In my clinical experience envy rears its ugly head in everyday life more than it appears in the consulting room. It seems to be the case that expressing this shadowy part of the self is so wrapped in shame and the fear of negative judgement from an outsider witness that its expression is abandoned. In this act of abandonment it leaves material of crucial significance on the outer side of the consulting room door.
So why is envy so shameful, so unable to be expressed and acknowledged? Is it because it is so destructive in terms of the ‘other’, or because of its internal mechanics and the deep, hidden, vulnerable layers within the self which birth envious reactions in the first place? Let’s explore…
Karen was a businesswoman and was married to John. The marital couple were considered as physically attractive, professionally successful and had longevity in their relationship. Neither partner had strayed and fidelity was an established connector; as were their future paced goals. They were what one might call a ‘solid couple’. One evening they attended a business event and were introduced to a single woman, Anna, whom John took an interest in at a socially engaging level. Watching – that which on the surface looked like no more than a pleasant conversation with resonant aspects between her husband and the single female – Karen felt threatened. She was aware of a rising anxiety in her chest. Her head, her logic, held no sway here. This was emotional territory. The stimuli was the threat of loss, the effects bore emotional and physical content, the behavioural reaction was to act to protect against a perceived loss. Karen verbally instructed this third party intruder to sit in a specific seat at the table “Away from the men!” i.e. away from her husband.
Fear is a hallmark of envy. When fear strikes, when threats appear, they require to be mitigated against. In this case the strategy was to ‘remove’ and contain the threat. Once Anna was parcelled off, Karen’s emotions and body calmed as pertained to the perceived threat of Anna. However, the effects of the initial threat transformed into anger towards her husband accompanied by a heaviness in her tummy. With Anna at a distance across the dining table from ‘her man’, and an awareness that expressing this seething and primitive up-swelling of anger would not hold any rational legitimacy if recounted to her husband, Karen was able to sit somewhat pleasantly through dinner with the cohort of friends and colleagues around the large table.
However, once an energetic charge is created it must be released in some form, and in this scenario it was released in an almighty slap across her husband’s face; when after dinner and during the phase of social interaction, music and dancing, he Facebook Friended Anna in recognition of their shared links with Anna’s sister.
So why is this envy? Well, envy has a lot to do with perception and self judgement. It goes along the lines of, if I perceive such a threat in such a context, then I am judging myself to be under threat, and if I am judging myself to be under threat then in some way I have constructed a hierarchical assessment repleat with psychological and emotional content that the ‘other’ is higher, bigger, better, more attractive, and so on, than me. Henceforth, and in order for me to maintain equilibrium, they must be ‘reduced’ via a psychological process of destruction.
Of course there’s more to it than that. For a start there’s a historical component, a rhythmic dimension, in that it may be possible that intervention was determined as necessary because Karen held a perception, a belief system, that lest she not intervene (perhaps as she had felt called to do many times in the past?) then maybe, just maybe, this would be the occasion during which her unfounded fears became founded.
History also rears its head when we look at Karen’s perceptions of her self as this is the self that reacted to and acted upon the incoming stimuli. In this particular case Karen was a woman who felt professionally unfulfilled, a little overweight and therefore not as attractive as she would like. She was a woman who had invested time and energy into her marriage and her children often at the expense of herself and her own needs. With investments, risk becomes present and its attendant fear of loss. This in combination with her negative self judgements, in conjunction with the presentation of Anna – an object ‘believed’ to be higher in the hierarchy and risky on the investment index – brought forth a psychological necessity to “seek and destroy incoming threat”. Destruction of the threat is a core aspect inherent within envy.
I often laugh at the early example I heard during my psychotherapy training: A woman buys a gorgeous pair of shoes and shows them to her friend. Rather than validate the purchase and coo over the design and colour the friend asks rhetorically, “Did you buy them in the sale?” Bam! Seek and Destroy! Passive aggressive derision! The transformation of something which could be perceived as a non-event into a psychological event with a psychological necessity to make oneself whole by using destruction to mitigate the risk of being reduced to ‘less than your friend’ – all via an innocuous in itself pair of shoes. Never ask your friend “Does my bum look big in this?” And, especially not, if you actually look great! Trust me. You have become a threat.
In envious destruction there are two sides to the story, two players, the suddenly vulnerable destructor and the passively or explicitly attacked destructee. In this case, Anna was one of the victims of said destruction. When she was instructed to “Sit there away from the men!” her mind became preoccupied with self-judgment. She ran through the scenario in her mind and questioned what she did wrong, had she been overly friendly, had she overstepped some social boundaries and so on. Her vulnerabilities of attending the function alone peaked. Her self assuredness depleted and she consciously became hypervigilant about averting her gaze away from the couple. She struggled to engage in everyday conversation with the cohort of strangers around the table and physically noted anxiety in her body.
