When good fortune happens to others, are we happy for them or envious? When those we care about get close to others do we feel threatened? When we find ourselves in the midst of infidelity from our partners and fear the possibility of loss, are we sad and hurt or enraged and green with jealousy?
In monogamous romantic relationships, even a happy and fulfilled one, there is the long-held assumption that we cease to lust after others. When we find ourselves in a flirtation, we think our relationship is dysfunctional. Even when one is secure and has solid self-esteem, infidelity betrays one’s trust. At the same time, such a rupture doesn’t have to signify a lack of intimacy or any particular dysfunction in the primary relationship. Such a rupture is more to do with shattering the integrity and commitment of a relationship than it is with a lack of lust and love for or from one’s partner.
Envy arises from insecurity about who we are and how we see our lives. Envy doesn’t resolve when we get what we were envious of, but instead we simply move on to the next thought of deficiency and our envy is set off anew. Secure people recognize what others have and, in fact, may want the same things but rather than hole up with their envy and jealously, they strive to accomplish their goals. Insecure people live with their envy and jealousy, which are triggered by one perceived lack after another. Having desires and setting out to achieve them should not be confused with motivation driven by envy.
Despite what one might think, there is no correlation between happiness and securing what is envied. Contentment blossoms with a secure sense of self and the ability to empathize with ourselves as well as others – with what we can control as well as what we cannot.
Each of us is unlike anyone else, absolutely unique. Comparing one’s self to others is a fruitless exercise that inflates or deflates one’s self-worth. Healthy self-esteem is not dependent on comparing one’s self to others but rather is built on appreciation and empathy toward oneself.
A patient I have seen for many years views people as part of a hierarchy; people higher up in the hierarchy are physically beautiful, fascinating and wealthy. She sees these people as happier and always being sought after by others. At the bottom of the hierarchy, there are the unattractive and boring, “losers.” And then there are those in the middle, where she sees herself. She yearns to be with the “beautiful people,” but knows she is stuck in the middle with limited options of moving up in the hierarchy. This entire construct, based on faulty assumptions, only breeds jealousy and envy and causes incalculable suffering on the part of my patient. Given that my patient experiences bouts of depression and spikes of low self-esteem, I have tried to break down the hierarchy construct. I suggest – just as an experiment – looking at life without the construct and envision what it would be like and how she would feel. Gradually, over a number of years, she has loosened her hierarchical way of looking at the world and has built up her self-esteem and appreciated her own worth.
A couple I worked with had a major rupture when one of the husbands had a brief affair with a much younger man. He admitted his infidelity only after he was caught and the affair had ended. The other husband was enraged and distraught and consumed with jealousy and envy. Devastated and filled with insecurity, the cheated-on husband expressed his jealousy by spewing with anger. His anger, however, had less to do with a sense of betrayal and more to do with how young and desirable the other man was. Comparing himself with the other man (only coming up against his own envy and low sense of self-worth) triggered ongoing rage. He berated the paramour because of his youth and beauty and lashed out at his husband for not being attracted to him even though there was no lack of sex in their relationship. Jealousy and insecurity from deception and betrayal was compounded with envy of youth and beauty.
Even someone who has a strong sense of self-worth and security is still susceptible to jealousy. But both envy and jealousy infect one’s equilibrium and destroy a healthy sense of self. Only when we can be happy for what others have and still pursue our own goals, without our self-esteem being dependent on others, can we find contentment in our lives.