscious envy is that when envy is consciously recognized in an individual and the destructive consequences of the defenses the individual has been using are owned, two sources of pain are added to the mix. The first is tremendous guilt for the damage done. The second is the distress at recognizing how difficult it is to stop the onslaught of one’s unconscious envious reactions when one wishes to reform his attitudes and behavior, as evidenced, for example, in the individual’s dreams. As he tries to stop the expression of envy in one area, it crops up in some other area. Like the serpent heads of the Hydra in Greek mythology, you chop off one head and two more appear.
Envy’s Origin in Earliest Infancy:
At this point we should expand on envy’s primitive roots and then describe the defenses against any experience of it.
To create a model for the origins of unconscious envy, I think this is best done by first laying out what is probably the infant’s elemental point of view at birth. I am going to apply words to experiences that probably begin in a more amorphous, unthinkable, inchoate form. The infant starts out immediately experiencing an overwhelming array of stimuli, many painful, and he has no capacity to understand, control, or manage the entire situation. He is totally helpless, utterly incompetent (sometimes even at sucking), and understands nothing! To compound that state of affairs, we have to add that he is completely dependent on and at the mercy of someone else, usually mother. By contrast to the infant’s painfully pathetic state of affairs, this other person seems, as I mentioned earlier, to have everything, know everything, and be able to do anything.
For many infants, a mother who comes to the rescue at that point is an acceptable situation, and while they don’t forget how painful the experience was, they move forward and keep the awareness of the earlier distress pushed aside. I do mean to say that the pain of being so small, helpless, and dependent has not gone completely away, and all humans will remember their reaction to it. For some babies, however, it is more of an affront to their pride than it is to others to have been so helpless, and they can’t so easily move on. I would surmise this is at least in part, maybe even majorly so, a genetically inherited response.
This is at the root of many later psychoanalytic controversies because there is no doubt that a mother who is unable to modulate the emotional pain of infancy increases the potential of the infant to feel hatred of his baby state of affairs and covet the mother’s enviable state all the more. But it is my impression from deep explorations of myself, many patients, and observing mankind in general, that its most important root is inherited. Those who read biographies of the most famous and infamous figures in history will notice how unconscious envy is always a major pigment in the painting.
For me and most others, the most vexing component of envy is that it is most often in response to the “goodness” of the envied object. I am reminded of the aphorism ‘no good deed shall go unpunished’ and Mark Twain’s wry observation that the principle difference between man and dog is that a dog won’t bite the hand that feeds it. Unconscious envy is always a prime culprit when goodness and generosity are attacked. This counter-intuitive idea is hard for most people to comprehend at an emotional level even when they “get the theory of it.” One has to go back to experiencing this goodness in the context of an infant’s awful state of pain and inadequacy to recognize that envy of the mother – being seen as filled up with happiness, satisfaction, and a willingness to share it generously – is actually too painful to tolerate.
Klein endeavored to put this into operative terms when she described the infant’s relationship with the breast as the infant experiencing the latter as the source of everything needed and desired. The natural extension of that would be the desire to have all of the breast’s qualities (e.g. happiness and generosity), capacities (e.g. to produce food, store it, and deliver it), and possessions (e.g. the milk and nipple/penis to deliver it). Thinking about envy at this extremely early, primitive level is an exercise in making a “leap of faith” for most people, and because of this, I find it useful to understand the theory and simply await any data from one’s clinical observations that might clarify one’s thinking.
However, this primitive model of envy is extremely useful in explaining some phenomena in the consulting room and in the world around us that no other model has a capacity to adequately explain. Take, for example, the famous author Virginia Woolf who captured the essence of envy when she said, “When I hear of someone’s success, a little part inside of me dies.”
The Destructiveness of Unconscious Defenses Against Envy:
At this point we need to explore the second half of why unconscious envy is a “double whammy” for mankind. Not only is it unbearably painful, but the responses to it are very problematically destructive, both to self and other. By the responses to it, I mean defensive maneuvers. The result is that the object of the envy is typically damaged, and the person with the envy also loses the damaged object’s goodness, as well as its own goodness due to having damaged the object. I will try to give a modest catalog of the maneuvers used to avoid the experience of envy.
1 – One can spoil the object of the envy so that it is no longer enviable. This is a cheap, quick, dirty, and effective way to cope with envy. It is also very problematic, partly because it instantly creates the unconscious expectation of retaliation, and it ruins those ‘good’ qualities in life that one should hope to emulate and have someday.
2 – One can deny that one has any envy at all. This takes more unconscious effort than is immediately obvious and drains one’s resources and life itself. It is a one-way ticket to a life of restriction, and in the extreme, denial can lead to prejudice, rigidity, and/or blandness.
3 – One can project one’s own “capacity to feel envious” into someone else – typically a parent, sibling, or spouse – so that the other person is seen as the envious and spoiling ‘bad’ guy.
4 – One can project one’s “baby part of self that feels pained with smallness and envy” into others by conspicuously showing off – like a male peacock – what is so enviable about oneself. This is analogous to a man going to a class of kindergarten children, pulling out his penis, and showing off its size. It is often effective in making others feel envy, but it does not cure one’s own.
