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10 Beware the Fragile Ego

The Law of Envy

We humans are naturally compelled to compare ourselves with one another. We are continually measuring people’s status, the levels of respect and attention they receive, and noticing any differences between what we have and what they have. For some of us, this need to compare serves as a spur to excel through our work. For others, it can turn into deep envy—feelings of inferiority and frustration that lead to covert attacks and sabotage. Nobody admits to acting out of envy. You must recognize the early warning signs—praise and bids for friendship that seem effusive and out of proportion; subtle digs at you under the guise of good-natured humor; apparent uneasiness with your success. It is most likely to crop up among friends or your peers in the same profession. Learn to deflect envy by drawing attention away from yourself. Develop your sense of self-worth from internal standards and not incessant comparisons.

Fatal Friends

In late 1820, Mary Shelley (1797–1851), author of the novel Frankenstein, and her twenty-eight-year-old husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, moved to Pisa, Italy, after having spent several years traveling through the country. Mary had had a rough time of it lately. Her two young children had both died from fevers while in Italy. Mary had been particularly close to her son William, and his death had pushed her into a profound depression. She had recently given birth to another child, a boy named Percy, but she felt continually anxious about his health. The guilt and gloom she felt surrounding the death of her children had finally caused some friction between her and her husband. They had been so close, had experienced so much together, that they could almost read each other’s thoughts and moods. Now her husband was drifting away, interested in other women. She was hoping that in Pisa they could finally settle down, reconnect, and do some serious writing.

In early 1821, a young English couple named Jane and Edward Williams arrived in Pisa, and their first stop in town was to visit the Shelleys. They were close friends with one of Percy Shelley’s cousins. They were thinking of living in Pisa, and they were clearly starstruck at meeting the famous couple. Mary was used to these kinds of visitors; she and her husband were so notorious that curious bohemians from all over Europe would come to gawk at them and try to make their acquaintance.

Certainly the Williamses, like all the other visitors, would have known about the Shelleys’ past. They would have known that Mary had two of the most illustrious intellectual parents in all of England. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was perhaps the first great feminist writer in history, renowned for her books and scandalous love affairs. She had died giving birth to Mary. Mary’s father was William Godwin (1756–1836), a celebrated writer and philosopher who advocated many radical ideas, including the end of private property. Famous writers would come to see the child Mary, for she was an object of fascination, with striking red hair like her mother, the most intense eyes, and an intelligence and imagination far beyond her years.

The Williamses would have almost certainly known about her meeting the poet Percy Shelley when she was sixteen and their infamous love affair. Shelley, of aristocratic origins and due to inherit a fortune from his wealthy father, had married a young beauty named Harriet, but he left her for Mary, and along with Mary’s stepsister Claire, they traveled through Europe, living together and creating a scandal everywhere they went. Shelley was an ardent believer in free love and an avowed atheist. His wife Harriet subsequently committed suicide, which Mary would forever feel guilty about, even later imagining that the children she had had with Shelley were somehow cursed. Shortly after the death of Harriet, Mary and Percy got married.

The Williamses would undoubtedly know about the Shelleys’ relationship with the other great rebel of the time, the poet Lord Byron. They had all spent time together in Switzerland, and it was there, inspired by a midnight discussion of horror stories, that Mary got the inspiration for her great novel Frankenstein, written when she was nineteen. Lord Byron had his own scandals and numerous love affairs. The three of them became a magnet for endless rumors, Lord Byron now living in Italy as well. The English press had dubbed them “the League of Incest and Atheism.” At first Mary paid scant attention to the new English couple on the scene, even after a few dinners together. She found Jane Williams a bit dull and pretentious. As Mary wrote to her husband, who was away for a few weeks: “Jane is certainly very pretty but she wants animation and sense; her conversation is nothing particular and she speaks in a slow, monotonous tone.” Jane was not well read. She loved nothing more than to arrange flowers, play the pedal harp, sing songs from India, where she had lived as a child, and pose rather prettily. Could she be that superficial? Every now and then Mary would catch Jane staring at her with an unpleasant look, which she quickly covered over with a cheerful smile. More important, a common friend who had known the Williamses in their travels across Europe had warned Mary in a letter to keep her distance from Jane.

Edward Williams, however, was quite charming. He seemed to worship Shelley and to want to be like him. He had aspirations to be a writer. He was so eager to please and be of service. And then one day he told Mary the story of the romance between him and Jane, and Mary was quite moved.

The Williamses were not actually married. Jane Cleveland, who came from the middle class, had married a high-ranking English soldier, only to find out he was an abusive brute. When she met the handsome Edward Williams—a military man who had lived in India, as Jane had—she fell instantly in love. In 1819, although Jane was still married to her first husband, she and Edward left for the Continent, posing as a married couple. Like the Shelleys, they also had lived in Switzerland and had come to Italy for adventure and the good weather. Jane was now expecting her second child with Edward, just as Mary was now pregnant again. It seemed, in a fateful way, that they had much in common. More important, Mary empathized deeply with their love affair and how much they had sacrificed for each other.

Then Jane had her second child. Now the two women could bond as young mothers. Finally someone to talk to about the difficulties of raising infants in a foreign land, something Mary’s husband could care less about. Besides, the Shelleys had no English friends, since English expatriates in Italy avoided them like the plague. It would be such a relief to have some daily companionship in this moment of turbulence in her life. Mary quickly became dependent on Jane’s company and forgot any misgivings she might have had about her.

Shelley seemed to warm up to the couple as well. Edward was so officious in offering to help Shelley in any way. Edward loved sailing and boasted of his navigational skills. Sailing was an obsession of Shelley’s, despite the fact he had never learned to swim. Perhaps Edward could help him design the perfect sailing boat. And Jane began to intrigue him the more he spent time around her. Jane was so different from Mary. She never argued. She only looked at him admiringly and seconded everything he said. She was so cheerful. He could be her teacher, instructing her in poetry, and she could be his new muse, a role his depressed wife could not fill anymore. He bought Jane a guitar and loved to listen to the songs from India she seemed to know so well. She had a beautiful voice. He wrote poems in her honor and slowly became infatuated.

Mary noticed all this. She knew well her husband’s pattern. He was always looking for a woman very different from the one he was with to inspire him and break the monotony of a relationship. His first wife, Harriet, had been more like Jane, pretty and simple, and so he fell for the much more complicated Mary. Now the pattern was repeating as he fell for the simpler Jane. But how could she take Jane seriously as a rival? She was so ordinary. He was simply poeticizing her; he would eventually see her as she was and grow bored. Mary did not fear losing him.

In 1822 the Shelleys and Williamses, now rather inseparable, decided to move together into a house further north along the coast, overlooking the Bay of Lerici. From the beginning Mary hated the place and begged her husband to find something else. It was so isolated. It was not easy to find supplies. The local peasants seemed rather brutal and unfriendly. The two couples would be completely dependent on their servants. Nobody besides Mary seemed interested in running the household, least of all Jane, who had proven to be quite lazy. But worse than everything, Mary had terrible forebodings about the place. She feared greatly for the fate of her child Percy, only three years old. She smelled disaster in the walls of the isolated villa that they occupied. She became nervous and hysterical. She knew she was putting everyone off with her behavior, but she could not quell her anxiety. Shelley reacted by spending more and more time with Jane.

