January 4, 1999

The Blinded Eye
by Eleanor Schuker, M.D.

A Commentary on the Panel “Envy: Excitement and Danger”
panelists: Adrienne Harris, Ph.D. and Rita Frankiel, Ph.D.
moderator: Jules Kerman, M.D.

Envy, a vital and often neglected complex feeling state, was discussed through historical and clinical material, evoking intense personal reactions in the audience.

Dr. Harris highlighted the destructive aggressive aspects of envy by presenting a 14th-century tale: an envious man and a covetous man meet an elf who grants them a wish but requires that the other have double of whatever the first wishes. The covetous man defers to the envious man, who then wishes to be blind in one eye. Hatred of another’s good fortune becomes combined with pleasure at another’s misfortune (schadenfreude) in envy. Dr. Harris went on to discuss vicissitudes of envy in women, emphasizing the role of culture in raising expectations and then creating despair. Envy is both social and intrapsychic. Periods of social mobility evoke hopes for transformation, while real prospects for change are defeated, so that differences between women become especially envy-laden. Competitive aggression may masquerade within apparent femininity (Riviere), penis envy may serve as a manifest concretization of feminine erotic and assertive wishes (Torok), and envy between women can mask homosexual desire. Dr. Harris also suggested that women suffer from fears of aggression both because of their less robust separation from mother and because of maternal responses to aggression.

Dr. Frankiel’s discussion reviewed modern Kleinian concepts of envy, emphasizing that “goodness” may stir hateful reactions in a dependent and deprived person. She also stressed that differences from the object are always a potential source of envy that must inevitably be overcome in development. Envy can be revived in maternal transferences to both sexes. It is also revived in the negative therapeutic reaction, where guilt about changing is accompanied by a challenge to the patient’s loyalty to an internal representation of a destructive early object. For such an analysis to succeed, the patient has to separate from the “bad” object and overcome separation panic, guilt and needs for envious “spoiling.”

Dr. Frankiel reviewed some of the major defenses against envy that are revealed in analyses: omnipotence, idealization, denial and splitting. Projective identification involves fears of stirring envy in others for one’s successes, followed by the experience of persecutory anxiety. Omnipotent fusion can involve taking on the analyst’s envied work or thoughts and claiming them as one’s own by introjective identification. Transference idealizations of the analyst can alternate with an unconscious spoiling and devaluation. Patients who have reached the depressive position may experience penitent envy in analysis, suffering guilt over their transference envy. Those who have not securely attained the depressive position or concern for the whole object, feel impenitent envy—that is, they experience their envy as caused by the object and feel justified in rageful attacks. Those with penitent envy can be helped to relinquish the tenacious positive transference so as to experience the split-off hate and envy toward the early bad object.

Dr. Frankiel then described a clinical case, a woman, C., who was bitterly dissatisfied with her husband and later with her boyfriend, whom she envied and devalued. She was intolerant of differences in her relationships and in the transference, and felt very envious and destructive with men. C. had been the first child of a very envious and “greedy” mother, who gobbled up and discarded men, and who had been competitive with the patient. C. had been conceived via an extramarital affair, and several less gifted half-siblings from a later marriage followed. In treatment, C. became more tolerant of differences and more appreciative of her lover, as she worked on her envy of men. She wept in gratitude when the analyst pointed out that despite her attacks on her lover, she also felt mitigating feelings of tenderness and admiration for him. Envy between women then came into view in the analytic work, including C.’s feelings of being used by her mother to extract from the devalued stepfather, fears of her mother’s craving and envious extractiveness, and the sense that she was required to submit to women. Fears that difference implied rupture and loss were understood in the transference. C.’s defensive idealization of the analyst alternated with fears of neglect, but yielded to increased tolerance of transference anger and difference, and an appreciation of the analyst’s ability to help. An important dream involved C.’s mother’s digging in her ear and pulling out a deer tick, a dream she connected with the transference relationship. As she began to accept both her anger in the transference and the analyst’s helpfulness, therapeutic change seemed to occur. Her ability to receive and to give love, rather than to merely covet and destroy, was clarified.Countertransference envy of the young and gifted analysand was also discussed. In this sensitive and beautifully described case, Dr. Frankiel illuminated many aspects of envy in clinical analytic work.


I can choose only some elements of the evening’s excellent presentations for discussion. Is envy a gendered experience, with different developmental vicissitudes? In my clinical experience, women who envy a great deal seem to envy other women even more than they do men. Although any specific difference can be the basis for an envious fantasy—sex, race, age, wealth, possessions, skills, affection, narcissistic supplies—the focus for the envious woman is usually those attributes which she can immediately imagine acquiring and deserving for herself, while she also feels a hopeless inability to do so. In most situations a change in sex, gender or race is not at the forefront of her current wishes, even if the symbolic powers thereof are desired.

