I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have since 2005 when literally no-one I knew was. For the last year of two I have settled on some favorites: Shrinkrap Radio, Tim Ferris, Lex Fridman, Jordan Peterson, The Good Life Project, Insights at the Edge, Into the Magic Shop, The Long Now Seminars, Buddha at the Gas Pump, The Robcast, the HSP Podcast, and Think Act Be. I use the Castbox free edition for listening after trying many apps. There is still no app designed for people like me who like to listen to the same episode over and over. No ability to mark significant moments, no ability to rewind easily and with precision. If any podcast app designers read this — PLEASE add these features!!!
But I digress.
The topic of this post comes from an episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, with Paul Conti (Youtube link).
Envy is one of the mimetic emotions. We see what others have that we don’t have and we want these things (memesis) but we also make a judgement about it. “They got the attention that I should have got,” “If the Universe were fair, I’d have that car too, he certainly doesn’t deserve it the way he treats people.” or “She got a promotion and I didn’t but I did most of the work on that last project, she is such a credit-hog.” There is often a feeling of outrage, and the Plutchik Wheel puts envy between anger and sadness and next to disgust.
Chat GPT says that, “In terms of its relationship to disgust, envy is considered proximal to disgust on the Plutchik Wheel because it can elicit feelings of disgust towards oneself. This may occur when a person recognizes that their desire for something they do not have is based on a sense of inadequacy or inferiority. This can lead to self-loathing and disgust towards oneself.”
I suspect that the disgust is also expressed toward the awarding of the prestige, money, status, etc. In a sense we are disgusted by the whole process that lead to the person we envy getting a reward unfairly.
Lex and Paul’s Take
Lex and Paul discuss the distinction between jealousy (generally considered less intense and dangerous) and envy which is universally considered to be quite dangerous. According to Paul envy is in a different class from jealousy because it ends in destruction. They discuss Hitler and his envy of the whole world, his drive to take it all, his belief in his own rightness.
Lex keeps returning to the idea that jealous and envy originate in the same flame. But others point to the distinction made in foundational stories, such as the Bible which describes God as being jealous but not envious. The distinction seems to be that we are jealous of something we have but could lose, whereas we are envious of something we want but can’t get.
Chat GPT says, “Jealousy is typically experienced when a person perceives a threat to a valued relationship or possession, such as a romantic partner or a job. It can arise from a fear of loss or a sense of competition with others.” This is very succinct and true. I think Lex is actually talking about envy, but a mild form.
I agree with Lex that a mild form of envy produces a feelings similar to jealousy, but I also agree with Paul that it is less dangerous. If my wife is paying attention to another man, I feel jealous because I want that same attention and fear losing it. If a competitor is creating a better product than me, I’m chagrined that I’m not doing as well as him. Does this motivate me? I think so, it motivates me to do better and can often be mixed with admiration. That competitor really made a fantastic product, that man my wife is talking to is remarkably fit and healthy, my neighbour keeps his yard looking nicer than mine, he really cares how it looks.
But when a competitor with an inferior product is more successful than me and garners fame, wealth, and prestige that I don’t gain, then I begin to envy.
Full blown envy is hollow, like the feeling of hunger when there is no food in the fridge. It does not have the potential to lead to something positive, does not motivate hard work or comradery. Instead it motivates theft, sabotage, gossip, malicious slander, and worse.
We want the competitor brought down a notch, we are willing to steal to fill our belly. Our ethical compass is rocked by these strong desires.
Do we desire things without feeling envy? Yes, simple desires are detached from a person or class or group. I see a beautiful watch and I want it for itself. Or I want it because it will make me look good, or cultured, or sophisticated.