Several months after settling at the villa, Mary had a miscarriage and nearly died. Her husband attended to her for several weeks, and she recovered. But just as quickly he seemed to become enamored with a new plan that terrified Mary. He and Edward had designed a boat, one that was beautiful to look at, sleek, and fast. In June of that year some old friends of the Shelleys had arrived in Italy—Leigh Hunt and his wife. Hunt was a publisher who championed young poets, and Shelley was his favorite. Shelley planned to sail up the coast with Edward to meet the Hunts. Mary was desperate for him not to go. Shelley tried to reassure her: Edward was an expert navigator, and the boat he had built was more than seaworthy. Mary did not believe this. The boat seemed flimsy for the rough waters of the area.

Nevertheless Shelley and Edward left on July 1, with a third crewmember. On July 8, as they started on their homeward journey, they ran into one of the storms endemic to the region. Their boat had indeed been badly designed, and went under. A few days later the bodies of all three were found.

Almost immediately Mary was seized with remorse and guilt. She played in her mind every angry word she had addressed to her husband, every critique of his work, every doubt she had instilled in him about her love. It was all too much, and she determined then and there that she would devote the rest of her life to making Shelley’s poetry famous.

At first Jane seemed extremely broken up by the tragedy, but she recovered more quickly than Mary. She had to be practical. Mary might have a nice inheritance from Shelley’s family. Jane had nothing. She decided she would return to London and somehow find a way to support her two children. Mary empathized with her plight. She gave her a list of important contacts in England, including Shelley’s best friend from his youth, Thomas Hogg, a lawyer. Hogg had his own issues—he was always falling in love with the people closest to Shelley, first Shelley’s sister, then Shelley’s first wife, and finally Mary herself, whom he tried to seduce. But that had been years ago, they remained good friends, and as a lawyer Hogg could be of some help to Jane.

Mary decided to stay in Italy. She had hardly any friends left, but the Hunts were still in Italy. Much to her dismay, however, Leigh Hunt had become surprisingly cold to her. In this, her most vulnerable moment, he had apparently lost all sympathy for her, and she could not figure out why. This only added to her misery. Certainly he must know how deeply she had loved her husband and the depth of her mourning? She was not one to show her emotions as openly as Jane, but deep inside she suffered more than anyone. Other former friends were now acting cold as well. Only Lord Byron stood by her, and they grew closer.

Soon it became apparent that Shelley’s parents, who had been shocked by their son’s libertine ways, would not recognize Percy as their grandson, certainly as long as he was in the care of Mary. There would be no money for her. She thought the only answer was to return to London. Perhaps if the Shelley family met Percy and saw what a devoted mother she was, they might change their minds. She wrote to Jane and to Hogg for their advice. The two of them had now become close friends. Hogg seemed to think she should wait before returning; his letter was remarkably cold. Here was yet another person who had suddenly become distant. But it was the response of Jane that most surprised her. She advised giving up Percy and not coming to England. As Mary tried to explain how impossible that would be for her emotionally, Jane became even more adamant in her opinion. She expressed this in practical terms—Mary would not be welcomed in London, the Shelley family would turn against her even more—but it seemed so unsympathetic.

In the months together in Italy after the deaths of their husbands, they had grown quite close. Jane was the last real link to Mary’s husband left in her life. She had forgiven Jane for any indiscretions with her husband. Losing Jane’s friendship would be like experiencing another death. She decided she would in fact return to London with her son and rekindle the friendship with Jane.

Mary returned to London in August of 1823, only to find that she had become quite a celebrity. Frankenstein had been turned into a play that emphasized the horror elements in the book. And it was quite a sensation. The story and the name “Frankenstein” now had seeped into popular culture. Mary’s father, who had become a bookseller and publisher, came out with a new edition of Frankenstein, with Mary clearly identified as the author. (The first edition was published anonymously.) Mary, her father, and Jane went to see the play version, and it was clear now to all of them what an object of fascination Mary had become to the public—this was the slight, very gentle woman who had written such a powerful horror story?

When Lord Byron died in Greece shortly after Mary’s return to London, Mary became even more famous, for she had been one of Byron’s closest friends. All of the principal English intellectuals wanted to meet her, to find out more about her, Lord Byron, and her husband. Even Jane was now back to her friendly self, although at times she seemed to withdraw from Mary.

Despite her fame, Mary was unhappy. She did not want the attention, because it came with endless gossip about her past and insinuations about her morality. She was tired of being looked at and judged. She wanted to hide herself and raise her son. She decided she would move close to where Jane was living, in a more remote part of London. There Percy would be reunited with Jane’s children. They could live for each other and share their memories, recapture the past. Jane was so cheerful, and Mary needed cheering up. In return, she would do whatever it took to take care of Jane.

In the summer of 1824 the two women saw much of each other. It was now apparent that Hogg had been courting Jane, but he was such an awkward and unpleasant man, Mary could hardly imagine Jane reciprocating his attentions. Besides, it was so soon after the death of her husband. But then one evening in January it became clear to Mary that she had been deceived for quite a while. It was somewhat late at night, at Jane’s house. She and Percy had stuck around, Percy to play some games with Jane’s children and Mary to talk some more. Hogg had arrived and Jane finally exploded at Mary, with a look Mary had never seen before on her friend’s face. She asked Mary to leave so abruptly and rudely that it was clear she and Hogg had been having an affair and Jane could no longer conceal her irritation with Mary. She had noticed for some time that Jane had become increasingly cold and less interested in being with her. Now she understood this better.

They remained friends. Mary empathized with her plight as a lonely widow, her need for a husband. Jane was now pregnant with Hogg’s child. Mary struggled to get over her resentment and to help Jane as best she could. They saw less and less of each other.

To distract her from her loneliness, Mary befriended a beautiful young woman named Isabel Robinson who needed help—she had given birth to an illegitimate child and her father would certainly disown her if he discovered the truth. For weeks Mary conspired to help her, planning to send Isabel to Paris to live with a “man” who would act as the father—the man in this case being a woman known as Miss Dods, a notorious lesbian who loved to dress as a man and could easily pass for one.

Mary delighted in furthering this plot, but before accompanying Isabel to Paris, one afternoon she received the shock of her life: Isabel confided to her in complete detail the stories that Jane had been telling her for months about Mary—that Shelley had never really loved his wife; that he had admired her but had had no feelings for her; that she was not the woman he had needed or wanted; that Jane was in fact the great love of his life. Jane had even hinted to Isabel that Mary had made him so unhappy that he had secretly wanted to die the day he left on his fatal sailing venture, and that Mary was somehow responsible for his death.

Mary could hardly believe this, but Isabel had no reason to make up such a story. And as she thought about it more deeply, suddenly things began to make sense—the sudden coldness of Hogg, Leigh Hunt, and others who must have heard these stories; the looks Jane occasionally threw at Mary when she was the center of attention in a group; that look on her face when she threw Mary out of her house; the vehemence with which she wanted Mary to stay away from London and give up her child, which meant giving up their inheritance. All these years she had been not a friend but a competitor, and now it seemed clear that it was not Mary’s husband who had pursued Jane but Jane who had actively seduced him with her poses, her coquettish looks, her guitar, her put-on soft manner. She was false to the core. It was, after the death of Mary’s husband, the harshest blow of all.

Not only did Jane believe these monstrous stories, but she had made others believe them. Mary knew how well her husband had loved her over so many years, and after so many shared experiences. To spread the story that she had somehow caused his death was beyond hurtful; it was like a knife being plunged into an old wound. She wrote in her journal: “My friend has proved false & treacherous. Have I not been a fool?”