The time over dinner transmuted much of the tension and her emotions gradually morphed into self assertive mild indignancy and anger. Acting on this newly arrived space of self assuredness, and in the mix embracing resentment in action, she happily engaged in a few minutes of cursory social banter post the meal with John. During which time they found a commonality which they concretised by becoming Facebook Friends. At the point of the slap to John’s face she left the event feeling humiliated and rejected, and sad and angry that an identity had been projected towards her which bore no truth in reality.
Another victim in this scenario was John. He was shamed by the physical wound but fearing the wrath of his wife, and empathically acknowledging her plight, he held back from any expressions of distaste and made light of it. The abandoned shame of his wife had clearly been ‘split off’ and carried by her spouse. He ‘shut down’ and allowed himself in that moment to become something he inherently was not. Weak and ineffectual. A mirror to his wife’s sense of disempowerment when faced with the perceived risk of Anna. The ramifications of this would naturally play themselves out over time in the dynamics of this couples relationship.
Envy does not only destroy, it’s not only an aggressive survival mechanism. It turns reality into fantasy, it creates worlds that previously did not exist, it shifts identities, creates incongruence and incoherence within the self, and via projection lies and twists the truth within the ‘objects’ and the object relationships in our lives. Victims of envy must fly a banner emblazoned with the words “I am not that which you would have me believe I am”. Whilst the vulnerable perpetrators must acknowledge those shadowy and insecure parts within themselves which have been triggered in order to understand themselves more fully. Recognition of envious thoughts can thwart envious actions and such awareness can also catalyse development of those parts of the self which are open to doubt and deprecation, and negative self judgement.
By Paula Fenn (Transitional Space)
We all know one. Those armoured Cockroach Narcissists that can survive anything. It is said that cockroaches are some of the most adaptable creatures on earth. They are in-vulnerable survivors. But at what, and who’s cost?
One of my patients, whom I shall call Lucy, reported that she was “Drowning in work”. Despite trying to communicate with her boss that what was being demanded of her was not appropriately balanced with the resources available to her, she was informed that she was “Not performing to an adequate standard”. This invalidation fuelled Lucy’s anxiety and she started to work longer hours and have panic attacks that resulted in her needing to take medical leave. Lured back to work after two weeks with a threat of losing her job she was then marched into the bosses’ office and told “If you don’t do well, I don’t do well! You are making me look bad and I can no longer allow that to happen”. When Lucy opened up in an attempt to talk about the panic in her body as a result of the inappropriate demands she was told “Panic! Don’ t you think I am in a panic too? That’ s irrelevant, the work comes first!”
Lucy was ‘let go’ not long after and for years, rather than be able to see that none of this was her fault, she carried a mantle of shame and low self-worth which stopped her even trying to get another job. You see, Lucy was branded with an imprint that many narcissists embellish on their victims:
You Are Not Good Enough! If You Don’t Make Me Look Good You Are Worthless!
The costs and burdens of being ‘used up’ by narcissists, in their entitled need for never ending supply, are carried by the common or garden everyday creatures called Human Beings. It’s the humanness in us that makes us vulnerable. We feel, we have compassion, we can empathise and we have a natural instinct to support and protect others. We see this mechanism of care operational throughout the animal kingdom.
Gabor Mate says it is a disservice to call someone a rat as rats are very empathic creatures and will support their kin, often to their own detriment. Paradoxically the narcissist will “rat out” their fellow man and expose them to undeserved punishment. All with the aim of their own embellishment and fuelling of omnipotence. An expert in severe criminal acts says that financial backgrounds and social class births a fine-line distinction between a future serial killer and a narcissist. The working class pathological male does not have the same opportunities to climb the societal ladder and become a narcissistic leader. The serial killer arrogantly takes out his rage on those weaker than him via murderous acts. What’s so different between him and the Cockroach Narcissist leader who wields his destructive aggression outwards on to thousands and calls it a corporate reorganisation? And yet, with a hardened shell, he himself will survive the redundancy programme — again — and will feel yet another sense of narcissistic inflation whilst marvelling at his own brilliance.
The murderous narcissist can be identified throughout all realms of leadership — politics, financial markets, the movie industry. He will take what he needs — power, fear, adoration, money, sex — to fuel his narcissistic supply, and often associated sadomasochistic tendencies, and then dispense with the shell of the used up country, organisation or person.