5 – One can tolerate the envy and grow oneself to the level of the object. I am humbled to admit that I first taught an entire course on envy without thinking of this possibility, until one of the participants asked about it. I was too aware of my own use of the previous four maneuvers to recognize an emotionally constructive possibility. And, as you may notice, tolerating an awareness of someone’s goodness is almost the same as saying you admire someone else.
[Note: Module Four contains a more detailed discussion of unconscious envy.]
The Impact of Unconscious Envy on Everyday Life:
With all of the above as a backdrop, I would like to now try out an idea, so you can see what you think. What if most of what occurs on planet Earth that is destructive turns out to be related to unconscious envy? I can’t prove that to be true, but is a really useful piece of devil’s advocacy. I suspect envy is one of the main components of many wars over the course of human history. Wherever one group has been seen as having wealth or privilege, some other group has coveted it and gone to war over it, even to the point of genocide.
Before the U.S. kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the early 1990’s, I suspect the reason behind the Iraqis setting fire to Kuwait oil fields was because, among other things, the Kuwaitis were so enviable, and Hussein wanted to spoil their happiness and contentment. In Rwanda, in the 1990’s, the Hutus envied the Tutsis (whose name literally means “rich in cattle”), and the result was horrific slaughter of all, including women and children.
Here is the key point: It is not unconscious envy that is so destructive, even though it can be among the most painful of all human emotions. It is the defenses against any experience of envy that do so much damage and harm. It can take years to build a beautiful edifice, but it can be turned to rubble in seconds with carefully placed explosives. It only took a few hours to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, destroy the lives of thousands, and negatively affect the lives of millions more.
So let’s go back to birth and how crummy it can be to be a needy, helpless baby. As I suggested earlier, some babies – for probably innate, perhaps inherited reasons – just hate it that someone else has and is the source of all the goodness. After a lecture I once gave on the clinical manifestations of unconscious envy, a psychiatrist who had spent her career working with schizophrenics at a state mental hospital came up to me, excited by the lecture. She said that she had always thought that if there was a ‘gene’ that predisposed someone to schizophrenia, it would be a gene for ‘envy.’ She went on to describe how virtually all of the chronically hospitalized individuals at her institution seemed universally overwhelmed by that emotion. She had kept that impression to herself until that lecture.
There is an inherent problem for anyone looking for evidence of the influence of envy while observing a baby. The rub is that you have to do years of follow-up to see if your suspicions about envy, as a central issue for that infant, are born out over time. I have seen infants or toddlers who refused to allow the mother to do certain things for them, even refusing to call her mother and instead referring to the mother by her given first name.
So how does one know if this is due to unconscious envy, even when it seems like the best hypothesis? The answer takes time, and often you have to wait until later in life to decide. I had a child patient who was quite severely distressed. Over seven years I made numerous interpretations about envy, but never with any direct confirmation. Some years after he had stopped our therapy sessions, he came back for a visit and remarked at that time, now in his mid-twenties, that he thought of himself as the “most envious person he knew.” It was very sad, but an ‘eye opener’ for me all the same.
Unconscious Envy in the Clinical Setting:
Unconscious envy poses some unique problems for the clinician. First of all, it will never come up in therapy until the therapist broaches the topic. Sometimes, rather amazingly, after the therapist introduces it as a very human issue, the patient will take the ball and run with it for years. But more commonly, the work of therapy will tackle issues that, by being more available to the patient’s conscious awareness, represent the low-hanging fruit of the therapy. I have often seen it take five years or more before unconscious envy comes up as the last remaining frontier of significant issues to be modified by the therapy.
Sometimes, the only way unconscious envy comes up is in the form of a ‘negative therapeutic reaction.’ This is, in essence, where the patient unconsciously draws a line in the sand and says, “I refuse to improve any further because you will get credit for your good work, and I cannot tolerate that.” He or she often quit at that point, although may remain in treatment for a very long time in the equivalent of a therapeutic stalemate.
The clue to the problem is that the degree of insight that they potentially have available to them is significantly greater than the amount of actual improvement they have made in their lives. This is often a very daunting problem, but having a model of unconscious envy to consider is at least a useful tool to have in one’s arsenal for addressing such failures to thrive.
Unconscious envy begins in infancy, relates to mother and her goodness, and is often quite unbearable. The defenses against experiencing it are among the most damaging in life. The easiest means of escape from it is to spoil the envied object, but that means one now has to go through life without ‘goodness’ available from one’s needed figures. Furthermore, the paranoid anxieties one then experiences make the individual fear being the object on envy oneself. This prevents one from being all he or she can be in life. The option leftover is to be a librarian in baggy beige.
For the therapist, recognizing and working with unconscious envy is not an easy task. It is often helpful, as I have been taught, to substitute the word ‘hatred’ for ‘unconscious envy.’ Patients often can feel it more easily when you say, “Part of you hates me for being so important to you” rather than “part of you is envious of me for being so important to you.” By contrast, if the therapist is always saying, “You envy this or that,” the word loses much of its emotional connection, and the patient simply feels criticized and hopeless. There really is an art to working with envy, and it probably ultimately requires seeing it first, in detail, in oneself.