After several months of brooding over this, Mary finally confronted her. Jane burst into tears, creating a scene. She wanted to know who had spread this awful story of her betrayal, which she denied. She accused Mary of being cold and unaffectionate. But for Mary, it was as if she had finally woken up from a dream. She could now see the fake outrage, the phony love, the way Jane confused matters with her drama. There was no going back.

Over the ensuing years Mary would not cut off ties with Jane, but now their relationship was totally on her terms. Mary could only feel some strange satisfaction to see Jane’s life slowly fall apart, the relationship with Hogg turning into a disaster. As Mary became more and more famous for her novels and her publishing of Shelley’s poems, she mingled with the greatest writers and politicians of her time and slowly cut off contact with Jane. She could never trust her again. As she wrote some years later about this affair in her journal: “Life is not ill till we wish to forget. Jane first inspired me with that miserable feeling, staining past years as she did—taking sweetness from memory and giving it instead a serpent’s tooth.” • • •

Interpretation: Let us look at the many transformations that envy causes in the mind, as we can clearly see in the example of Jane Williams. When Jane first met Mary, she had conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there was much to like and admire about Mary. She had pleasant manners, was clearly brilliant, and felt deeply attached to her son. She could be quite generous. On the other hand, she made Jane feel deeply inferior; Jane lacked so many of the things that Mary had, but which she felt she deserved—attention for her own talents, for her willingness to sacrifice for love, for her charming nature. Inevitably, along with the attraction to Mary came envy—the desire to have the same things as Mary, the sense of being entitled to have them, but the apparent inability to get them easily or legitimately. With envy comes the secret desire to hurt, wound, or steal from the envied person, to right the unfairness that comes with his or her supposed superiority.

There were many reasons for Jane to conceal and even repress the envy stirring within her. First, it is socially toxic to display envy. It reveals deep insecurity along with hostility, a very ugly brew, which is certain to push people away. Second, she and her husband depended on the Shelleys for their future livelihood, since Jane was determined to get Edward attached to Shelley as a friend, assistant, and sailing expert. Shelley was notoriously generous with money. Acting in a hostile manner toward Mary would have put that all in jeopardy. Finally, envy is a painful emotion, an admission of our own inferiority, something rather unbearable for us humans. It is not an emotion we want to sit with and brood over. We like to conceal it from ourselves and not be aware that it motivates our actions.

Considering all this, Jane took the natural next step: she befriended Mary, returning Mary’s friendly advances and then some. A part of her liked the woman and felt flattered at the attention shown to her by someone so famous. Jane was avid for attention. How could she now imagine herself as feeling envy toward Mary, if she had chosen to become her friend? But the more time she spent around Mary, the more the imbalance between them became apparent. It was Mary who had the illustrious, handsome husband, the possible large inheritance, the deep friendship with Lord Byron, and the rich imagination that made her so talented. And so the more time she spent with Mary, the stronger her envious feelings became.

To conceal this envy from herself and others now required the next logical step: she had to mentally convert Mary into an unsympathetic character. Mary was not so talented; she was merely lucky; if it weren’t for her famous parents and the men around her, she never would have gotten to her fortunate position; she did not deserve her fame; she was an irritating person to be around, moody, depressive, clinging, no fun; she was not nice or loving toward her husband and was not much of a woman. As Jane went through this process, hostility began to overwhelm friendly feelings. She felt more than justified in actively seducing Percy Shelley and concealing her true feelings from Mary. Most devastating to Mary’s marital relationship, every time her husband complained to Jane about Mary, Jane would reinforce this with some new story or observation, deepening the rift between them.

Of course, in turning Mary into someone so unlikable, Jane had to willfully ignore the context—the recent loss of two beloved children to illness, Shelley’s own coldness toward his wife, and his pursuit of other women. But in order for enviers to feel entitled to take harmful action, they must create a narrative: everything the other person does reveals some negative trait; they do not deserve their superior position. Now Jane had what she had wanted—the adoring attention of Percy Shelley along with the complete alienation of him from his wife. Once Shelley died, she could vent her envy by spreading the malicious story that Mary did not seem particularly sad at the loss, something so troubling to those who heard this, including Leigh Hunt, that they distanced themselves from Mary.

Once Jane was back in London and Mary joined her there, the pattern repeated. A part of Jane was still drawn to Mary; over the years they had shared much. But the more time she spent around her, the more she had to see Mary’s growing fame, her circle of illustrious friends, her generous nature toward other women who had been mistreated, her total devotion to her son and to the memory of her husband. None of this jibed with the narrative, and so Jane had to take yet another step in her mind: “Mary is false, still living off the legacy of her husband and others, motivated by her neediness, not by her generosity. If only other people could see this.” So she stole Mary’s friend Hogg, a weaker imitation of the original sin of stealing her husband. And she continued to spread stories about Mary, but this time with the added vicious twist that Jane was the last great love of Shelley’s life, that he had never loved his wife, and that Mary had driven him to suicide. Telling such lurid stories in London would do maximum damage to Mary’s reputation.

It is hard to calculate the pain she inflicted over the years on Mary—the quarrels with Mary’s husband exacerbated by Jane, the sudden mysterious coldness of Mary’s closest friends, the push and pull Jane played on Mary, always stepping back when Mary wanted more closeness, and finally the revelation of the ultimate betrayal, and the thought, which would haunt Mary for years, that so many had believed Jane’s story. Such can be the hidden pain inflicted by one great envier.

Understand: Envy occurs most commonly and painfully among friends. We assume that something in the course of the relationship caused the friend to turn against us. Sometimes all we experience is the betrayal, the sabotage, the ugly criticisms they throw at us, and we never understand the underlying envy that inspired these actions.

What we need to grasp is something paradoxical: people who feel envy in the first place are often motivated to become our friends. Like Jane, they feel a mix of genuine interest, attraction, and envy, if we have some qualities that make them feel inferior. Becoming our friend, they can disguise the envy to themselves. They will often go even further, becoming extra attentive and impatient to secure our friendship. But as they draw closer, the problem gets worse. The underlying envy is continually stirred. The very traits that might have stimulated feelings of inferiority—the good position, the solid work ethic, the likability—are now being witnessed on a daily basis.

And so as with Jane, a narrative is gradually constructed: the envied person is lucky, overly ambitious, not nearly so great. As our friends, enviers can discover our weak points and what will wound the most. From within a friendship they are better positioned to sabotage us, steal our spouse, spread mayhem. Once they attack us, we tend to feel guilty and confused: “Perhaps I deserve some of their criticisms.” If we respond angrily, this only feeds the narrative of our unlikable nature. Because we were friends, we feel doubly wounded and betrayed, and the deeper the wound, the greater the satisfaction for the envier. We can even speculate that the envier is unconsciously drawn to befriending the envied person in order to have this wounding power.

Although such fatal friends are elusive and tricky, there are always warning signs. Learn to pay deeper attention to your first impressions. (If only Mary had done so.) Often we intuit that the other person is false but then forget this as they make friendly overtures. We always feel better about people who seem to like us, and enviers know this well. Rely upon the opinions of friends and neutral third parties. Many friends of Mary found Jane conniving and even a bit scary. The envy of the friend will also tend to leak out in sudden looks and disparaging comments. Enviers will give puzzling advice—something that seems against our interests but well reasoned on their part. They want us to make mistakes and will often try to find a way to lead us into them. Any success or increase in attention that we experience will cause greater leakage of their true feelings.