When what they do is so obviously blatant, why do these Cockroach Narcissists survive? Why are they given the opportunity to move onto the next target of their malignant desire? And not only that but often to rise up in rank from CFO to CEO, Trader to Portfolio Manager, Politician to Warlord, Businessman to … Roles where more control and a wider influence allows for the infliction of stronger ripples of distress and pain.
It is said that controlling and eliminating a cockroach infestation is exceptionally difficult. They are resilient and they breed rapidly. Their mechanisms honed for survival keep them alive, keep them flourishing. University of Melbourne evolutionary biologist Mark
Elgar explained that the Mythbusters test which sought to examine the ‘cockroach survival theory’ (they survived longer than humans once exposed to extreme radioactive material but still all died) was not fully accurate. Namely, because the Mythbusters team made their assessment of survival based upon how many days they continued to live after radioactive exposure. What was missing was their ability to produce viable eggs, and hence survival of the species!
There is a psychological term called ‘identification with the aggressor’ which emotionally and physically neglected and abused children may unconsciously recruit in and develop through adulthood. This mechanism keeps the child psychologically safe and able to survive the most difficult of circumstances. They introject, or take into their character structure ‘perpetrator parts’, the negative attributes of their abuser.
They become their abuser in order to survive them.
To do otherwise can lead to other psychological mechanisms being used which are more self- destructive, more self-immobilising, and less about destroying others. Thankfully most of us will ‘own’ our vulnerabilities and not dissociate from them. We will continue to think and feel despite the pain it causes, and we will develop alternative relationships which assist us to transition away from our perpetrators and voice our dissent. These new relationships help us to become more than we believed ourselves to be in those abandoning and abusive childhood situations.
We can acknowledge that the emotional neglect, the dismissiveness, the verbal shaming and the physical wounding inflicted upon us from our perpetrators was more about them and less about us.
How that hurts? A deep chasmic well of hurt. To know that those who were supposed to love us just didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.
It is a delicate act, in the clinical space of adult psychotherapy, to open up that awareness that toxic self-aggrandised parents, bosses and other leaders who devalued you and manipulated your need to connect to someone or something you perceived as “safe”, needed for “protection”, or even “loved”, cared more about themselves and their own agendas than about you. That they could not even access or think about, let alone acknowledge, the pain their needs and their behaviours, would cause you.
A patient, whom I will name John, reported a number of failed sexual relationships. He sought psychotherapy in order to change his ways, to improve, so that in the future he would be able to meet the needs of the “Incredible women he dated”. Historically he had been repeatedly ‘dumped’ and blamed himself for not being good enough. It became clear that throughout his childhood John had been a consummate performer for his mother, Stella. He was a skilled swimmer and debate champion and on a weekly basis mother and son would travel to competitions and stay overnight. Apparently John’s father was never invited.
His mother would smile through pursed lips when she told John how much of her life she was dedicating to him and his competitions, but how she wants the best for him so “Will do whatever it takes”. When John hit 16 he developed other interests and felt the burden of the weekend trips to “Win the gold”. Part of him thought his mother would be pleased if he no longer needed her to travel. But another part of him knew that she would be deeply disappointed in him and may even get angry – “In her own way”.
There were a lot of layered complexities to this case which John and I had to work through, but eventually John was able to see that his successes filled a vacuum in his mother’s life. When he “Got the gold” she would adore him, in John’s words “Pour herself out over him”. But on trips back home with “The silver” she would be sullen and silent. John eventually realised that his adult relationships with women paralleled the maternal relationship. He picked women who outwardly admired him but when he failed to keep the narcissistic supply going they no longer wanted him. John had to let himself re-shape his awareness of himself and his relationships. He was able to put into context why he felt abandoned by his mother over recent years, and felt a twist of pain inside when she was too busy for him to visit as she was ‘helping’ his nephew with his scholarship exams for a prestigious school. John experienced deep hurt as a result of his realisation that he was being used as an object in cold harsh ways and was punished when he failed to inflate his mother’s and partner’s needs. He journeyed through his own vulnerabilities and could step into his mother’s shoes and understand the aetiology of her mechanisms which in turn eradicated her power over him.
The hard backed narcissist will never enter that pain. They defend and react against it with a lack of fellow-feeling, an inability to feel into the pain of the other because they have never entered their own pain. They project this unconscious chasmic hurt outwards, they take on the mantle of power from their own manipulators and pass it on implicitly/passively in underhanded ways and explicitly/directly in their self-serving words and actions. The narcissistic adult damages and perpetuates damage. Like the indomitable cockroach he has durability and will survive. Just as he was parented with emotional abandonment, he will inform you that his hands are tied, that it is your fault he is treating you this way, and that ultimately he is only doing it for your own good.
