Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part IX

Feeling envy when we’re ashamed of aspects of ourselves

“There is a magnificent, beautiful, wonderful painting in front of you! It is intricate, detailed, a painstaking labour of devotion and love! The colours are like no other, they swim and leap, they trickle and embellish! And yet you choose to fixate your eyes on the small fly which has landed on it! Why do you do such a thing?” C. JoyBell C.

“It is in the character of very few men to honour without envy a friend who has prospered.” Aeschylus

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Carrie Fisher

To envy is to desire having a quality, possession, or other desirable thing that belongs to someone else. How does envy differ from jealousy? Envy is about when we lack a desired attribute enjoyed by another. Jealousy occurs when then something we already possess is threatened by another person. Thus, envy is about lacking something, while jealousy is the threat of losing something and usually to someone else (read more).

What role does shame play in this? Shame is about our perspective on how other people view us: what we want them to see and what we don’t. Where they see something we don’t want them to see, or where we perceive that they cast a critical eye over something that we want to protect from this, we experience shame.

Envy is the fifth and final psychological response to shame that we discuss in this series. It joins the ranks of: feelings of grandiosity, fantasies of destruction, perfectionism, and hiding. Indeed, it makes a rather impressive fifth element: we literally want the attributes that would protect us from feeling ashamed of ourselves. We feel resentful towards those that have these attributes.

We learn more about this experience when we examine the meaning of resentment: bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly. The nature of the unfair treatment is that something that matters to us has been viewed by another when we did not want it to be, or it has been looked at in a critical manner (the experience of the critical or unfriendly eye or look). There has been an appraisal and we have been seen to be left wanting. Our indignation lingers and eats at us, if but for a while. This very experience drives at the crux of the experience of shame: a verdict has been passed on us, and something in us resists it. We may not want it, we may reject it, we may find it jarring. We defend ourselves against it as anger or irritation rises to the surface. Anger, after all, is a defence mechanism, and something has occurred that we feel endangers us on some level, be it physically, socially, psychologically, or otherwise.

If we look back at the roots of most shames, they were created in childhood. We were taught that something we were was in some way unacceptable, not good enough, or to be hidden from (certain) others. Often these ‘things to be hidden’ were integral to our self-identity and -expression. Other times they were a part of our making sense of who we were and our place in the world. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see that we perhaps felt some injustice that we had to hide these things, or that they attracted rejection or criticism rather than acknowledgment, acceptance, or support. In many senses, there is something very unjust when we are misunderstood or when something that matters to us is denied a place. It is not an uncommon experience that we might have seen another person given that very acceptance and support that we were denied.

Returning to the idea of envy then, we see that the person we envy is someone who possesses what we perceive we lack. This person has the attributes that would engender acknowledgement, acceptance, or support from our internalised critical eye. Here, we highlight the fact that it is about the ideas and attitudes of others that we have internalised, whether consciously or unconsciously. We come to view – and in some cases, torment – ourselves with the ‘critical eye’ we previously experienced from others. This ‘eye’ is part of the ‘us’ that looks out at the world around us. And, with envy, it facilitates our fixation on those who we believe have our ‘missing attributes’. In many respects this makes our experience of shame an entirely subjective experience: we focus on a comparison that fosters our feeling of shame, giving it the meaning it carries for us. We carry our experiences of shame with us from situation to situation, and relationship to relationship.

The people who we think have our ‘missing attributes’ may indeed not have them at all. They may in fact be much like us, and in some cases, may be actually be more ‘shame worthy’: we just don’t happen to see it that way ourselves. For us, we see this person as deemed worthier in some sense. We become fascinated by them in way and by their difference to us. We may practise mental one-upmanship with them: they might be paid more, but they’re not really bringing more to the table; they might be getting more attention from guys, but that’s only because they went blond and guys like that; they may have a bigger mandate than we do at work, but that’s only because they were in the right place at the right time for their next promotion. Equally, we may avoid them or ignore them when in their company: we dislike dealing with them full-stop. In all cases, there is this nagging feeling that they can enjoy something that matters to us on account of their having an attribute that we fear, deep down, we don’t have.

