How Insecurity Leads to Envy, Jealousy, and Shame
Envy, jealousy, and shame are inextricably intertwined. Envy and jealousy are primal emotions that frequently overlap. They’re commonly first felt in the form of sibling rivalry and Oedipal longings. A child innately wants mommy and daddy all to him — or herself and feels “excluded” from the marital bond, especially if there have been parenting deficits that have led to shame and emotional abandonment.
Typically, young children of heterosexual parents see their same-sex parent as a rival for their opposite parent’s love. They feel both envious and jealous of their same-sex parent. Similarly, an interloper in a marriage may feel both jealous and envious toward the spouse he or she wishes to replace, possibly re-enacting childhood feelings toward his or her parents.
Children are frequently envious and jealous of the attention showered on a newborn sibling. Belief that a sibling is favored can create lifelong feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Envy is a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to someone ‘s advantages, possessions, or traits such as beauty, success, or talent. It’s also a common defense to shame, when we feel less than another in some respect. When the defense is working, we’re not aware of feeling inadequate. We may even feel superior and disparage the person we envy. A malignant narcissist might go so far as to sabotage, misappropriate, or defame the envied person, all the while unconscious of feeling inferior. Arrogance and aggression serve as defenses along with envy. Generally, the degree of our devaluation or aggression is commensurate with the extent of underlying shame.
Bill was chronically resentful and envious of his brother’s financial success, but because of unconscious shame, he spent or gave away his money. He was on the road to homelessness to fulfill his father’s shaming curse that he was a failure and would end up on the street.
I may envy my friend Barbara’s new Mercedes, knowing I can’t afford it, and feel inferior to her. I might have the funds, but feel conflicted about buying it, because I feel undeserving of owning it. Or, I might emulate Barbara and take steps to acquire a Mercedes. However, if envy motivated me to copy her, and I ignored my values or true desires, I won’t derive any pleasure from my efforts. In contrast, I can think about my needs, desires, and how to fulfill them. I may be happy for Barbara, or my envy may be fleeting. I might realize that I have competing values or desires and that what suits her isn’t right for me. These are all healthy responses.
Jealousy also stems from feelings of inadequacy, though they are usually more conscious than with envy. However, whereas envy is the desire to possess what someone else has, jealousy is the fear of losing what we have. We feel vulnerable to losing the attention or feelings of someone close to us. It is defined as mental uneasiness due to suspicion or fear of rivalry or unfaithfulness and may include envy when our rival has aspects that we desire. By discouraging infidelity, jealousy historically has served to maintain the species, certainty of paternity, and the integrity of the family. But it can be a destructive force in relationships — even lethal. Jealousy is the leading cause of spousal homicides.
Margot’s deep-seated belief that she was inadequate and undeserving of love motivated her to seek male attention and at times intentionally act in ways to make her boyfriend jealous and more eager. Her insecurity also made her jealous. She imagined that he desired other women more than her, when that wasn’t the case. Her beliefs reflect toxic or internalized shame common among codependents. It’s caused by the emotional abandonment in childhood and leads to problems in intimate relationships. (See What is Emotional Abandonment.) Studies show that insecure individuals are more prone to jealousy.