It is not a question of becoming paranoid but simply of being alert once you pick up some signs of possible envy. Learn to spot the types particularly prone to feeling envy (see the next section for more on this) before you become too enmeshed in their drama. It is hard to measure what you will gain by avoiding an envy attack, but think of it this way: the pain inflicted by one envier friend can resonate and poison you for years.

Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.

—Gore Vidal

Keys to Human Nature

Of all the human emotions, none is trickier or more elusive than envy. It is very difficult to actually discern the envy that motivates people’s actions or to even know that we have suffered an envy attack from another. This is what makes it so frustrating to deal with and so dangerous.

The reason for this elusiveness is simple: we almost never directly express the envy we are feeling. If we feel anger toward people because of something they said or did, we may try to disguise our anger for various reasons, but we are aware that we are feeling hostile. Eventually the anger will leak out in some nonverbal behavior. And if we act upon our anger, the target will feel it for what it is and more often than not know what caused the anger in that moment. But envy is very different.

All of us feel envy, the sensation that others have more of what we want—possessions, attention, respect. We deserve to have as much as they do yet feel somewhat helpless to get such things. But as discussed above, envy entails the admission to ourselves that we are inferior to another person in something we value. Not only is it painful to admit this inferiority, but it is even worse for others to see that we are feeling this.

And so almost as soon as we feel the initial pangs of envy, we are motivated to disguise it to ourselves—it is not envy we feel but unfairness at the distribution of goods or attention, resentment at this unfairness, even anger. Furthermore, the other person is not really superior but simply lucky, overly ambitious, or unscrupulous. That’s how they got to where they are. Having convinced ourselves that envy is not motivating us but something else, we also make it very difficult for others to detect the underlying envy. They see only our anger, indignation, hostile criticisms, poisonous praise, and so on.

In ancient times, those who felt intense envy might have acted upon it through violence, forcefully taking what the other had or even resorting to murder. In the Old Testament, Cain murdered Abel out of envy; the brothers of Joseph threw him in a ditch in the desert to die because their father seemed to favor him; on several occasions King Saul tried to kill the younger David, so handsome and naturally gifted, finally going mad with envy.

Today, however, people are much more political and indirect, able to control any overt aggressive impulses and disguise what they’re feeling. Instead of violence, enviers are likely to sabotage our work, ruin a relationship, sully our reputation, torment us with criticisms that are aimed at our most basic insecurities. This allows them to maintain their social position while causing harm, their targets not even suspecting envy as the motivation. They can justify these actions to themselves as righting the perceived imbalance or unfairness.

If someone is angry with us and acts on it, we can analyze the anger this person is feeling and figure out a way to defuse it or defend ourselves. But if we cannot see the underlying envy, we are inevitably confused by the hostile action of the envier, and this confusion doubles the pain we experience. “Why are people suddenly being so cold to me?” “Why did that project fail so unexpectedly?” “Why have I been fired?” “Why is this person against me?”

Your task as a student of human nature is to transform yourself into a master decoder of envy. You are ruthless in your analysis and your determination to get to the root of what motivates people. The signs that people emit of envy are harder to discern, but they exist, and you can master the language with some effort and subtle discernment. Think of it as an intellectual challenge. By being able to decode it, you will not feel so confused. You will understand in hindsight that you suffered an envy attack, which will help you get over it. You might be able to see in advance the warning signs of such an attack and either defuse or deflect it. And knowing the hidden pain that comes from one well-aimed envy attack, you will spare yourself the emotional damage that can last for years. This will not make you paranoid but only better able to weed out the false and fatal friends (or colleagues) from the real ones, the ones you can truly trust.

Before immersing yourself in the subtleties of the emotion, it is important to distinguish between passive and active envy. All of us in the course of a day will inevitably feel some pangs of envy, as we unconsciously monitor the people around us and sense that they might have more. It is a fact of social life that there are always people who are superior to us in wealth, intelligence, likability, and other qualities. If these pangs rise to the level of consciousness and are a bit acute, we might say something hurtful or mean-spirited as a way to vent the emotion. But generally as we experience this passive form of envy, we do not do anything that would in any meaningful way harm the relationship with a friend or colleague. In detecting signs of passive envy in others (for instance, little put-downs and offhand comments), you should simply tolerate this as a fact of being a social animal.

Sometimes, however, this passive envy turns active. The underlying sense of inferiority is too strong, leading to hostility that cannot be vented by a comment or put-down. Sitting with one’s envy over a long period of time can be painful and frustrating. Feeling righteous indignation against the envied person, however, can be invigorating. Acting on envy, doing something to harm the other person, brings satisfaction, as it did to Jane, although the satisfaction is short-lived because enviers always find something new to envy.

Your goal is to detect the signs of this more acute form of envy before it turns dangerous. You can do this in three ways: by learning the signs of envy that manage to leak through, by being aware of the types of people who are more prone to acting on envy, and by understanding the circumstances and actions that might trigger active envy in people. You can never see all of the actions motivated by envy; people are simply too good at disguising it. But using all three decoding devices will increase your chances of detection.

Signs of Envy

Although the signs are subtle, envious feelings tend to leak out and can be detected if you are observant. Seeing one such sign in isolation might indicate passive or weak envy. You want to look for combinations or repetitions of the following signs, a pattern, before moving to alert mode.

Microexpressions: When people first experience envy, they have not yet fooled themselves into thinking it is something else, and so they are more prone to leakage than later on. That is why first impressions are often the most accurate and should be given added weight in this case. Envy is most associated with the eyes. The root of the Latin word for envy, invidia, means “to look through, to probe with the eyes like a dagger.” The early meaning of the word was associated with the “evil eye” and the belief that a look could actually convey a curse and physically harm someone.

The eyes are indeed a telling indicator, but the envious microexpression affects the entire face. You will notice the envier’s eyes momentarily boring into you, with a look that suggests disdain and a touch of hostility. It is the look of a child who feels cheated. With this look the corners of the mouth will often be turned down, the nose in a sneering, somewhat upturned position, the chin jutting out. Although the look will be a little too direct and held a little too long, it still will not last more than a second or two. It is usually followed with a strained, fake smile. Often you will see the look by accident, as you suddenly turn your head their direction, or you will feel their eyes burning into you without directly looking at them.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) devised a quick way to elicit these looks and test for envy. Tell suspected enviers some good news about yourself—a promotion, a new and exciting love interest, a book contract. You will notice a very quick expression of disappointment. Their tone of voice as they congratulate you will betray some tension and strain. Equally, tell them some misfortune of yours and notice the uncontrollable microexpression of joy in your pain, what is commonly known as schadenfreude. Their eyes light up for a fleeting second. People who are envious cannot help feeling some glee when they hear of the bad luck of those they envy.

If you see such looks in the first few encounters with someone, as Mary did with Jane, and they happen more than once, be on the lookout for a dangerous envier entering your life.

Poisonous praise: A major envy attack is often preceded by little envy bites—offhand comments expertly designed to get under your skin. Confusing, paradoxical praise is a common form of this. Let us say you have completed a project—a book, a film, some creative venture—and the initial response from the public is quite positive. Enviers will make a comment praising the money you will now be making, implying that that is the main reason you have worked on it. You want praise for the work itself and the effort that went into it, and instead they imply that you have done it for the money, that you have sold out. You feel confused—they have praised you, but in a way that makes you uncomfortable. These comments will also come at moments chosen to cause maximum doubt and damage, for instance just when you have heard the good news and feel a flush of joy.

