Reflections of Envy with the stories of Anasi and Cinderella.
Updated: May 3
By Dr Libby Nugent, First Published Feb 5 2021 07:45AM
"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." Alice Roosevelt Longworth This quote always makes me both laugh and feel alarmed. I am the fourth of seven siblings and as such envy and Schadenfreude are inescapably deeply familiar territory: the inward groan when a sibling triumphs, the relief or smirk when a sibling fails and the delight mixed with fear of sharing my own glory. In childhood these feelings were relentless- anything and everything could be a competition. You learn quickly there is no such thing as fair and that all is fair in love and war. How quickly can you eat your food? Who gets the longest in the bathroom? Who is taller? Who is thinner? Who has the best grades? Who has more friends? Who can run fastest? Who can punch hardest? Who can cry loudest? Often it didn’t really matter who won, rather we just wanted to make sure someone absolutely came last. A lethal tactic was to get the majority to claim there was actually no competition going on and only later, when everyone else had accomplished the task, to let the appointed target know they were indeed the loser. These competitions were never about just winning - they were about who deserves to exist and who doesn’t. There is a particular story from childhood when in a fit of envy and rage I pinned a little sister to the ground and gnawed her ponytail off with a pair of red Fisher price scissors. My own hair refused to grow beyond a tufty few inches whereas she had long, thick lovely hair. I couldn’t bear that she could grow hers and I could not. She was younger than me, it just wasn’t right. Every time she plaited it or put it up into a ponytail it was like she was flaunting her superiority and success in my face whilst exposing my inferiority. She needed to learn a lesson and so when the moment came I seized my opportunity. Sadly, cutting my sister’s hair, as triumphant as I felt, was never going to help mine grow. The momentary excitement and relief in realising my aggression and the initial thrill of seeing the grief on her face, was quickly replaced with the shame of having behaved such and thus further evidence of my inferiority. The problem was not solved. Though the solution to just double down and try to cut even more of her hair off lingered with me for quite some time. Now we are all adults, most of the time, these feelings are contained and held in what might be described as ‘rough play’ amongst my siblings with only the occasional bloodthirsty battle: we each of us know and can name envy and in its collective naming we are all given relief. It seems to me that when we were finally able to recognise and speak of the envy and the many different feelings we can have in the face of each other’s existence, we grew bigger in size (we matured) and the envy became just one part of the whole. Our bond is found in valuing all the parts of our relationships that exist together, rather than emphasizing what should have been - based on fantasies of fairness or entitlement. In this way the envy softened and transformed, albeit sometimes painfully, into a humorous, aggressive and creative part of the intimacy of our loving. Envy is sometimes described as a social myopia. - when someone else’s success activates a sense of injustice, one cannot see the bigger picture of that person as real - someone who is many different things: complex and wounded, When envious we see only their triumph and our lack, and we can become sensitised and ruminative, obsessing over interactions with these self-appointed rivals; comparing ourselves to them and over analyzing the situation. Allowed to fester we become judge, juror and executioner. When we are envied we are being pushed to focus and isolate our attention onto a particular aspect of our own identity or behaviour, seeing it through the aggressive gaze of someone else. It typically provokes a forceful negative reaction. Many of us, when envied, want to retaliate. When feeling this hate, we wish to hurt the other as we have been hurt. Alternatively when envied we might want to collapse into despair at the injustice, or filled with self doubt, we run and hide; avoiding the envier at all costs. I have been in training as a group analytic analyst for over three and a half years, moving from foundation course, to diploma and beginning the qualifying course - now needing to press pause on parts of the training to deal with juggling life and COVID living. The group analytic training space is a joy and a torment as it is full of deep and real connection. One of the many things that has made an impression on me, is how the group has and does navigate envy. The inevitable relentless comparison with others, the relief to not be the only one to not be sailing through life, the fear of hurting people and being envied if we do succeed. From these group discussions it has become clearer to me that the experiences of the envied and the envier are greatly alike. Both parties can feel violated, invalidated and turned into someone else’s play thing. Both can feel helpless to fix the problem and a sense of dependence on the other to repair it. Both feel put into a position where their identities can be obliterated. They seem so much the same and yet they are very different realities. Given the powerful feelings involved and our potential for highly destructive behaviour, it is no surprise that if not contained sufficiently we typically answer encounters with envy with avoidance. We suppress or deny feelings and behaviours, keep away from those who both inspire envy in us and who we feel envied by. However, as the Ethiopian proverb states: “he who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured” and envy bottled up, hidden or denied, shapeshifts into individual and collective scapegoating and encourages self-sabotage. As such containing and navigating envy is an essential task in becoming ethical (that is to say becoming conscious) and it is certainly essential to emotionally and psychically surviving any psychology related