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Envy—The Forgotten Narcissistic Issue

Envy—The Forgotten Narcissistic Issue

Of the 7 "deadly" sins that are committed by humans, envy is primarily directed toward the destruction of an external object. Over the centuries, this unfortunate emotion has been the subject of inquiry by many disciplines (philosophy, religion, sociology, fiction, and so on). Among authors in the western philosophical tradition who have pondered the issue, Aristotle first wrote, "We envy those whose possessions or achievements are a reflection on our own. They are our neighbors and equals. It is they, above all, who make plain the nature of our failure."1 Kant defined envy as a "propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one's own," and referred to it as "that passion which views with malignant dislike the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess."1

Bacon, in his ninth essay, Of Envy, considered such "affection" as belonging to "a man that hath no virtue in himself." In his keen observations, he noted 4 broad categories of envious individuals: "deformed persons, and eunuchs, and old men"; those who "rise after calamities and misfortunes"; those who "desire to excel in too many matters, out of levity and vain glory"; and "near kinsfolks, and fellows in office."2

Schopenhauer also pondered envy's destructive nature. "The worst trait in human nature . . . is schadenfreude [pleasure taken from the misfortunes of others], for it is closely related to cruelty."3 Writing from a sociological perspective, Helmut Schoeck, reputed by some to have written the most comprehensive book on the subject, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior,4 described envy as a "silent, secretive process and not always verifiable," which is characterized by an "extremely antisocial and destructive emotional state." In his view, envy "can also turn man to destruction." He quoted Max Scheller's clarification: "The mere displeasure at the fact that another possesses the thing which I covet does not constitute envy . . . only when the attempt to obtain it by these means (by working for it, by buying it, by force, by theft) has failed, giving rise to the consciousness of impotence does envy arise."

Central to all these observations into envy's phenomenology is the certitude of its destructive qualities. Envy preferentially, although not exclusively, appears in those who "desire to excel in too many matters, out of levity and vain glory," otherwise known as narcissism. Given that its manifestations range from the constructive imitation of other's accomplishments to the spiteful, malicious wishes for others' misfortunes (eg, Salieri and Mozart), or the execution of acts of mutilation or murder attempts (eg, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan), envy is certainly worth considering by psychiatrists.

Examining the connection of this seemingly imperative desire—on the part of the envious person—of ridding another person of his or her possessions or attributes and its connections with narcissism is the purpose of this essay. It is my opinion, given the destructive nature of envy and, therefore, its potential for breeding criminal acts, that envy should be the subject of discussion and study in the psychiatric literature more often.

Envy in the psychiatric literature

As a matter of psychiatric inquiry, envy has mostly been the subject of psychoanalytical studies. Object relations and self-psychology writers (Fairbairn, Bion, Klein, Kohut, and others) have played a paramount role in the conceptualization of "internalized objects," and in outlining the significance of early object relations "in the development of ego and superego."5 Such contributions have furthered our understanding of narcissistic pathology and of envy as a central manifestation of it. Certain concepts, such as Freud's primary narcissism and Kohut's grandiose self (exhibitionistic self-image) and omnipotent self-object, have introduced us to the internal world of the narcissist and, as I discuss later, are highly relevant in understanding the connections between narcissism and envy.5

Klein's work on "primal envy" is preeminent among those addressing such phenomena.6 She thought of envy as a "major manifestation of human aggression," and defined it as the "angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable—the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it." She traced envy back to the "very early experience of frustration toward the absence of the good breast," with a subsequent projection onto the object of such frustration.6 Paradoxically, behind the envy of the object, she believed, an unconscious identification with the originally needed object is found. In her view, "envy of the good object" is characteristic of severe narcissistic pathology.

Kernberg,7,8 in his seminal studies of borderline and narcissistic character pathologies, considered envy or hatred as a "major affective expression of aggression" and placed both conscious and unconscious envy at the core of the "malignant narcissism" phenomenon. He observed: "The greater the envy, the more is an actual perception of the envied or hatefully envied person as one who possesses qualities that are highly desirable or 'good.'" In his view, envy is a "form of hatred of another perceived as sadistically or teasingly withholding something highly desirable."

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