Similarly, in noting your success, they may bring up the least likable parts of your audience, the kinds of fans or consumers who do not reflect well on you. “Well, I’m sure Wall Street executives are going to love this.” This is thrown in among other normal comments, but the guilt by association lingers in your mind. Or they will praise something once you have lost it—a job, a house in a nice neighborhood, a spouse who has left you. “That was such a beautiful house. What a shame.” It’s all said in a way that seems compassionate but has a discomforting effect. Poisonous praise almost always indicates envy. They feel the need to praise, but what dominates is the underlying hostility. If they have a habit of praising in this way, if you experience it several times, it is probably an indication of something more intense stirring within them.

Backbiting: If people like to gossip a lot, particularly about common acquaintances, you can be sure they will gossip about you. And gossip is a frequent cover for envy, a convenient way to vent it by sharing malicious rumors and stories. When they talk about others behind their backs, you will see their eyes light up and their voice become animated—it gives them a joy comparable to schadenfreude. They will elicit any kind of negative report about a common acquaintance. A frequent theme in their gossip is that no one’s really that great, and people aren’t what they pretend to be.

If you ever get wind of a story they have spread about you, subtly or not so subtly negative, only one such instance should be enough to raise your antennae. What indicates active envy in this case is that they are your friend and they feel the need to vent their underlying hostility to a third party rather than keep it to themselves. If you notice that friends or colleagues are suddenly cooler to you than before for no apparent reason, such gossiping might be the source and would be worth ferreting out. In any event, serial gossipers do not make loyal and trustworthy friends.

The push and pull: As we saw in the Jane Williams story, enviers often use friendship and intimacy as the best way to wound the people they envy. They display unusual eagerness to become your friend. They saturate you with attention. If you are in any way insecure, this will have great effect. They praise you a little too effusively too early on. Through the closeness they establish they are able to gather material on you and find your weak points. Suddenly, after your emotions are engaged, they criticize you in pointed ways. The criticism is confusing, not particularly related to anything you have done, but still you feel guilty. They then return to their initial warmth. The pattern repeats. You are trapped between the warm friendship and the occasional pain they inflict.

In criticizing you, they are experts at picking out any possible flaws in your character or words you might have regretted, and giving them great emphasis. They are like lawyers building a case against you. When you’ve had enough and decide to defend yourself or criticize them or break off the friendship, they can now ascribe to you a mean or even cruel streak and tell others of this. You will notice in their past other intense relationships with dramatic breakups, always the other person’s fault. And at the source of this pattern, something hard to discern, is that they choose to befriend people whom they envy for some quality, then subtly torture them.

In general, criticism of you that seems sincere but not directly related to anything you have actually done is usually a strong sign of envy. People want to bully and overwhelm you with something negative, both wounding you and covering any tracks of envy.

Envier Types

According to the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882–1960), certain people are prone to feeling envy their entire lives, and this begins in early infancy. In the first few weeks and months of life, the mother and infant are almost never out of each other’s presence. But as they get older, infants must deal with the mother’s absence for longer periods of time, and this entails a painful adjustment. Some infants, however, are more sensitive to the mother’s occasional withdrawal. They are greedy for more feeding and more attention. They become aware of the presence of the father, with whom they must compete for the mother’s attention. They may also become aware of other siblings, who are seen as rivals. Klein, who specialized in the study of infancy and early childhood, noticed that some children feel greater degrees of hostility and resentment toward the father and siblings for the attention they are receiving at their (the enviers’) expense, and toward the mother for not giving them enough.

Certainly there are parents who create or intensify such envy by playing favorites, by withdrawing on purpose to make the child more dependent. In any event, infants or children experiencing such envy will not feel grateful and loved for the attention they do get but instead feel continually deprived and unsatisfied. A pattern is set for their entire lives—they are children and later adults for whom nothing is ever quite good enough. All potentially positive experiences are spoiled by the sensation that they should have more and better. Something is missing, and they can only imagine that other people are cheating them out of what they should have. They develop an eagle eye for what others have that they don’t. This becomes their dominant passion.

Most of us experience moments in childhood in which we feel another person is getting more of the attention that we deserve, but we are able to counterbalance this with other moments in which we experience undeniable love, and gratitude for it. As we get older, we can transfer such positive emotions to a series of people—siblings, teachers, mentors, friends, lovers, and spouses. We alternate between wanting more and feeling relatively satisfied and grateful. Those prone to envy, however, do not experience life the same way. Instead, they transfer their initial envy and hostility to a series of others whom they see as disappointing or hurting them. Their moments of satisfaction and gratitude are rare or nonexistent. “I need, I want more,” they are always telling themselves.

Because envy is a painful sensation, these types will enact lifelong strategies to mitigate or repress these feelings that gnaw at them. They will denigrate anything or anyone good in the world. This means there aren’t really people out there worth envying. Or they will become extremely independent. If they do not need people for anything, that will expose them to fewer envy scenarios. At an extreme they will devalue themselves. They don’t deserve good things in life and so have no need to compete with others for attention and status. According to Klein, these common strategies are brittle and will break down under stress—a downturn in their career, bouts of depression, wounds to their ego. The envy they experienced in their earliest years remains continually latent and ready to be directed at others. They are literally looking for people to envy so they can reexperience the primal emotion.

Depending on their psychological makeup, they will tend to conform to certain envying types. It is of great benefit to be able to recognize such types early on, because they are the ones most likely to turn active with their envy. The following are five common varieties of enviers, how they tend to disguise themselves, and their particular forms of attack.

The Leveler: When you first meet them, levelers can seem rather entertaining and interesting. They tend to have a wicked sense of humor. They are good at putting down those who are powerful and deflating the pretentious. They also seem to have a keen nose for injustice and unfairness in this world. But where they differ from people with genuine empathy for underdogs is that levelers cannot recognize or appreciate excellence in almost anyone, except those who are dead. They have fragile egos. Those who have achieved things in life make them feel insecure. They are highly sensitive to feelings of inferiority. The envy they initially feel for those who are successful is quickly covered up by indignation. They rail at high achievers for gaming the system, for being far too ambitious, or simply for being lucky and not really deserving praise. They have come to associate excellence with unfairness, as a way to soothe their insecurities.

You will notice that though they can put others down, they do not take easily to any jokes at their expense. They often celebrate low culture and trash, because mediocre work does not stir their insecurities. Besides their cynical humor, you can recognize this type by how they talk about their own life: they love to tell stories of the many injustices inflicted on them; they are always blameless. These types make excellent professional critics—they can use this medium to tear down those they secretly envy and be rewarded for it.

Their main goal is to bring everyone down to the same mediocre level they occupy. This sometimes means leveling not only achievers and the powerful but also those who are having too good a time, who seem to be enjoying themselves too much, or who have too great a sense of purpose, which levelers lack.

Be wary around such types, particularly in the workplace, because they will make you feel guilty for your own impulse to excel. They will begin with passive-aggressive comments that taint you with the ugly word “ambition.” You might be a part of the oppressor class. They will criticize you in ugly and hurtful ways. They may follow this up with active sabotage of your work, which they justify to themselves as a form of retributive justice.

