Envy is a topic I have written about frequently as it is a probable consequence of many human interactions. Envying something or someone can be a motivating influence to work toward getting what you’d like for yourself. Or, to the contrary, hateful envy can lead to damaged relationships and disastrous outcomes.
Many twin pairs have definitive tendencies toward envious behaviors. This is understandable in light of how much they are compared to each other and viewed as a dyadic couple rather than two separate individuals. Contemplating the many pairs of twins I have seen in my practice over the years, I am curious about the specific dynamics that have contributed to the development of envy rather than jealousy.
Jealousy is a common variety emotion—most of us can admit to ourselves or others when we wish we had what others had or resent those who have what we don’t have. Being able to admit to and articulate jealous feelings is important so that they are not accompanied by excessive feelings of guilt or shame.
Envy, on the other hand, is a more pernicious feeling in that the individual who envies another feels tremendous hostility, anger, and resentment. One who envies another may harbor threatening thoughts toward the envied person. There are many degrees of viciousness along this sinister continuum; however, a common thread is that the individual who envies another may consciously or unconsciously wish or enact emotional or physical harm on the other.
The twins I have worked with who have had to contend with an extremely envious twin have a difficult path. Depending upon the severity of the resentment, some twins have felt the need to become estranged from their envious twin if there appears to be no room for working out these feelings. In other situations, the twin who is envied recognizes that she is her sibling’s moving target and takes precautions to protect herself when she can.
I am reminded about a pair of forty-year-old identical twin women who suffer with this envy dilemma. My patient, whom I will call Tilly, sought treatment because her sister’s mean and humiliating treatment seemed unwarranted. Tilly was clueless as to why her twin, Tracy, was often rude and demeaning almost out of the blue. When she asked Tracy why she was acting this way, Tracy shrugged off Tilly’s comments and feelings as absurd and exaggerated.
Tilly’s history provided some explanation for the present circumstances. In addition to being their mother’s favorite, Tilly was the outgoing, popular twin. She had been highly emotionally intelligent from a young age. As a result, she garnered attention and love from others that Tracy did not receive. Tilly earned a well-paid professional salary, had a loving husband and two small children, and demonstrated a happy and positive outlook on life in general.
Tracy also enjoyed her professional life, although she was not as highly salaried, and she was happily married with three children. Notwithstanding her own successes, Tracy never lost an opportunity to denigrate Tilly. She criticized Tilly’s spouse and made spurious judgments about her children.
Tilly attempted to handle Tracy’s mean comments and threats by telling herself that Tracy was jealous of her. Tilly felt guilty that her life was proceeding so well and that Tracy seemed to be struggling in ways that she was not. Tilly called me when she could no longer tolerate the negativity. Her coping skills were wearing thin, and she craved more understanding and insight.
Our work together focused upon helping Tilly understand the nuances between jealousy and envy. Envy can feel vilifying and annihilating. Tilly had difficulty accepting that Tracy harbored such destructive tendencies toward her. However, after we examined the dynamics of their upbringing along with the present-day circumstances, Tilly was more accepting of this premise. She expressed how sad she felt that this dynamic had infused a tremendous wedge between them. She wondered how and if she might be able to talk this through with Tracy. When she tried, Tracy went ballistic, telling her that she did not care at all about what Tilly has and was appalled that she dare make such farfetched arguments and accusations.
Tracy is not in touch with her feelings of envy; she cannot allow positive things to happen to her as she is always encountering conflict with her successful twin. Tilly realizes that dissociated thoughts are not available for articulation. She has concluded that her basic strategy will be to accept the situation as is. If she wants to have a relationship with her twin, she will have to decide how and if she can tolerate her sister’s envious sentiments. Envy obstructs what could be a close and loving relationship. Envy is a spoiler.