The Experience of Envy
Steen Halling, PhD., Professor Emeritus
November 17, 2019 Seattle University
2:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Student Center
3 CEU's Room 130
Samuel Johnson wrote that "Envy is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another's misery." Envy can be a corrosive emotion, negatively affecting relationships and embittering the person who envies. For Melanie Klein, envy had its origin in infancy and remained a powerful force with which we have to contend throughout life. No wonder it is included among the seven deadly sins. Further, envy is closely connected with other difficult emotions, such as shame and resentment, and like shame it is very difficult to give words to it, let alone to acknowledge its presence in our lives.
Fortunately, given that envy is pervasive, this is not the whole story. On the basis of a qualitative interview study I conducted with five colleagues, I will describe some of the opportunities that the experience of feeling envious presents to us if we take the opportunity to reflect on the origin and meaning of envious experience, our own as well as those of our clients. Specifically, in feeling envy our participants were confronted with their basic limitations – the unchangeable facts of their existence and the life situation that stood in the way of achieving what they desired. The executives swiftly worked to manage their feelings as best they could at work. They focused on plans to understand and “fix” their immediate situation, to stay focused on themselves, and regain their equilibrium. Efforts to regain equilibrium included reframing how they thought about the experience (many seeing envy, at least in retrospect, as an opportunity to learn about themselves), utilizing already-existing skills for dealing with stress or setbacks, joining with others in commiseration about the environment or envied other, trying harder to reach their goals, changing their goals, or even leaving the division or the corporation.
In this workshop we will explore our results and implications for our clients and ourselves. Although our study involved the experience of envy in a specific population, our findings have clear implications for psychotherapy and our efforts to help clients find their way through painful experiences to constructive self-awareness and a greater sense of freedom. However, given that envy can take subtle forms, and that it is widely regarded as socially unacceptable, recognizing its presence, within oneself or in others, is not easy. Yet recognizing some of its ways in which it disguises itself is of therapeutic value as long as one does not pursue this search from a moralistic perspective.