training - where typically the dynamics of sibling rivalry are fiercely activated. So how do we talk about envy in our psychology community? The bottom line is I don’t think we do very often, or very well. The culture and the values of clinical psychology might well be summed up with the phrase “If you don't have anything nice to say then don’t say anything” or alternatively “If you have something aggressive to say, find a way to make yourself sound gentle or thoughtful when you are saying it so you don’t get caught out.” This cultural value is taken deeply to heart and people will bend over backwards to avoid being seen to be aggressive or in any way consciously hurting someone else’s feelings through speaking directly. So where do these aggressive feelings go if they cannot be verbalised honestly and are indeed actively encouraged to be storied up into what is often described as caring communication or more destructive still “psychological mindedness”? There is a concept in psychoanalytic thinking of Reaction formation. Typically when we use this defense mechanism sometimes we might be able to recognise the aggression we feel, but then choose to behave in the opposite manner of our feelings. Sometimes in this dynamic I might not even be aware of the feeling of aggression but I will be aware of a need to somehow act in a way that is compensating for something. Essentially it is about trying too hard to cover up a feeling: bringing biscuits to the meeting I don’t want to go to; buying a gift for the supervisor that couldn’t remember my name; or inviting a colleague I have been gossiping about out to coffee. It is seen in someone who is gay who has a number of conspicuous heterosexual affairs and openly criticizes people who are out as gay. Collectively this might look like publically encouraging people from marginalised groups and communities to join the clinical psychology profession, whilst doing nothing to address the psychology culture of supremacy narratives, so people might have improved access to join, but they may not be able to stay safely. In effect we are enforcing a false congeniality and a dehumanising rhetoric of “We all just need to be nice to each other!” This way of being leads us into a labyrinth of difficulties as our aggressive feelings become buried and denied both to ourselves and our collective gaze. What we are engaged in is ultimately an overly socialised way of communicating. (That is to say it is a middle class, straight, whitelady social script of privilege.) A social script so easily endorsed by the one who is attacking and not quite so easily for the one being pinned to the ground whilst their hair is being sawn off with craft scissors. I think most of us can connect with the gut wrenching feeling of a friend or colleague gaining a training place interview when we don’t get one, or the dread in telling a group of peers that you have one yourself. The disbelief that such and such got ‘that’ placement on training or the rush to reassure someone that they will get their 8a soon. How quickly do we split ourselves-on one hand being the person who smiles and says nice things and then also the person who thinks in terms of who deserves to get their next step on the career ladder and who does not. How much do we say Black Lives Matter then worry about limited funding being used up by “these sorts of things’? So what do we do about it? For me a helpful place to begin bringing these personal and social scripts into consciousness is to turn to archetypal stories from myth, folklore and fairytale. These stories, from the oral tradition of sharing knowledge, speak to permanent truths about what it is to be human. With regard to thinking about envy, there are two stories in particular that come to my mind. The stories are different but both speak to envy as exhibited in individuals and collectively: the Surinamese story of How Dew tricked Anansi and European version of Cinderella. The first story is How Dew tricked Anansi: It came about that Anansi became friends with Dew, and that they both helped each other develop their own crops. One day, Anansi saw his friend Dew's crop and noticed the corn Dew grew was much finer than his own. Anansi became very jealous of Dew and craved the corn that Dew had grown more than his own, so he decided he would trick Dew.Anansi approached Dew and bragged, saying that his corn was better than Dew's, and suggested that Dew cut his corn so it would be as fine as his. Anansi promised Dew that if he cut his own crop, his corn would grow back and be the same quality as Anansi's corn was. Anansi however, was lying. Nonetheless, Dew fell for the Spider's schemes and agreed to cut his corn crop in the mistaken belief that his corn would grow again. Later that evening, neighbors in their village saw Dew's corn had been cut down and wondered why he did so, noting that the corn he had was very fine once. They asked Dew who'd convinced him to cut down his corn crop, and he replied that Anansi had convinced him to do so, in the hopes that his corn crop would be better than it was before. The neighbors sighed and told Dew that he'd been tricked, for his corn would not grow again. This upset Dew, but he promised them that he would trick Anansi just as he had tricked him. Dew, however, would trick Anansi with his mother instead of with corn like Anansi had him. As time passed, Dew worked especially hard and tirelessly to build up a large amount of wealth. He bought a scythe, hoe, axe, new clothes, and other equipment. Dew then told his mother his plan: he would tell Anansi that she had died and would then make a mock coffin in which to bury her. In the meanwhile, Dew wished for his mother to hide in their home upstairs while he prepared, so she did. Dew then made a coffin and announced her death to the village, inviting them to come see her burial. Once they had arrived, he snuck his mother from upstairs and had her hide underneath the floor where the mock coffin lay, as well as the many things he'd purchased, as he knew Anansi's greed would spurn him to steal from Dew if he saw them laying around. Now that the plan