A very wise friend who was also a psychotherapist had just listened to my litany of complaints about a female colleague. I was bothered by how little interest she took in things I had done, how little acknowledgement of my work, and most of all by her constant put downs and snide remarks about activities I was involved with. 'Envy' said my friend. 'Classic envious behaviour. She doesn't want you to have anything and what you have got she wants to spoil .'
It was obvious that the two of us might be competitive. We were in the same area of work, both trying to publish in the same outlets with children roughly the same age who had taken remarkably similar pathways. And while competitiveness is nothing to be proud of in such a situation – after all we could just become best friends with similar interests - nor is it that unusual, especially in an unsupportive work environment. But as my psychotherapist friend pointed out, envy is different from competitiveness .Competitiveness, at its worse, might entail flaunting your latest news and achievements, showing off, or trying to have or be the best. But envy is destructive. Envy isn't just about trying to go one better. Envy is a grudge-bearing emotion, arising from wanting to spoil what the other person has or enjoys, including any good feelings they might have about their achievements. .
Common among women
Sadly it's not that uncommon to meet envy, especially between women. This is not something women particularly like to admit, especially as it goes against our notion of being the more supportive sex. But envy can be suspected when someone won't ask you about your own life , or your partner's or family's. Or when someone will never compliment or affirm you or puts down friends or activities you are part of. So, for example, an envious person would rarely comment favourably on your appearance or your new job or they might say something critical about someone you are close to, drawing you into a collusive 'bitchiness'. This may sound so obviously toxic that anyone would know to avoid such people but envious people can be very good company. They often have a sharp eye for other people's weaknesses and, yes, when that sharpness is turned on other people it can be very funny.
A shocking example of envy was in public view recently when a young woman, Mary Konye, was jailed for having thrown acid in the face of her close friend Naomi Oni. They had been friends since early teens but at the trial Oni described how Konye had first become obsessed with her looks, trying to look exactly like her, then trying to undermine her relationship with her boyfriend and finally attacking her with acid to ruin her looks. This is criminally extreme but not without echoes of the kinds of behaviour which is widespread among teenage girls where groups often form and, egged on by one strong (envious) character, start trying to undermine and ostracise a chosen victim. As many have noted, social networks like Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook provide fertile ground for such behaviour because a form of 'digitial disinhibition' means normal social restraints can get put aside. In such disinhibited environments envious attacks flourish.
Not all envy is as destructive. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein argued that envy directed towards the mother was a universal part of infancy, which in 'healthy' development is usually compensated for or balanced out by what Klein called generosity. Envy is only toxic when a person is unable to feel empathy, love, generosity or even just kindness to the other. Sometimes an envious person can be friendly to others but only direct viciousness towards the one person who triggers extremes of that feeling. It's often a sister, a close colleague or one particular friend perceived as having something easy – better looks, or greater advantages accrued through nepotism, or a privileged background. This is why envy crops up so often at work where women do have to fight hard to succeed and where they perceive other women as having advantages or as people who might deprive them of their own advantages.
Why are women envious? Envy is obviously connected with low self-esteem, and in spite of all progress women have made in public confidence, this affects women more than men. When I wrote a book called Our Treacherous Hearts (in 1992) about women's relationship to mothering, I was astonished at how many women told me that their relationships with their male children was often more straightforward than their relationship with their daughters, especially first born daughters. With daughters there was often complex identification – sometimes a daughter embodying some aspect of themselves they weren't comfy with or indeed sometimes the daughter having qualities they were subliminally jealous of. Not surprisingly a daughter is more likely to internalise insecurity. Now with social media becoming a playground for boasting and competition, it's not surprising that girls are still unable to escape the old insecurities.
Is there anything you can do to deal with very envious people? My friend was rather pessimistic. 'Not much' she said, 'You have to build your own confidence so it doesn't get to you and you should probably just go ahead and let her see your life rather than trying to hide it. But if it's too toxic' she said, 'just keep away'. My experience is a little less pessimistic. My work colleague mellowed when she had grandchildren. She still couldn't bring herself to compliment me or others about their activities or indeed take much interest but some of the snide comments died down. Envious people can be less or more tormented according to what is happening in the rest of their lives.
Perhaps the most important thing about envy is to recognise it in yourself and others. Like so many emotions, they become much more hurtful when we don't understand them. As soon as we can recognise the other's insecurities (and envious people are deeply insecure) there's less reason to be hurt by it. But if you are the subject of this envy, it might be better still just to keep away.