Envy-The Forgotten Narcissistic Issue

September 1, 2007

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).

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."

Among other contributions on the subject, Meissner's view9 is worth mentioning because of its clarity of style. In discussing narcissism and the paranoid process, he commented, "Envious feelings are frequently identifiable in narcissist patients [and are caused by] feelings of deprivation and resentful entitlement." Such experience of humiliation, he stated, is linked both to masochism and sadism: "Narcissistic patients enjoy sadistically humiliating others, just as their own humiliating superego afflicts them."

How envy becomes a narcissistic issue

In the envious person, the persistence of an archaic, grandiose, and omnipotent sense of self is a necessary condition for the pathological manifestations of envy. As a vital element to his mental equilibrium, the envious person must feel or believe that he is entitled to all that is good and valuable. As psychoanalytic inquiry has demonstrated,6-10 being narcissistic sets the stage for a propensity to catastrophic reactions to perceived slights or disappointments. "Narcissism is incapable of self-sustaining action and continually requires fresh gratification. It is not self-limiting . . . it has no inherent stability."9

Given that the narcissist depends on an external source of support (eg, praise, admiration) for his sense of emotional equilibrium, his "self" becomes envious by the realization in (or projection onto) others (or objects) of the qualities he imagines unique in himself. Inevitably, the envious person experiences each of his envied objects' successes or attributes as a challenge, and, at times, as a mortal injury to his sense of self. "Whatever threatens our status in life, whatever throws into question our accomplishments and attainments, whatever defeats us or limits us, or prevents us from attaining the object of our desires, all these and more are forthright assaults on our narcissism."9

A necessary ingredient added to such an experience, to determine certain destructive and, at times, criminal manifestations of envy, is the conscious or less-than-conscious sense of shame in the envious person. This shame is the "signal affect of feelings of humiliation, inferiority, or narcissistic mortification."9 Initially, the envious person unsuccessfully attempts to become the object of his envy (by imitation or challenge). Later, after his attempts fail, he decides to ignore or remove him- self from such reality, only to find the envied object obsessively trapped in his mind.

The envious person becomes haunted by his mental images of the envied object. Then, with his emotional sensor (superego) harshly prosecuting him and recriminating his "imperfections," the envious person starts to feel as if he is a failure. His cruel superego demands perfection and omnipotence. The envious person feels tormented by a mirror image that constantly reminds him of his mundane limitations and imperfections. He is left with a mixed sense of impotence and rage. His mental state is one of self-depletion that includes feelings of inadequacy, lowered self-esteem, and self-pity.

Without the prospect of accepting his limitations or lacking the sublimatory channels needed to cope with them, he develops vengeful, diabolical desires of destroying the envied object. These mental images ultimately become a breeding ground for his conscious or unconscious decision of annihilating the envied object. Only the destruction of his mental representations will restore his inner peace and bring him back to his original sense of grandiosity and omnipotence.


Envy is an inherently destructive process, with qualities that involve the intention of robbing or destroying others' attributes. Such destruction alleviates distress and relieves the envious person's discontented sense of himself as an emotional underclass. Object relations and self-psychology theories have proved useful in understanding the internal world of envious persons in their fragmented self-representations and cruel introjections-shame and humiliation. Additional inquiry, however, is needed to further understand the process of how envy in the narcissist transforms into destructiveness.


References1. Zalta EN, ed. Envy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab. Center for the Study of Language and Information. Stanford University. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/envy/. Accessed May 31, 2007.
2. Bacon F. Essays, Civil and Moral. Harvard Classics. Vol 3, Part 1. New York: Bartleyby.com; 2001. Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/3/1/. Accessed May 31, 2007.
3. Reedings . . . notes on books by Gerard Reed. August 1999. Available at: http://reedings.com/archive/92aug99.html. Accessed June 11, 2007.
4. Schoeck H. Envy. A Theory of Social Behavior. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund; 1987.
5. Nersessian E, Kopf RG, eds. Textbook of Psychoanalysis. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1996: 89-164.
6. Mitchell J, ed. The Selected Melanie Klein. New York: Free Press; 1987.
7. Kernberg OL. Aggression and transference in severe personality disorders. Psychiatric Times. February 1995; 12:16-17.
8. Kernberg OL. Aggression in Personality Disorders and Perversions. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press; 1992:21-32.
9. Meissner WW. Psychotherapy and the Paranoid Process. Lanham, Md: Aronson; 1994.
10. Shengolk L. Envy and malignant envy. Psychoanal Q. 1994;63:615-640.