was in order, it was time for the mock burial to begin. Dew began to cry and lament that his mother had died so suddenly and left him nothing to remember her by, not even a single tool. On-cue, Dew's mother extended the scythe and other tools he'd purchased through the plank in the floor. Anansi saw what was happening and grew jealous of Dew, wishing his very own mother was dead so he could get what Dew was getting from his own mother as well. Dew continued to mourn, and lamented that he longed for a blessing from her in the form of money, so Dew's mother took the money he had also given her alongside the equipment and threw it through the floor at him also. Thus his display was successful, the burial they'd staged went well, and those who had come to mourn his mother's passing went back to their homes. Anansi's jealousy of Dew caused him to bicker with his own mother for days, on all matter of issues. Then, one day, they were arguing and the Spider asked his mother why she herself couldn't have died just like Dew's mother did. Soon,the arguments reached a climactic point and Anansi smote his own mother with a stick in a fit of rage. Anansi's mother then died and he soon set about preparing for her burial just as Dew had before him. Then came time for the funeral, and Anansi cried just as Dew had, and told her all the things Dew had told his mother while grieving. Yet, nothing that he told his mother, no matter how much he cried, caused her to do the things that Dew's mother had done for her son. The funeral was a failure, so Anansi went ahead with his mother's burial. About a week passed, and Dew had his mother come visit him while he worked outside in the fields. Anansi noticed Dew's mother had come and asked if the woman he saw was in fact her. Dew replied that it was his own mother, and that it was payback for Anansi deceiving Dew about his corn crops. Dew then bragged that he instead had tricked Anansi about his mother, rather than his corn, and such was true: Dew's mother was still alive, but Anansi's mother was now dead because of his own jealousy. (wikipedia) The second story is Aschenputtel (The tale of Cinderella): A plague infests a village, and a wealthy gentleman's wife lies on her deathbed. She calls for her only daughter, and tells her to remain good and kind, as God would protect her. She then dies and is buried. The child visits her mother's grave every day to grieve and a year goes by. The gentleman marries another woman with two older daughters from a previous marriage. They have beautiful faces and fair skin, but their hearts are cruel and wicked. The stepsisters steal the girl's fine clothes and jewels and force her to wear rags. They banish her into the kitchen, and give her the nickname "Aschenputtel" ("Ashfool"). She is forced to do all kinds of hard work from dawn to dusk for the sisters. The cruel sisters do nothing but mock her and make her chores harder by creating messes. However, despite all of it, the girl remains good and kind, and will always go to her mother's grave to cry and pray to God that she will see her circumstances improve. One day the gentleman visits a fair, promising his stepdaughters gifts of luxury. The eldest asks for beautiful dresses, while the younger for pearls and diamonds. His own daughter merely begs for the first twig to knock his hat off on the way. The gentleman goes on his way, and acquires presents for his stepdaughters. While passing a forest he gets a hazel twig, and gives it to his daughter. She plants the twig over her mother's grave, waters it with her tears and over the years, it grows into a glowing hazel tree. The girl prays under it three times a day, and a white bird always comes to her as she prays. She tells her wishes to thebird, and every time the bird throws down to her what she has wished for. The king decides to proclaim a festival that will last for three days and invites all the beautiful maidens in that country to attend so that the prince can select one of them for his bride. The two sisters are also invited, but when Aschenputtel begs them to allow her to go with them into the celebration, the stepmother refuses because she has no decent dress nor shoes to wear. When the girl insists, the woman throws a dish of lentils into the ashes for her to pick up, guaranteeing her permission to attend the festival, if she can clean up the lentils in two hours. When the girl accomplished the task in less than an hour with the help of a flock of white doves that came when she sang a certain chant, the stepmother only redoubles the task and throws down even a greater quantity of lentils. When Aschenputtel is able to accomplish it in a greater speed, not wanting to spoil her daughters' chances, the stepmother hastens away with her husband and daughters to the celebration and leaves the crying stepdaughter behind. The girl retreats to the graveyard and asks to be clothed in silver and gold. The white bird drops a gold and silver gown and silk shoes. She goes to the feast. The prince dances with her all the time, claiming her as his dance partner whenever a gentleman asks for her hand, and when sunset comes she asks to leave. The prince escorts her home, but she eludes him and jumps inside the estate's pigeon coop. The father came home ahead of time and the prince asks him to chop the pigeon coop down, but Aschenputtel has already escaped from the back, to the graveyard to the hazel tree to return her fine clothes. The father finds her asleep in the kitchen hearth, and suspects nothing. The next day, the girl appears in grander apparel. The prince again dances with her the whole day, and when dark came, the prince accompany her home. However, she climbs a pear tree in the back garden to escape him. The prince calls her father who chops down the tree, wondering if it could be Aschenputtel, but Aschenputtel was already in the kitchen when the father arrives home. The third day, she appears dressed in grand finery, with slippers of gold. Now the prince is determined to keep her, and has the entire stairway smeared with pitch. Aschenputtel, in her haste to elude the prince, loses one of her