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.