We humans are naturally compelled to compare ourselves with one another. We are continually measuring people’s status, the levels of respect and attention they receive, and noticing any differences between what we have and what they have. For some of us, this need to compare serves as a spur to excel through our work. For others, it can turn into deep envy – feelings of inferiority and frustration that lead to covert attacks and sabotage. Nobody admits to acting out of envy. We must recognize the early warning signs – praise and bids for friendship that seem effusive and out of proportion; subtle digs at you under the guise of good-nature humor; apparent uneasiness with our success. It is most likely to crop up among friends or our peers in the same profession.
Of all human emotions, none is trickier or more elusive than envy. It is very difficult to actually discern the envy that motivates people’s actions. The reason for this elusiveness is that we almost never directly express the envy we are feeling. All of us feel envy. And almost as soon as we feel the initial pangs of envy, we are motivated to disguise it to ourselves – it is not envy we feel but unfairness at the distribution of goods or attention, resentment at this unfairness, even anger. Further more, the other person is not really superior but simply lucky, overly ambitious, or unscrupulous. That’s how they got to where they are. Having convinced ourselves that envy is not motivating us but something else, we also make it very difficult for others to detect the underlying envy. They see only our anger, indignation, hostile criticisms, poisonous praise, and so on.
In ancient times, those who felt intense envy might have acted upon it through violence forcefully taking what the other had or even resorting to murder. In the Old Testament, Cain murder Abel out of envy; the brothers of Joseph threw him in a ditch in the desert to die because they father seemed to favor him; on several occasions King Saul tried to kill the younger David, so handsome and naturally gifted, finally going mad with envy. Today, however, people are much more political and indirect, able to control any overt aggressive impulses and disguise what they are feeling. This allows them to maintain they social position while causing harm, their targets not even suspecting envy as the motivation. They can justify these actions to themselves as righting the perceived imbalance or unfairness.