The Self-entitled Slacker: In the world today many people rightfully feel entitled to have success and the good things in life, but they usually understand that this will require sacrifice and hard work. Some people, however, feel they deserve attention and many rewards in life as if these are naturally due to them. These self-entitled slackers are generally quite narcissistic. They will make the briefest outline for a novel or screenplay they want to write, or an “idea” for a brilliant business, and feel that that is enough to attract praise and attention. But deep down, these slackers feel insecure about their ability to get what they want; that is why they have never really developed the proper discipline. When they find themselves around high achievers who work very hard and have earned true respect for their work, this will make them aware of the doubts about themselves they have been trying to repress. They will move quickly from envy to hostility.

Christopher Wren (1632–1723) was one of the great geniuses of his age, a renowned scientist and one of the leading architects of the time, his most famous work being St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Wren was also generally beloved by almost everyone who worked with him. His enthusiasm, his obvious skill, and the long hours he gave on the job made him popular with both the public and the workers on his projects. One man, however, came to deeply envy him—William Talman, a lower-level architect appointed as Wren’s assistant on several important jobs. Talman believed that their roles should have been reversed; he had an extremely high opinion of himself, a rather sour attitude, and a pronounced lazy streak.

When a couple of accidents occurred on two of Wren’s projects, killing some workmen, Talman went into overdrive, accusing his boss of being negligent. He dug up every other possible misdeed in Wren’s long career, trying to make the case that he did not deserve his lofty reputation. For years he waged a campaign to besmirch Wren’s reputation, calling him careless with lives and money and generally overrated. He so muddied the waters that the king finally gave some important commissions to the much less talented Talman, infuriating Wren. Talman proceeded to steal and incorporate many of Wren’s innovations. The ugly battle with Talman had a debilitating emotional effect on Wren that lasted years.

Be extra careful in the work environment with those who like to maintain their position through charm and being political, rather than by getting things done. They are very prone to envying and hating those who work hard and get results. They will slander and sabotage you without any warning.

The Status Fiend: As social animals we humans are very sensitive to our rank and position within any group. We can measure our status by the attention and respect we receive. We are constantly monitoring differences and comparing ourselves with others. But for some people status is more than a way of measuring social position—it is the most important determinant of their self-worth. You will notice such fiends by the questions they ask about how much money you make, whether you own your home, what kind of neighborhood it’s in, whether you occasionally fly business class, and all of the other petty things that they can use as points of comparison. If you are of a higher social status than they are, they will conceal their envy by appearing to admire your success. But if you are a peer or happen to work with them, they will be sniffing for any sign of favoritism or privileges they don’t have, and they will attack you in underhanded ways, undermining your position within the group.

For baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (b. 1946), his Yankee teammate Graig Nettles fit this type. To Jackson, Nettles seemed extremely attentive to the credit and accolades others were getting that he was not. He was always discussing and comparing salaries. What embittered Nettles was the size of Jackson’s salary and the attention he got from the media. Jackson had earned the salary and attention he received through his batting prowess and colorful personality, but the envious Nettles saw it differently. He thought Jackson simply knew how to play the media and cozy up to the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Jackson, he decided, was a manipulator. His envy leaked out in wicked jokes at Jackson’s expense, poisonous praise, and hostile looks. He turned much of the Yankee clubhouse against Jackson and made his life miserable. As Jackson wrote of him in his autobiography, “I always had the feeling he was behind me, ready to turn the knife.” He also felt there was some tacit racism in Nettles’s envy, as if a black athlete could not possibly earn a salary that much larger than his own.

Recognize status fiends by how they reduce everything to material considerations. When they comment on the clothes you wear or the car you drive, they seem to focus on the money these things must have cost, and as they talk about such things, you will notice something childish in their demeanor, as if they were reliving a family drama in which they felt cheated by a sibling who had something better. Don’t be fooled by their driving an older car or dressing shabbily. These types will often try to assert their status in the opposite direction, by being the consummate monk, the idealistic hippie, while secretly yearning for the luxuries they cannot get through hard work. If you are around such types, try to downplay or conceal what you have that might trigger envy, and talk up their possessions, skills, and status in whatever way you can.

The Attacher: In any court-like environment of power, you will inevitably find people who are drawn to those who are successful or powerful, not out of admiration but out of secret envy. They find a way to attach themselves as friends or assistants. They make themselves useful. They may admire their boss for some qualities, but deep down they believe they are entitled to have some of the attention he or she is getting, without all the hard work. The longer they are around the high achiever, the more this feeling gnaws at them. They have talent, they have dreams—why should the person they work for be so favored? They are good at concealing the undercurrent of envy through excessive fawning. But these types attach themselves because it gives them some kind of satisfaction to spoil and wound the person who has more. They are drawn to the powerful out of a desire to harm them in some way.

Yolanda Saldivar (b. 1960) is an extreme example of the type. She started a major fan club for the popular Tejano singer Selena, then ingratiated herself into Selena’s business by becoming manager of her clothing stores and accumulated more power. No one was more sycophantic to the singer. But feeling deeply envious of the fame of Selena and turning quite hostile, she began to embezzle funds from the business, which she felt more than justified in doing. When confronted about this by Selena’s father, her response was to plot to murder Selena herself, which she finally did in 1995.

These types have a trait that is quite common to all enviers: they lack a clear sense of purpose in their life (see chapter 13 for more on this). They do not know their calling; they could do many things, they think, and often try different jobs. They wander around and feel empty inside. They naturally envy those who act with a sense of purpose, and will go so far as to attach themselves to such a person’s life, partly wishing to get some of what they themselves are missing and partly desiring to harm the other person.

In general, be wary of those who are too eager to attach themselves to your life, too impatient to make themselves useful. They try to draw you into a relationship not by their experience and competence but by the flattery and attention they give you. Their form of attack is to gather information on you that they can leak out or spread as gossip, harming your reputation. Learn to hire and work with those who have experience rather than just a pleasing manner.

The Insecure Master: For some people, reaching a high position validates their self-opinion and boosts their self-esteem. But there are some who are more anxious. Holding a high position tends to increase their insecurities, which they are careful to conceal. Secretly they doubt whether they are worthy of the responsibility. They look at others who might have more talent, even those below them, with an envious eye.

You will work for such bosses under the assumption that they are self-assured and confident. How else could they have become the boss? You will work extra hard to impress them, show them you’re a person on the way up, only to find yourself after several months suddenly demoted or fired, which makes little sense, since you had clearly delivered results. You did not realize you were dealing with the insecure variety and had inadvertently triggered their self-doubts. They secretly envy your youth, your energy, your promise, and the signs of your talent. Even worse if you are socially gifted and they are not. They will justify the firing or demotion with some narrative they have concocted; you will never discover the truth.

Michael Eisner, all-powerful CEO of Disney for twenty years, is just such a type. In 1995 he fired his number two man, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of the film studio, ostensibly because of his abrasive personality, saying he was not a team player. In truth, Katzenberg had had far too much success in his position; the films he oversaw became the main source of Disney’s revenue. He had the golden touch. Never admitting this to himself, Eisner clearly envied Katzenberg for his talent and transmuted this into hostility. This pattern repeated itself time and again with new creative people he brought in.

Pay attention to those above you for signs of insecurity and envy. They will inevitably have a track record of firing people for strange reasons. They will not seem particularly happy with that excellent report you turned in. Always play it safe by deferring to bosses, making them look better, and earning their trust. Couch your brilliant ideas as their ideas. Let them get all the credit for your hard work. Your time to shine will come, but not if you inadvertently stimulate their insecurities.