What are the most common focuses of envy when it comes to career? One, is about position and power. Someone has a particular ability or capacity to do what they want, or to get others to do what they want. Common thoughts here might be: Sam is in such an influential position, but I could have done just as well if I’d had his parents’ connections; that woman shouldn’t have the ear of the CEO, but she uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants; I should have got that promotion – I would have done much more for the company…. Two, it is common to fixate on pay and lifestyle. Someone is getting paid more than you do, and/or their professional life affords them a much more comfortable, rewarding, or worry-free lifestyle. Here, envy is centred around having the resources to do what you want, have what you want, and in some sense, be who you want. Common thoughts here include: I wish I could afford to just jet off to St. Kitts, but to be honest, I wouldn’t enjoy such a snobby resort anyway; she’s always so well turned out, but she can be just so superficial sometimes. Three, we may focus our envy on the nature of the other person’s work. With a rise in ‘do what you love’ and ‘follow your passion’, we can become envious of those who do a job we wish we had. Common thoughts her might be: I could have been twice as successful a director as him; I could do exactly what she does, and better, but I just came from the wrong background; I should be doing that, but people in that industry just wouldn’t recognise the value I can offer.

The beauty – and ugliness – of envy is that it integrates so many of the other psychological responses to shame. As we can see above, most particularly, feelings of grandiosity. The resentful nature it involves draws in a criticism towards the self, and also towards others.

What then are the key problems associated with envy? Antagonism and dismissiveness; loss of perspective, and; emotional instability.

You may develop an air of antagonism towards those who you perceive have the desired attribute. In so doing, you may act dismissively towards them and their accomplishments. You may come off as if you can’t be bothered with them, or as if you are hostile towards them. It goes without saying that you undermine the potential to create a good working relationship with this person. Depending on the nature of your work relationship with this person, you may undermine your capacity to manage them effectively, perhaps even failing in some of your duties towards them. Depending on exactly how you act towards the person you envy, others may perceive you as immature, overly insecure, self-important, or difficult to get along with. This can damage your reputation and with it your gravitas and professional brand.

Envious behaviours involve a loss of perspective. You may fixate on the perceived gap between you and another person, excluding consideration of the context and other factors at play. Indeed, you may entirely fail to actually see someone for who they are. In so doing, you may treat someone entirely out of whack with the respect and concern they accord you. This and other behaviours associated with envy and its resentment can later leave you wondering how you failed to build the necessary bridges and effectively manage key stakeholders. Indeed, where inspiring and motivating others is central to your authentic leadership, your envy may be your Achilles’ heel. Loss of perspective can also reduce your performance at work and in your career development. You may miss crucial opportunities – including promotions and career changes – where you are focused on what you don’t have.

Last but not least, envy can increase emotional instability. Where you see yourself lacking by comparison to others, it can undermine your self-confidence. Where you feel like you aren’t as good as someone else, you can be too eager to please and in so doing drain your own emotional and psychological reserves. Here you may sign up for responsibilities (and relationships) that simply don’t make sense for you, your mandate, or your career. Essentially, where you build any sense of self-worth on comparison to others, you are building a home on a fault-line: it is only a matter of time before the plates move. No self-esteem built here will last, and picking up the pieces will be tiring, time-consuming, and on some level, devastating. While this is happening, you are not able to do your best work, make your best decisions, or lead to the best of your ability.

How can you start to address envy? First, notice it. When you realise that you are wanting some attribute someone else has, take note. If it is tinged by defensiveness or resentment, chances are it’s envy. As with all psychological experiences that have their root in shame, the first, most impactful step forward is to notice instances when it comes up for you.

Our article on shame next week is our last in this series. Here, we will consider how you can start to tackle shame if it is undermining you at work, or in your career or leadership.