What’s the most dangerous emotion of all?  Anger?  Lust?  Greed?  Those can all be dangerous under the right circumstances.  But there’s another emotion which psychotherapy recognizes as being particularly threatening and it’s one that may not come to mind immediately.  It’s envy.  And if you’re on the receiving end of it you need to be aware of its potential to do harm.

Over the next two blogs I want to look at why envy’s dangerous, what its origins are, what the triggers for it may be, how it can disguise itself and what we might do if we’re ever the object of it.

Envy versus jealousy

People often talk about jealousy when they mean envy – because the two words are actually quite different.  Envy is an angry feeling that another person has got and is enjoying something that you want.  So you want to take it away from them or spoil it.  Jealousy, on the other hand, is a feeling that the love that you believe you’re entitled to from another person has been taken away or might be taken away by a rival.

Therapy’s bible on envy

To look at envy, I want to dip briefly into what will probably seem the very strange world of a famous psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein.  In 1957 she wrote a classic paper called Envy and Gratitude and what I’m going to say comes from that.

Melanie Klein was the first person in her field to work with children and a lot of what she wrote is about what’s going on in us psychologically as infants and children and its influence on the people we later become.  Klein’s work sometimes strikes people as mad when they first hear it but if you can just hang on there are some very interesting and helpful insights in it.  So just concentrate for a moment for this next bit.

A good feed

In Envy and Gratitude, Melanie Klein looks at one of the very earliest experiences of life – an infant’s experience of its mother and of the mother’s breast.  Klein believed that if that experience went well, it would be the bedrock of a person’s psychological security and the bedrock of their future relationships.  That’s because the experience of a good mother who feeds her baby well (and that, by the way, can include bottle-feeding) is taken profoundly into the baby and will become the foundation of hope, trust and the belief in goodness.

A bad feed

But Klein also believed that an infant could experience envy even at this early stage of its life and that severe envy could damage the whole process and create a deep insecurity in an individual.  If a baby is deprived of good feeding, it may feel that the breast is keeping all that lovely food for itself and experience envious rage and hatred instead of gratitude.  Feeding a baby is all about giving life and so it’s a major creative act.  Klein believed that an infant who is subject to huge envy wants in its rage to spoil and destroy its mother – in the deepest sense to destroy her creativity.  And even a good feed could cause envy because of the sheer ease of the mother’s breast to produce what for the baby is desperately needed food.

So in severe envy (and we are talking severe envy) Klein thought that the whole process of taking into ourselves a secure belief in a mother’s goodness and, as that becomes part of us, a sense of our own goodness, can go wrong.

The antidote to envy

Klein believed that a person who has a firm sense of goodness – their own and that of others – will value the good in others and not be envious of it.  They’ll feel gratitude not envy.  Or if they do feel envy – and we all feel it sometimes – they’ll be able to tolerate it and move on.   Its effect will be limited.

It might be easier to think of all this in terms of being loved rather than being fed.  If a child has been loved and so has a sense of security – a sense of having been given enough and a corresponding sense of gratitude for that – they’re less likely to grow up into an adult who’s a prey to envious feelings for other people and the good things they have.

You can see in all this that Melanie Klein felt that envy spoils enjoyment (a baby won’t enjoy a feed if it’s consumed by envy) and that the antidote to envy is gratitude, a gratitude from which we’ll want to give to others in turn.

Why envy is dangerous

Now, envy is not traditionally one of the seven deadly sins for nothing.  It interferes with the capacity for complete enjoyment and therefore for gratitude and it wants to spoil the good thing that or good person who is the source of something life-giving.  So if you remember nothing else from this blog, do remember this:  extreme envy wants to spoil and destroy.  That’s why it’s one of the most dangerous emotions people can have.

This is not necessarily to imply that people who are prone to extreme envy don’t have a conscience.  They may well have and they may well feel guilty for any harm that they’ve done to you as part of their wish to spoil.  The trouble is that the guilt that you’ve inspired in them may lead to even more attacks – attacks because you’ve now made them feel guilty on top of feeling envious!

Next time ….

That’s enough for now.  Next time we’ll take a look at some of the things that can trigger people’s envy, how envy can disguise itself so that you may not realize that you’re the object of somebody’s envious attack and what you might be able to do about it if you are.