Envy Triggers

Although certain types are more prone to envy, you must also be aware that there are circumstances that will tend to trigger envy in almost anyone. You must be extra alert in such situations.

The most common trigger is a sudden change in your status, which alters your relationship to friends and peers. This is particularly true among people in your own profession. This has been known for a long time. As Hesiod noted in the eighth century BC, “The potter envies the potter, the craftsman the craftsman, the writer the writer.” If you experience success, those in your field who have similar aspirations but who are still struggling will naturally feel envious. You should be reasonably tolerant of this because if the tables were reversed, you would probably feel the same. Do not take so personally their faint praise and veiled criticisms. But be aware that among some of these peers envy can turn active and dangerous.

Renaissance artists who suddenly got commissions became targets for envious rivals, who could turn quite vicious. Michelangelo clearly envied the younger and talented Raphael and did what he could to sully his reputation and block his commissions. Writers are notoriously envious of other writers, particularly those with more lucrative deals.

The best you can do in such situations is to have some self-deprecating humor and to not rub people’s faces in your success, which, after all, might contain some elements of luck. In fact, when discussing your success with others who might envy you, always emphasize or play up the element of luck. For those closest to you, offer to help them in their struggles as best you can, without appearing patronizing. In a similar vein, never make the mistake of praising a writer in front of another writer, or an artist in front of an artist, unless the person being praised is dead. If you detect signs of a more active envy in peers, get as far away from them as possible.

Keep in mind that people who are getting older, with their careers on the decline, have delicate egos and are quite prone to experiencing envy.

Sometimes it is people’s natural gifts and talents that will stir up the most intense forms of envy. We can strive to become proficient in a field, but we cannot reengineer our physiology. Some people are born with better looks, more raw athletic skill, an unusually vivid imagination, or an open and generous nature. If people with natural gifts also possess a good work ethic and have some luck in life, envy will follow them wherever they go. Often making it worse for such types, they also tend to be quite naive. They themselves do not feel envy toward others, so they cannot understand the emotion at all. Unaware of the dangers, they naturally display their talents and attract even more envy. Mary Shelley was all of this—gifted with a brilliant imagination and superior intellectual capabilities, and also quite naive. What is worse, envying types secretly loathe those who are immune to feeling envy. It makes their envious nature doubly apparent to themselves and stirs the desire to hurt and wound.

If you have any natural gifts that elevate you above others, you must be aware of the dangers and avoid flaunting such talents. Instead you want to strategically reveal some flaws to blunt people’s envy and mask your natural superiority. If you are gifted in the sciences, make it clear to others how you wish you had more social skills. Show your intellectual clumsiness at subjects outside your expertise.

John F. Kennedy seemed almost too perfect to the American public. So handsome, intelligent, and charismatic, and with such a beautiful wife—it was hard to identify with or like him. As soon as he made his big mistake in the failed invasion of Cuba (known as the Bay of Pigs) early on in his administration, and took full responsibility for the debacle, his poll numbers skyrocketed. The mistake had humanized him. Although this was not done by design, you can have a similar effect by discussing the mistakes you have made in the past and showing some selective awkwardness in certain areas that do not diminish your overall reputation.

Women who achieve success and fame are more prone to attracting envy and hostility, although this will always be veiled as something else—such women are said to be too cold, or ambitious, or unfeminine. Oftentimes we choose to admire people who achieve great things, admiration being the opposite of envy. We do not feel personally challenged or insecure in the face of their excellence. We might also emulate them, use them as spurs toward trying to achieve more. But unfortunately this is rarely the case with successful women. A high-achieving woman inflicts greater feelings of inferiority in both other women and men (“I’m inferior to a woman?”), which leads to envy and hostility, not admiration.

Coco Chanel, the most successful businesswoman of her era, especially considering her origins as an orphan (see chapter 5), suffered from such envy her entire life. In 1931, at the height of her power, she met Paul Iribe, an illustrator and designer whose career was on the decline. Iribe was an expert seducer and they had much in common. But several months into their relationship, he began to criticize her for her extravagance and torment her about her other flaws as he saw them. He wanted to control all aspects of her life. Lonely and desperate for a relationship, she hung on, but she later wrote of Iribe, “My growing celebrity eclipsed his declining glory. . . . Iribe loved me with the secret hope of destroying me.” Love and envy are not mutually exclusive.

Successful women will have to bear this burden until such entrenched underlying values are changed. In the meantime, they will have to be even more adept at deflecting envy and playing the humble card.

Robert Rubin (b. 1938), two-term secretary of the treasury under Bill Clinton, was a grand master when it came to masking his excellence and defusing envy. He had begun his career at Goldman Sachs in 1966, slowly rising through the ranks to become its cohead in 1990. He was one of the key figures who transformed Goldman Sachs into the most powerful investment bank on Wall Street. He was a hard worker and brilliant at finance, but as he became more powerful within Goldman, he also became more deferential in all of his interactions. In meetings in which he was clearly the most knowledgeable person, he would make a point of asking for the opinions of the most junior associate in attendance, and of listening to what he or she had to say with rapt attention. When people who worked for him asked him what should be done in relation to some crisis or problem, he would look at them calmly and ask first, “What do you think?” He would take their answer quite seriously.

As one colleague at Goldman later said of him, “There is no one better at the humility shtick than Bob. The line, ‘just one’s man opinion’ was something he would utter a dozen times a day.” What is remarkable is how Rubin earned the admiration of so many people and how few had anything bad to say about him, considering the competitive environment within the company. This reveals the power you have to short-circuit envy by placing attention on other people instead of yourself and engaging with them on a meaningful level.

If you find yourself under an envy attack, your best strategy is to control your emotions. It is much easier to do this once you realize that envy is the source. The envier feeds upon your overreaction as material to criticize you, justify their actions, and entangle you in some further drama. At all costs, maintain your composure. If possible, get some physical distance as well—fire them, cut off contact, whatever is possible. Do not imagine you can somehow repair the relationship. Your generosity in trying this will only intensify their feelings of inferiority. They will strike again. By all means defend yourself from any public attacks or gossip that they spread, but do not harbor revenge fantasies. The envier is miserable. The best strategy is let to them stew in their “cold poison” from a distance, without any future means of wounding you, as Mary did to Jane. Their chronic unhappiness is punishment enough.

Finally, you might imagine that envy is a somewhat rare occurrence in the modern world. After all, it is a primitive, childish emotion, and we live in such sophisticated times. Furthermore, not many people discuss or analyze envy as a major social factor. But the truth is that envy is more prevalent now than ever before, largely because of social media.

Through social media we have a continual window into the lives of friends, pseudofriends, and celebrities. And what we see is not some unvarnished peek into their world but a highly idealized image that they present. We see only the most exciting images from their vacations, the happy faces of their friends and children, accounts of their continual self-improvement, the fascinating people they are meeting, the great causes and projects they are involved in, the examples of success in their endeavors. Are we having as much fun? Are our lives as seemingly fulfilled as theirs? Are we perhaps missing out on something? We generally believe, and for good reason, that we are all entitled to share in the good life, but if our peers seem to have more, someone or something must be to blame.

What we experience in this case is a generalized feeling of dissatisfaction. Low-grade envy sits inside us, waiting to be triggered into the more acute variety if something we read or see intensifies our insecurities. Such diffuse envy among large groups of people can even become a political force, as demagogues can stir it against certain individuals or groups of people who have or seem to have it easier than others. People can be unified through their underlying envy, but as with the personal variety, nobody will admit to this, nor will it ever be seen as such. Public envy can be quickly turned against public figures, especially in the form of schadenfreude when they experience some misfortune. (Witness the piling on of hostility toward Martha Stewart once she seemed to run afoul of the law.) Gossip about the powerful becomes an industry.

