In the Book of Genesis, Cain, the first narcissist, slays his brother Abel in a fit of envious rage. In the modern psychiatric “bible” (DSM-5), the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder include, “often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.”
The connection between envy (wishing/demanding envy for the self and/or compulsively envying others) and narcissism was recognized long prior to confirmation in formal psychological research. This association between envy and narcissism casts light on the essential importance in narcissism of the management of shame.
Shame and envy are familiar emotions. When shamed, we feel a deflating awareness of our essential inadequacy, failure, or badness. There is a global sense of not living up to implicit moral standards. The person shamed wants to hide or avoid scrutiny, or to blame others for the deficiency.
When envious, attention turns to an external object or focus. Perhaps another person’s wealth, success, accomplishments, or happiness piques our envy. We feel an angry vexation, a resentful longing, at comparisons in which we come up short. In the primeval case of Cain, his envy triggered murderous rage when he perceived God’s response to Abel’s sacrifice more favorable than to his own.
Any parent who has brought home a newborn to an older child in the family experiences first-hand the nature of childhood envy. Sibling rivalries related to envy are entirely normal, rarely escalating to biblical level. Childhood envy often attaches to simple perceptions of unfairness, perhaps in terms of parental attention or treatment. By adulthood, envious states, while unpleasant, are manageable.
What makes the narcissist different?
The Role of Envy in Narcissistic Personalities
Narcissism develops within a personality structure organized at avoiding contact with shame. In apparent defiance of shame, there is a heightened focus on maintenance of an inflated sense of self-worth. While protective, narcissism comes at a psychological cost. Not only does preoccupation with self-enhancement require effort and energy, the desperate maintenance of a positive self-concept forfeits much of the ability to pay realistic attention to the needs, actions or feelings of others.
In default grandiose states, the narcissistic mind may drift in a network of reassuring fantasies in which he or she is the center of attention and admiration. Envy is more likely to hijack attention for such a person than for someone genuinely comfortable in his or her own skin. To see someone exhibiting a trait, possession, or level of recognition that eludes you, or to encounter someone seemingly immune to some deflating quality you try mentally to keep at arm’s length, is jarring and unsettling.
For narcissists, people can broadly be divided into two groups: targets of their own envy and sources of real or imagined inflating envy from others. While narcissists attract and recruit sources of envious self-attention and admiration, this supply of ego gratification is rarely sufficient. Over the horizon are people with qualities worthy of the narcissist’s envy. There is a buoying excitement and sense of inflation when around people of envied status. Often, the narcissist will try to cultivate friendships or acquaintanceships with people that they envy. For example, a narcissistic individual insecure about lack of financial success might strive to be surrounded with people wealthier than him or herself. The unconscious goal is to incorporate, possess, control, or identify with their envied status or qualities.
But in addition to self-enhancing identification comes a painful sense of frustration. Why does he or she have all this? Why not me? This mobilizes the hostile, bitter component of the envious emotion, in which the object envied needs to be diminished in order to lessen the distance between self and other. For the narcissist, this gap may elicit what has been called “narcissistic injury,” a poignant reminder of shameful inadequacies that he or she tries desperately to deny.
Flavors of Narcissistic Envy in Psychotherapy
Inexperienced psychotherapists in training are often uneasy dealing with narcissistic patients. Uncomfortable with power dynamics, they tend to avoid exploring the fraught, inevitable transactions that may require tolerating patient envy. Yet it is my experience that it is in who, what and how they envy, such a patient often communicates more deeply and truthfully than is possible directly. They may otherwise possess only limited access to an inner world rigidly defended.
For example, an "idealizing therapist envy" might be expressed as a narcissistic patient, examining credentials on the office wall, comments, “Well, we certainly seem to show a bright career future, Doctor.” Here the patient might be expressing insidious fears of failure, instilled in childhood, generally hidden under a compensating veneer of adult grandiosity. This may enable the therapist to ask, “Do you sometimes worry about your future?”
On the other hand, a statement at the close of a session, such as, “Now you will go to your lovely home and family and forget about me, while I return to my lonely apartment,” reveals the more hostile element of envy. The object of projected disapproval here is that of an indifferent caretaker, perhaps a sign of childhood parental neglect not previously elaborated. This might lead to a line of inquiry such as, “You wonder whether it is safe to open up with me.” In both of these instances, important topics emerge in the course of envious therapist characterizations.
Envy brings focus on the human ability to compare ourselves, in fantasy, with others simultaneously idealized and devalued. While animals perceive and react to relative status, we are the only beings capable of envy at the success of others. For those preoccupied with status and self-image, envy becomes obsessive, causing an inability to acknowledge the accomplishments of children, intimate partners, and family members. If you are involved with a narcissist, you can assume that you are the object of envy, even though it may not be expressed directly. Listen carefully.
Mark Zaslav, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who practices psychotherapy and forensic psychology in Marin County, California. During his career as a V.A. psychologist, he served as a Training Director and Clinical Team Leader.
He has also been a faculty member at the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, and the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. Zaslav has published scholarly articles in peer-reviewed psychiatric journals in the areas of trauma, addiction, psychotherapy, and the "self-conscious" emotions of shame and guilt. The latter area has become a particular focus clinically and in his writings, including articles about the ways that the shame emotion and its defenses manifest in various psychological problems, including narcissism.