I worked with a man who finally, after years of what seemed like an endless cavalcade of failed romances, found the love of his life. She was different from all the others – she was more mature, thoughtful, patient, and had no penchant for histrionics. At every therapy session he reported another week of steady gains in bliss.
I knew there would be a shoe dropping soon, and sure enough, one week, with sadness, anxiety and shame, Joe told me that he’d gotten jealous. Anne had not texted that day for a number of hours, and when she did call him, she made it brief because she was with a friend having coffee. Joe had spent many lonely hours that day obsessing, spinning elaborate, twisted explanations for what it was she was doing and why she wasn’t calling. By the time they talked later that night, he was spewing out angry accusations.
Joe is smart, handsome, hard working, responsible, artistic, sensitive. But he spent most of his childhood and adolescence with parents who repeatedly told him what a bitter disappointment he was to them. No amount of success in his adult life has erased the impact of trying to grow up while enduring his parents’ harsh, angry attacks. Convinced that a woman he loves is betraying him, he forgets that his greatest fear, mostly unconscious, is of being what he felt like as a child: unlovable. His jealous accusations and mistrust could push a less determined woman than Anne out of his life. But Joe worked hard to deal with his fears and insecurities, and not project them, not turn them into paranoid jealousy and fantasies of betrayal. Joe and Anne are working things out.
Envy is something else altogether. I worked with an extraordinarily creative woman who ran a very successful design business. She had a wonderfully rich life in many ways, was well liked by friends and employees, enjoyed a great marriage. It looked like she had it all… so why was she never excited, happy or proud about her work? Why was there only a painful emptiness about it all; why was she unable to feel as if she wanted any of it or found any of it enjoyable?
Sandra’s father was a very successful man in a highly creative field. He spared her the brutal belittling he repeatedly gave her brothers and her mother. The one or two times in her life that he said something admiring of her are etched in her memory; otherwise he was silent and absent. Her dreamy mother, obsessed with every New Age philosophy and therapy, was a beautiful woman who never left home without looking like a page out of Vogue. Mother seemed to encourage Sandra’s talents, but fundamentally, it was always about mother. Sandra was chiefly meant to be her mother’s admiring mirror.
Bursting with every kind of talent, Sandra was exhibiting her first drawings in major shows as a teenager. But instead of pursuing an art career that would put her in the spotlight, she worked out a way of hiding in plain sight. She designed all kinds of things that sold with great success, but which almost no one knew she had designed. Unconsciously, she could not risk any kind of show of fulfillment, because bringing attention to herself would be too reminiscent of her mother’s vanity and self-absorption. Further, she couldn’t resolve the guilt she felt about her brothers and her mother. Why did father abuse them and spare her? It was as though being successful made her too much like her abusive father; and made her the object of the others’ envy and resentment. So she allowed herself success – but not fulfillment, not happiness.
Sandra hadn’t made any of these connections from the past to the present – her unhappiness seemed like an inexplicable punishment. Once she began to make sense of how she lived in fear of the envy of others, and in guilt about surpassing others, she could begin to see a way toward being able to enjoy and take pride in what was rightfully hers.
We are all challenged to recognize the impact of jealousy and envy in our lives – those feelings are within us and all around us, and not always in ways that are obvious. We’re all susceptible to these feelings, but for some, freedom to enjoy life – or in Freud’s famous phrase, work and love - can only come when the roots and meanings of our envy and jealousy experiences can be illuminated.