What this means is simple: we will find more and more people around us prone to feeling passive envy that can turn into the virulent form if we are not careful. We must be prepared to feel its effects coming from friends, colleagues, and the public if we are in the public eye. In such an overheated social environment, learning to recognize the signs and being able to identify envier types is an absolutely critical skill to develop. And since we are now all more susceptible to feeling envy ourselves, we must also learn how to manage this emotion within ourselves, transforming it into something positive and productive.

Beyond Envy

Like most humans, you will tend to deny that you ever experience envy, at least strong enough to act on. You are simply not being honest with yourself. As described above, you are only conscious of the indignation or resentment you feel that covers up the initial pangs of envy. You need to overcome the natural resistance to seeing the emotion as it first stirs within you.

We all compare ourselves with others; we all feel unsettled by those who are superior in some area that we esteem; and we all react to this by feeling some form of envy. (It is wired into our nature; studies have shown that monkeys feel envy.) You can begin with a simple experiment: next time you hear or read about the sudden success of someone in your field, notice the inevitable feeling of wanting the same (the pang) and the subsequent hostility, however vague, toward the person you envy. It happens quickly and you can easily miss the transition, but try to catch it. It is natural to go through this emotional sequence and there should be no guilt attached. Monitoring yourself and seeing more such instances will only help you in the slow process of moving beyond envy.

Let us be realistic, however, and realize that it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of the compulsion to compare ourselves with others. It is too ingrained in our nature as a social animal. Instead, what we must aspire to is to slowly transform our comparing inclination into something positive, productive, and prosocial. The following are five simple exercises to help you in achieving this.

Move closer to what you envy. Envy thrives on relative closeness—in a corporate environment where people see each other every day, in a family, in a neighborhood, in any group of peers. But people tend to hide their problems and to put their best face forward. We only see and hear of their triumphs, their new relationships, their brilliant ideas that will land them a gold mine. If we moved closer—if we saw the quarrels that go on behind closed doors or the horrible boss that goes with that new job—we would have less reason to feel envy. Nothing is ever so perfect as it seems, and often we would see that we are mistaken if we only looked closely enough. Spend time with that family you envy and wish you had as your own, and you will begin to reassess your opinion.

If you envy people with greater fame and attention, remind yourself that with such attention comes a lot of hostility and scrutiny that is quite painful. Wealthy people are often miserable. Read any account of the last ten years of the life of Aristotle Onassis (1906–1975), one of the wealthiest men in history, married to the glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy, and you will see that his wealth brought him endless nightmares, including the most spoiled and unloving of children.

The process of moving closer is twofold: on the one hand, try to actually look behind the glittering façades people present, and on the other hand, simply imagine the inevitable disadvantages that go along with their position. This is not the same as leveling them down. You are not diminishing the achievements of those who are great. You are mitigating the envy you might feel for things in people’s personal lives.

Engage in downward comparisons. You normally focus on those who seem to have more than you, but it would be wiser to look at those who have less. There are always plenty of people to use for such a comparison. They live in harsher environments, deal with more threats to their lives, and have deeper levels of insecurity about the future. You can even look at friends who have it much worse than you. This should stimulate not only empathy for the many who have less but also greater gratitude for what you actually possess. Such gratitude is the best antidote to envy.

As a related exercise, you can write up all the positive things in your life that you tend to take for granted—the people who have been kind and helpful to you, the health that you presently enjoy. Gratitude is a muscle that requires exercise or it will atrophy.

Practice Mitfreude. Schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure in the pain of other people, is distinctly related to envy, as several studies have demonstrated. When we envy someone, we are prone to feel excitement, even joy, if they experience a setback or suffer in some way. But it would be wise to practice instead the opposite, what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Mitfreude—“joying with.” As he wrote, “The serpent that stings us means to hurt us and rejoices as it does so; the lowest animal can imagine the pain of others. But to imagine the joy of others and to rejoice at it is the highest privilege of the highest animals.” This means that instead of merely congratulating people on their good fortune, something easy to do and easily forgotten, you must instead actively try to feel their joy, as a form of empathy. This can be somewhat unnatural, as our first tendency is to feel a pang of envy, but we can train ourselves to imagine how it must feel to others to experience their happiness or satisfaction. This not only cleans our brain of ugly envy but also creates an unusual form of rapport. If we are the targets of Mitfreude, we feel the other person’s genuine excitement at our good fortune, instead of just hearing words, and it induces us to feel the same for them. Because it is such a rare occurrence, it contains great power to bond people. And in internalizing other people’s joy, we increase our own capacity to feel this emotion in relation to our own experiences.

Transmute envy into emulation. We cannot stop the comparing mechanism in our brains, so it is best to redirect it into something productive and creative. Instead of wanting to hurt or steal from the person who has achieved more, we should desire to raise ourselves up to his or her level. In this way, envy becomes a spur to excellence. We may even try to be around people who will stimulate such competitive desires, people who are slightly above us in skill level.

To make this work requires a few psychological shifts. First, we must come to believe that we have the capacity to raise ourselves up. Confidence in our overall abilities to learn and improve will serve as a tremendous antidote to envy. Instead of wishing to have what another has and resorting to sabotage out of helplessness, we feel the urge to get the same for ourselves and believe we have the ability to do so. Second, we must develop a solid work ethic to back this up. If we are rigorous and persistent, we will be able to overcome almost any obstacle and elevate our position. People who are lazy and undisciplined are much more prone to feeling envy.

Related to this, having a sense of purpose, a feel for your calling in life, is a great way to immunize yourself against envy. You are focused on your own life and plans, which are clear and invigorating. What gives you satisfaction is realizing your potential, not earning attention from the public, which is fleeting. You have much less need to compare. Your sense of self-worth comes from within, not from without.

Admire human greatness. Admiration is the polar opposite of envy—we are acknowledging people’s achievements, celebrating them, without having to feel insecure. We are admitting their superiority in the arts or sciences or in business without feeling pain from this. But this goes further. In recognizing the greatness of someone, we are celebrating the highest potential of our species. We are experiencing Mitfreude with the best in human nature. We share the pride that comes from any great human achievement. Such admiration elevates us above the pettiness of our day-to-day life and will have calming effect.

Although it is easier to admire without any taint of envy those who are dead, we must try to include at least one living person in our pantheon. If we are young enough, such objects of admiration can also serve as models to emulate, at least to some degree.

Finally, it is worth cultivating moments in life in which we feel immense satisfaction and happiness divorced from our own success or achievements. This happens commonly when we find ourselves in a beautiful landscape—the mountains, the sea, a forest. We do not feel the prying, comparing eyes of others, the need to have more attention or to assert ourselves. We are simply in awe of what we see, and it is intensely therapeutic. This can also occur when we contemplate the immensity of the universe, the uncanny set of circumstances that had to come together for us to be born, the vast reaches of time before us and after us. These are sublime moments, and as far removed from the pettiness and poisons of envy as possible.

For not many men . . . can love a friend who fortune prospers

without envying; and about the envious brain

cold poison clings and doubles all the pain

life brings him. His own woundings he must nurse,

and feel another’s gladness like a curse.


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