To the extent that a woman feels she lacks agency and power, she envies anyone whom she imagines has these. The envious person has a striking sense of emptiness and powerlessness about obtaining desired attributes, possessions or feeling states. Here the issue of agency is important. Women envied men in the past to the degree that they felt devalued and hopeless to get sexual, aggressive or other satisfactions, so that the only solution would be to have been born a different sex. If a woman feels she must be passive rather than able to act effectively, she is more likely to envy. A threat of separation-abandonment or loss of love may underlie the risk of agency, especially for women. Cultural proscriptions against aggression may be reinforced by dynamic factors: fantasies that the mother will restrict separation because of her own “double loss” (Bergman) and maternal rejection in positive-oedipal rivalry (Person, Parens).

The blinded eye of the envious person in Dr. Harris’s tale reminded me of how, significantly, envy can serve as defense. What is hidden underneath? A vengeful envious fantasy or act covers another feeling state that is even more painful or unendurable, that of hopelessness to repair the deprivation. Envy thus requires a combination of feelings of deprivation and emptiness, and a sense of inhibited action or hopelessness. This differentiates envy from jealousy. The jealous person covets the love, relationship or possessions of another, but has strategies or fantasies for winning the competition and getting what is desired. The person who experiences envy and envious aggression feels secretly hopeless, and thus directs herself toward destroying the envied person. The vengeful sadomasochistic fantasy covers the empty ineffectual feeling. This envious state also protects the original object from one’s rage. It is this original or internalized relationship that the envious person is blind about and seeks to protect. The fantasied destruction of a rival to achieve vengeful satisfaction serves to blind the envious person to the fact that what she wanted was never obtainable at all, that the original object was deficient or depriving. Envious destructiveness is blind to the fact that what was desired was never possible. This applies especially to the internalized early maternal relationship but may also derive from problems in the oedipal period or thereafter, and with either parent.

My clinical experience with extremely envious women frequently involves a pattern of bitter envy of a sibling, whom the patient feels got more than her share. Curiously, the sibling frequently is also female, so that the comparison and deprivation seems especially “unjustified.” The patient chronically is vigilantly “observing” (eyeing!) what she and her sister had or received, and later has similar attitudes toward other women. In a typical case, the patient had a sister close in age, such as one born within two to three years, and a mother who was withdrawn, depressed and emotionally empty. The patient developed a fantasy that the parent had something to give but gave it elsewhere. This myth of a giving parent is ultimately painfully revealed by analysis as fictional, covering the harsher internal representations. The parent is discovered to have played into the development of envy by comparisons, bribes, secrets and promises of favoring each child, all maneuvers representing the parent’s defensive covering of an inability to nurture either child. This may continue as a family pattern into adult life, such as with “secrets” about what presents are given to which daughter, usually then exposed to the other, of course.

The deprivation may start early with a withdrawn and depressed mother. The role of a mother’s pregnancy, with her puzzling apparent physical inner fullness but distinct emotional unavailability, may be significant. Similar deprivation may also seem to have been repeated or fantasied in the paternal relationship with the children, and in patterns during later development.

Dr. Kerman noted an etiologic role for envy in parents’ insensitivity to, and humiliation of, the young child, whose experience of loss of omnipotence—replaced with helplessness, need and a new awareness of differences—peaks during “the terrible twos.” I agree with his calling attention to children’s actual developmental experiences and the fantasies they induce. Although he emphasized a special vulnerability and needs for idealization in the two- to three-year-old’s loss of omnipotent fantasies, similar vulnerabilities and needs can be repeated throughout development in struggles involving coming to terms with differences. The timing and effects on the daughter of the pregnancy of her mother (Balsam) may deserve special study in this regard.

I suggest that in Dr. Frankiel’s patient, C., envy and destructiveness toward men defensively hid the underlying submissive relationship with her greedy and ungiving internalized maternal object. It seems that the analyst’s ability to see and to interpret to the patient that there was something good and loving in her relationship with her boyfriend allowed C. to move beyond her defensive envious state and to explore the negative maternal transference. C. seems to have felt unloved and used by her mother, as well as coerced by her to devalue and use her stepfather manipulatively. It seems likely that this collusion had helped both mother and daughter to avoid seeing deficits in their own relationship. It possibly also hid intense sibling rivalries and oedipal rivalry for closeness with the stepfather. This mother, in the patient’s internal world, was intolerant of differences, dependency and rivalry. As Dr. Kerman pointed out, Klein originally described envy in both sexes in terms of an attack on the mother’s body, and the babies and pleasure-giving penis it could contain, as well as an attack on both excluding parents in the primal scene. The envy that C. felt served to blind her to her many deprivations and defeats, on a preoedipal and oedipal level, and beyond.