golden slippers on that pitch. The prince picks the slipper and proclaims that he will marry the maiden whose foot fits the golden slipper. The next morning, the prince goes to Aschenputtel's house and tries the slipper on the eldest stepsister. Since she will have no more need to go on foot when she will be queen, the sister was advised by her mother to cut off her toes in order to fit the slipper. While riding with the stepsister, the two magic doves from heaven tell the prince that blood drips from her foot. Appalled by her treachery, he goes back again and tries the slipper on the other stepsister. She cut off part of her heel in order to get her foot in the slipper, and again the prince is fooled. While riding with her to the king's castle, the doves alert him again about the blood on her foot. He comes back to inquire about another girl. The gentleman tells him that his dead wife left a "dirty little Cinderella" in the house, omitting to mention that she is his own daughter, and that she is too filthy to be seen, but the prince asks him to let her try on the slipper. Aschenputtel appears after washing clean her face and hands, and when she puts on the slipper, the prince recognizes her as the stranger with whom he has danced at the festival. The stepmother and the two limping sisters were thunderstruck, and grew pale with anger. They wanted to kill Aschenputtel, but the prince put her before him on his horse and rode off. During Aschenputtel's royal wedding, the false stepsisters had hoped to worm their way into her favour as the future queen, but this time they don't escape their princess' rage. As she walks down the aisle with her stepsisters as her bridesmaids, Aschenputtel gets her revenge not killing them but summoning the doves to fly down and strike the two stepsisters' eyes, one in the left and the other in the right. It was their last chance of redemption, but since they don't give up, when the wedding comes to an end, and Aschenputtel and her beloved prince march out of the church, her minions fly again, promptly striking the remaining eyes of the two evil sisters horribly blind, a truly awful comeuppance they had to endure as beggars for the rest of their lives. (wikipedia) When I try and connect with a story I think about the tale in a number of ways; one of which is to imagine each character representing a different part of the group or social world. Another way I think about a story is to consider each character to be an aspect of just one person and in doing so exposes how we relate to ourselves. It is also interesting to think about these stories and the influence of world histories and socialisation on the storytellers; who the version of the story was being told to and what the symbols and imagery at the time might have spoken to … I will not offer a specific interpretation of either story, I think many could and do apply; this is a collective problem and as such requires collective conversations with multiple narratives and multiple seeds to be sown and tended to. However I will offer a few thoughts that might begin some conversations. For me, the story of Anansi and Dew shows how envy and competitiveness can go to deeply aggressive places in human nature where we can envy people for their suffering. How we can pretend to triumph over emotional pain as a form of competition that misleads people into believing we may have mastered suffering, and in doing so are superior. Do we envy our patients and perform our own wellness? Do we envy people from marginalised groups, disregarding their suffering and seeing only the reward of empathy, soul or spirituality they might get, without really considering their pain? This story also makes me think of the pressure aspiring psychologists are put under to share personal parts of themselves to get onto training courses that do not require personal therapy. Or when practitioners make recommendations such as mindfulness when they themselves do not practice it. I begin to associate this story with conversations of social justice when rather than staying with a particular narrative such as addressing anti blackness, the conversation is derailed by bringing in another form of injustice, to compare and put in competition with (rather than intersectional relationship to), thus instead of working together it becomes a conversation of one up manship. The Cinderella story feels somewhat different to me and shows us envy in several different relationships: envy between the mother/or a figure of authority and a child/someone of lower status; envy between siblings/peers; envy between the sexes; envy as a collective phenomenon. In the earliest Greek version of Cinderella, she is enslaved. Are the ugly sisters akin to white psychologists envying our black and brown bodied Cinderella peers. Does the envious gaze of the ugly sisters require a pecking out by birds, a slow, painful but thorough blinding - before we can stop looking outward to compete and instead focus on the internal world so that introspection can occur? Might each character represent a different part of ourselves - the part that is more socially celebrated is in fact quite ugly, the part that suffers, we will not let go of the ball? In reflecting on envy I think it is important to hold onto the concept that envy is not solely bad: envy is a sister of ambition. Both strive equally for development. Envy is a normal and important function for the development of individual and collective consciousness, and that it only becomes destructive when its creative function is not sufficiently contained. My hope is that we will be able to create the container in our community. That similar to my experience with my siblings, we will collectively mature and become more conscious of our envy; that we can grow bigger than our envy; and that it can take a place as a part of the whole in our collective experience. In doing so facilitating a sense of belonging in our profession that so often feels lacking a secure base. Maybe we can put down the scissors, leave the hair of marginalised siblings alone and use our words instead to seek the containment we crave?