Comment

How to overcome the ‘green-eyed monster’

Professionals can help clients to acknowledge and deal with feelings of envy about their fellow service users
Envy

One of the most uncomfortable feelings I have is envy: the old green-eyed monster. What is more, I am sure I am not alone in having these feelings.

I have been thinking about envy because of difficulties I have encountered with it in my clients. This is partly because people are rarely keen to own up to feelings of envy, or are confused about it and its relationship to jealousy. The role of envy is a neglected line of enquiry in people with learning disabilities, despite the destructive nature of the emotion.

Recently, I referred a young man shortly after his mother had died. He went to the funeral, understood that his mother had died and his support staff told me that while he seemed to be sad at times, he was doing okay. He had met all the markers of a normal grief reaction.

About nine

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One of the most uncomfortable feelings I have is envy: the old ‘green-eyed monster’. What is more, I am sure I am not alone in having these feelings.

I have been thinking about envy because of difficulties I have encountered with it in my clients. This is partly because people are rarely keen to own up to feelings of envy, or are confused about it and its relationship to jealousy. The role of envy is a neglected line of enquiry in people with learning disabilities, despite the destructive nature of the emotion.

Recently, I referred a young man shortly after his mother had died. He went to the funeral, understood that his mother had died and his support staff told me that while he seemed to be ‘sad’ at times, he was ‘doing okay’. He had met all the markers of a normal grief reaction.

About nine months following his loss, he started to have verbal outbursts at his home and day service. He would also fly into a rage when a service user mentioned their mother or talked to her on the phone. My client would lose his temper and threaten the other service users, and seemed to believe that he was being picked on.

It appeared that he had become envious of other service users who had mothers.

In his mind, they had something special that he no longer had. If he could not enjoy the company of his mother any more, he did not see why anyone else should enjoy the company of theirs.

Seven deadly sins

Envy is considered one of the ‘seven deadly sins’. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales called envy the ‘worst sin that is. For, truly, all other sins are against one special virtue, but envy is against all virtues and all goodness’.

He also wrote that envy is full of sorrow in another man’s goodness and success, but joyous in another man’s misfortune.

This view is different from the standard dictionary definition: ‘envy is the feeling of wanting to be in the same situation as somebody else; the feeling of wanting something that somebody else has’.

Envy always involves a comparison; we envy that which we lack. So we get envious when we compare ourselves to someone else and do not like what we see. We may feel we are imperfect; our lives are imperfect, compared with others.

We might say ‘I am green with envy’ through clenched teeth.

There is a relationship between envy and jealousy, and often the two are confused. Jealousy, however, stems from a fear of losing a loved person or object to another person. Some people consider it a more ‘sophisticated’ feeling.

I was influenced in my thinking by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein who focused on the destructive aspect of envy. In this respect, her opinion of envy was similar to that of Chaucer’s. She saw envy as a kind of anger, provoked by another person possessing and enjoying something desirable, and which gives rise to impulses to take it away and/or to spoil it.

Klein believed that repressed envy inevitably resurfaces, stronger than ever, but that our discomfort causes us to conceal and deny our feelings, which makes matters worse.

At first, I found it difficult to persuade my client to acknowledge his feelings of envy. It seemed that he was not necessarily consciously aware of the feeling and my role was to bring his awareness to the surface in a supportive manner.

Over a number of sessions and with careful support he acknowledged his feelings of envy. He was able to discuss the injustice of losing his mother and his anger at losing her.

Climate of austerity

There are many other settings in which envy can surface with a destructive force. In team settings, for example, we may feel envious of the skills and knowledge of other colleagues.

I also feel concern about the current climate of austerity, market forces and competition between organisations for contracts. In these situations, there are often losers, who may develop unconsciously an envious desire to spoil another’s success. I am especially concerned about the effect this could have on multi-agency and multidisciplinary work.

Chaucer believed that it is our capacity to love that makes it possible to overcome envy, while Klein’s view was that if we could develop ‘gratitude’ this could serve to mitigate envy. Whatever way works for us, I think the first step is to recognise it in ourselves.

Find out more

The Melanie Klein Trust

About the author

David O’Driscoll, a psychotherapist at Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust Specialist Learning Disability and Forensic Services.

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