Where do you throw your crap, or are you good at taking it?
The bin is a useful metaphor to discuss where unwanted debris goes. It’s a receptacle, a container for that which is unwanted, that which is discarded. A bin receives. Once used it’s full of waste which in turn must also be discarded, emptied out. The cycle repeats. Over and over, filling, emptying, re-filling.
People use others as bins into which they evacuate material they wish to get rid of, avoid or deny. Things they don’t want to look at or sort through. Bins to receive rage, shame, discrimination and historical traumas. In fact a myriad of psycho-emotional and experiential garbage they don’t want to look at or process for themselves.
Unfortunately this occurs a lot in our most intimate of relationships – our securely-insecure bases – whereby for many couples it has become a well-carved groove in the relationship and has taken on a dysfunctional normality.
“Take this!” says spouse abusing Tom who chastises his wife Sue for putting on weight when he returns home from yet another self-worth reducing, shaming day at work. “You know Tom, we have spoken about this before. I need you to speed up on processing those invoices” says the father-identified Team Lead.
For Tom to attend to and work through this real-time shame inducing experience at the office he has to go somewhat deeper than the exchange about processing the invoices. He has to go to his experiences with his alcoholic father. How dad would tell him as a seven year old boy to “Man up”, to “Stop being a cry-baby little wimp” as Tom swept up the broken china for his mum. Tom had no container for his hurt and anger in his childhood. An acting-out father and an avoidant mother combination can never provide the appropriate holding environment for a young child.
Disavowing the bigger issue and evacuating his ‘smallness’ into his wife is a well-played record in Tom and Sue’s marital relationship.
Over time, Sue becomes a bin. Hopes squashed. Takes the crap. Acknowledges this familiar territory, “If I just let him get that out then we will have a quiet night”. The paradox of safety. Tells herself he doesn’t really mean it. Sue implicitly knows this terrain. Sitting for hours at the small kitchen table as a child whilst her depressive mother evacuated her emotional woes into the young vessel, unable to hold it all and spilling over with nowhere to put it. Now a flooded and anxious adult all Sue wants is a quiet life. It’s all too much for her, always has been.
That which is unprocessed will always seek to be responded to…
The world is full of Toms’ and Sues’. We set ourselves up. We reproduce where we have been. Re-enact our historical broken family systems in our relationships and our work-related choices. We use our bodies to keep the memories alive despite how disturbing or terrifying they are. Tom slumped in at the chest as he’s told as an adult that he’s not good enough, keeping in the unexpressed rage towards his father, projecting this out towards his wife.
Sue living in overwhelm, hyperalert, hypervigilant. Twisting her hair between her fingers, aware that at any time she will be recruited in to be a vessel for those that can’t or won’t take responsibility for their own emotions, where they’ve been, or even where they are going. But ain’t she doing that too? Wheres the line where we seek or expect autonomous decisions?
Where we have been is where we will keep going…
Where we have been is where we will all keep going if we don’t do something about it. Being told that we are using someone as a bin for that which we can’t deal with ourselves will never bring necessary change. Yes, awareness of what we are doing now is critical. But alongside this we need to understand the who, why, where, when and what of our past traumas. Not only at a cognitive level but also at an emotional and embodied level.
Client James, presented with a series of failed relationships. He “Has it all”, drove an expensive car, asked rhetorically “I look well for my age don’t I?” He sat directly opposite me with legs so wide astride it was almost athletic. He would physically ‘check me out’ then tell me as he visually addressed my dark hair “No. I’ve always gone for blondes”. Did he even know he said that out loud? After a number of initial self-aggrandising sessions he accessed his first emotion. “I don’t know what I want and it hurts”.
Right now, during the session, yet another discarded partner was being sent to the bin. Was at the airport about to fly thousands of miles away after James told her to leave. He told me he “Had his eye on someone else” so that will help him get over the breakup.
Over time we discovered that his collection and elimination of beautiful young women was associated with his mother. A crucial point of recall and processing was when he accessed a deeply painful memory of standing up in his baby’s cot, aged around 15 months, crying as he watched his mother leaving the family home through the bedroom window. He had no idea where she was going or why nobody was attending to his beseeching tears.
What he also ‘remembered’ was the pain in his gut as he cried himself to sleep. The one he experiences every time he goes to bed alone after throwing away yet another ‘love object’.