“Envy is pain at the sight of another’s good fortune”Aristotle
Aristotle defined envy as pain at the sight of another’s good fortune, especially painful if the good fortune is at our expense or shames us in some way. In the face of this pain, which I believe it what Lex is really describing, we have a choice. He says this pain motivates him to shift out of a fixation on the “better trinket or success of the other” into something productive. The antidote he suggests is appreciation of others work, or excellence, or accomplishment. Paul agrees, pointing out that nowhere in that process of seeing another’s good work, feeling bad about our own work in comparison, and shifting to a creative intent to do better is there evil. Evil comes when we let envy drive us to do horrible things.
Lex says that for some, the background noise of trauma will not allow them to pull away from the gravity of the desire. Caught in that gravity well they spiral down to the logical endpoint of envy which is destruction.
This leads to the cultural context that fuels this, as well as the emergent nature of the group that magnifies the gravity.
Leaders harness group envy for destruction and theft. And most destructive of all are narcissists.
Dr. Conti says, “Narcissism is not frequent, compared to a lot of other (diagnosed condition), … But it causes the lions share of (and I don’t just mean the most compared to anything else, but I think more than 50%) of bad things, evil things, destructive things, that I see in the world around us. I think that Narcissists are wildly destructive because they are driven completely, lodged completely in the lane of envy.”
A long discussion follows in which the relationship between narcissism and envy is unpacked. The narcissist has a low self esteem that comes from comparing herself with others and looking at all the things others have. Envy drives acquisition of these things, be they attention, fame, esteem, money, status, or anything else of value. And of crucial importance, it drives acquisition by any means, regardless of how it might hurt others. Paul points out that the malignant narcissist eventually wants everything. Not just enough, or the most, but everything. This is why it is so dangerous.
A Crucial Aspect of “Trauma Informed” Practice
Paul says that if we could add a health dose of gratitude and humility to everyone or our society, there would be a C change. They talk about education for children that includes what has come to be called “Trauma informed” or “Trauma aware” practice. Not just educating with that lens, but also communicating the understanding of how trauma can complicate maturation so that people get stuck and things like envy get magnified which increases the likelihood of narcissism. In some ways, I saw this as an antidote to narcissism, the education of everyone about what happens if the role of trauma in development is not understood.
Paul unpacks the value of developing the observing ego. Like a tapestry you can be too close to see the whole pattern. We all need to stand back to see the whole thing. And this is true of how trauma can lead in different directions, but sometimes to destruction.
Humility and Appreciation
Lex describes how he uses humility to step back from the tapestry. If someone is critical of him, or if attention is being drawn to the negative parts of the tapestry, he has developed the ability to pause and be curious about that. He imagines that the critic is actually smarter than him, and might have something to teach him. He takes time to see the difference, the memefication of a topic, the way different people see it. In this way he is practicing appreciation and humility. It isn’t all about him, there is a bigger reality that he is a part of. He suggests that we need to exercise the muscle of humility and appreciation. Fore instance when we are in situations that trigger us. Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner. We can either let the discussion derail, wound, or even traumatize us, but we can also choose to use it as an opportunity to step back from the tapestry and see how amazing it is, this family, the country we live in, what has been achieved and what will be achieved.
If we do anything good, we become a lightning rod for envy. If you have been the target of a narcissist, or been flamed on social media, or the victim of a troll, it can be interpreted as a sign of your success and Paul suggest an avenue for gratitude and healthy pride.
Lex says that for him, in those situations, he tries to avoid feeling pride. And it was at this point in the conversation I really sat up to take notice. I feel that way too. I understood what Paul was saying, but I also understood the great danger of feeling too confident in the face of criticism. My natural tendency is to be wary of that feeling of healthy pride, not because there is anything wrong with it, but because of how quickly it can distract me from hearing the legitimate criticism within the attacks.
I hear my therapist saying that this preference for humility is because of the triggering of my defectiveness schema. There is some of that too, but in a world of increasing narcissism, where narcissism is becoming acceptable and often laudable, there is s tremendous imbalance.
As I listened to Lex talk about his ability to step back from the triggering situation we find ourselves in and see the wonderful tapestry before us. This is deeply resonant with the goal of being still in the stream.
But it does not come easy. It must be a practice. It must be developed.