Life is alive with the past…
Our lives, our minds, emotions, bodies and relational patterns are alive with the past. To put a complex situation very simply, James dumped the women in his life before they dumped him. Poured his pain into his partners. As a consequence he was always yearning for the next one. Set himself up to pine, to need, to want, to hurt in a repetition compulsion which re-enacted the deep pain of the child in the cot. Discovered that the vertical bars around his baby bed symbolised the imprisoning nature of feeling completely disempowered and unable to act to save himself from the pain of abandonment.
One day James never showed up for his session. He emailed me to say he was busy with work right now “Sorry” but he will get back in touch. He took a barrel load of awareness with him but a whole heap of undigested tummy ache.
We’ve all got ‘stuff’ to get rid of…
Don’t throw yourself away into a life that repeats itself. When you don’t reflect on your angry outbursts, your punishing statements, your projection of your own low self-worth onto others you are remaining in bondage to your past. Your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and even your body is not only reacting to now, what happened today and what you did with it, but is continuing to be associated with the past.
What do I need to get rid of? What’s made me a better person through the life lessons I’ve experienced? Can I take on responsibility to ‘change the record’ of my life as lived? Why am I implicitly continuing to carry the “sorry asses” of my dysfunctional parents and imprinting the dynamic with them onto and into my relationships and my work choices? If you want to be ‘You’, consider doing the inner work to dump ‘Them’. At least at a psychical level.
Excavate. Don’t dump yourself. Find yourself…
Sure, who wants to get their hands dirty rifling through soiled waste? But when you look through those active and activating remnants, those wounded parts and hurtful embedded memories it’s like panning for gold. Holding each fragment up to the light assessing its worth, its inherent wisdom, how it birthed you, made you, you generate an understanding of who, why, where, when and what? You locate yourself and from that point of awareness can set about re-cycling, re-framing and re-building.
This workshop entitled ‘Grief and Loss In Clinical Practice: Adolescents’ was conducted for a Private Counselling Agency in Cardiff in April 2018. The workshop embraced the themes of grief and mourning, concepts of grief and the goals of grief counselling, the completion of mourning and how we get there alongside consideration of the variety of losses which can be experienced (including tangible, assumptive, developmental and deprivation). Normal and complicated grief responses, mediators of mourning and key clinical approaches to working with grief were explained. All of this thinking around grief was folded into thinking about the particular needs, presentations and developmental stages of adolescents.
Training/Agenda items include:
- Grief and mourning.
- Concepts of grief and the goals of grief counselling.
- The completion of mourning and how we get there?
- Types of losses: Tangible, Assumptive world/future paced, Developmental, Deprivation, Loss of childhood.
- Difficulties particular to adolescence.
- Normal grief reactions re: Thoughts/cognitions, Feelings/emotions, Behaviours.
- Mediators of mourning.
- Counselling principles and procedures.
- The vicarious effects of working with grief and loss.
- Case study examples.
This clinical and intensive workshop entitled ‘Working With Trauma in Clinical Practice’ was conducted for a Private Counselling Agency in Cardiff in November, 2017. Using theory, case study examples and experiential work those in attendance developed a rich understanding about trauma, how it is defined, its experiential layers and how trauma is causally linked with the nature of specific types of events. Dissociated trauma, dissociated ‘memory’ and dissociative mechanisms utilised as a means of survival against overwhelm were addressed alongside how to transform the enduring imprints of trauma at somatic, emotional and cognitive levels. A ‘Trauma Therapists Toolkit’ was shared as well as important education about management, containment and the role of the therapist.
Training/Agenda items include:
- What is Trauma?
- The Trauma Imprint?
- Healing Trauma?
- Traumatic Events and Categories.
- Trauma defined.
- Initial exposure to a traumatic event.
- The enduring imprint of traumatic experiences.
- Longstanding effects at all levels of human experiencing to include: Somatic, Cognitive, Emotional, Meaning Making/Existential, Relational.
- Dissociated Trauma.
- Dissociated Memory, dissociative mechanisms and dissociated ‘memories’.
- Trauma Inducing Activators and Implicit Memories.
- The Trauma Therapists Toolkit.
- Initial stages: information, management and containment.
- The Role of the Therapist.
- Cathartic Release.
- Use of bridges for cathartic release and dissociated ‘memory’ retrieval.
- Use of bridges for somatic, emotional and cognitive ‘memory’ retrieval.
- Intrusive Images: Flashbacks.
- Intrusive Thoughts: Shaming Stories.
- Identity Stories.
- Identity stories and Gestalt techniques.
- Perpetrator stories.
- New narratives, meaning making and integration.
- Case study examples.