This article was originally published on Psych Central on August 14th, 2017.
Pathological envy happens to be related to one of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Narcissists are said to be envious of others and yet believe others to be envious of them; they will often project this trait onto others and make their victims feel like the insecure ones. This type of envy, while common among narcissists, isn’t just limited to malignant narcissists. Yet narcissistic abusers are more likely to be driven by their envy to engage in destructive behavior towards others in a way that is chronic, impactful and harmful.
When gone unchecked, pathological envy can be a silent killer in interpersonal relationships. The victim of someone else’s pathological envy may suffer backlash, sabotage or abuse due to their success. Depending on the nature and longevity of the relationship, targets may feel punished for succeeding and develop an aversion to being in the spotlight or owning their true gifts and talents as a result of feedback from the narcissistic abuser.
Here are five behaviors to look for if you suspect you’re dealing with a pathologically envious narcissist or otherwise toxic type:
1. The inability to congratulate others on a job well done.
As obvious as this behavior might seem, it often goes unnoticed and needs to be addressed if it is part of a chronic behavior pattern. This is someone who cannot even muster the ability to say congratulations when another person is succeeding. A pathologically envious person will find ways to instead detract from your success by asking questions that minimize it, deflate it or ignore it altogether.
A true friend, supportive family member, co-worker or partner would be able to say, “Congratulations!” or “I am so proud of you!” because they genuinely are happy for your success and are secure within themselves to celebrate it. This is a form of what relationship researchers call healthy capitalization – an affirmative, active-constructive response that enhances the shared joy of your achievements and good news (Donato et al., 2014). Empathic people are not threatened by the happiness of others nor do they have to constantly find ways to undermine it.
For example, when narcissistic parents are envious and hypercritical of their own children, these children develop an inability to self-validate and internalize this lack of affirmation as proof of their unworthiness. If the parent fails to recognize his or her child’s progress and makes the child feel like he or she will never be good enough regardless of how well they are doing, it programs the child to believe that he or she is undeserving of healthy praise.
As a result, the child does not establish a healthy level of confidence early on in their abilities, skill sets or sense of self. This can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors later in adulthood, as they hide themselves and bury their gifts in an effort to escape the same punishment, invalidation and hypercriticism they received in childhood. As psychotherapist Rev. Sheri Heller (2016) writes:
“Victims of pathological envy carry an insidious inescapable shame, which enforces the edict that one’s gifts are a threat, responsible for instigating feelings of resentment, inadequacy and hence, envy.”
2. A constant redirection to one’s self when he or she is not in the center of attention. This can also include excluding, alienating and ostracizing the victim by bullying them in social circles.
A pathologically envious person will find ways to ‘divert’ from your success, especially if they experience discomfort at the fact that it places you at the center of attention, garnering the praise they feel entitled to. They may redirect the conversation back to themselves and their own accomplishments, engage in a covert put-down or backhanded compliment, or change the subject altogether. A pathologically envious narcissistic person may even go so far as to sabotage your success or try to surpass you in a way that brings them back into the limelight.
In the context of larger social groups, a successful target will often be humiliated by the perpetrator who can ‘recruit’ allies to join in on the bullying. This is a display of public shaming that serves to silence the victim’s pride in his or her accomplishments. The victim learns to be ‘quiet’ about accomplishments they worked hard for as a way to avoid being targeted. Smear campaigns, gossiping and rumor-mongering are common when a narcissist ‘leads’ his or her harem to pull down the victim in any way they can.
The ongoing pattern of not feeling recognized or acknowledged within a social group can have a tremendous impact on the victim as their accomplishments or positive traits are blatantly disregarded, ridiculed or mocked. It is a form of exclusion and ostracism that can create considerable psychological damage and anxiety about sharing one’s achievements or celebrating them, for fear of pain and punishment. This type of social rejection can be just as dangerous as physical injury. According to Dr. Kipling (2011):
“When a person is ostracized, the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury.”
3. Contempt and condescension.
Remember that malignant narcissists, especially those of the grandiose type, are easily threatened by someone who could threaten to dismantle their false sense of superiority. This includes their more successful family members, partners, peers, acquaintances and co-workers. A pathologically envious person feels that they cannot obtain the level of success that you have achieved, so they will treat your accomplishments with contempt in order to convince themselves that you are inferior.
Being continuously met with this tone of contempt and haughty attitude, especially when you dare to display a healthy level of confidence, serves to make you feel powerless, small and inadequate. It creates an atmosphere of fear where successful targets are discouraged from achieving their dreams or taking pride in what they’ve achieved.
The ability to ‘look down on you’ makes malignant narcissists feel powerful and in control, something they struggle to feel when faced with a target more successful than they are. While others are rejoicing with you as you launch a financially lucrative career, sign the lease on your dream apartment or plan your wedding, a pathologically envious person will be the one lamenting about how most marriages don’t work out and how expensive it must be to live in the city.
4. Minimization and misattribution.
The most conniving and covert pathologically envious people go out of their way to burst your bubble by not only minimizing your success, but attributing it to something other than your true merits, hard work and talents. You may find that a pathologically envious person attributes your accomplishments to pure “luck” even while they attribute their own success to their own work ethic. Yet they are often the ones who use their charisma and social connections to get ahead.
By continually focusing on an outside influence that “must” have been the cause of your success, the malignant narcissist feels better equipped to handle their own sense of inadequacy.
5. Perpetually moving the goal posts.
Narcissists don’t ever want their targets to feel ‘enough.’ That is why they ensure that regardless of whichever area of your life you’re currently succeeding in, they shift their standards, expectations and criteria for what ‘success’ actually entails.
You may have a stellar reputation at work, be a supportive friend and spouse, but the narcissistic abuser may then begin to pick on what you lack, perceived flaws or manufacture insecurities about negative attributes that don’t exist. He or she focuses on these fabricated shortcomings so that you are never allowed to feel secure in yourself and proud of what you’ve managed to overcome. As Dr. Ramani (2016) notes:
”I always call it the Beauty and the Beast piece of this because what did Beauty do? She just sort of danced around and loved the Beast and one day he went from a raging beast to a prince. A lot of people have taken that fairytale and they have injected it into their lives saying if I love him enough, if I dance around enough, if I’m sweet enough, if I’m pretty enough, if I’m this enough, if I’m that enough, then I will please him and he will go from being a raging beast to a prince. It is never going to be enough and I think that’s the real paradox in the narcissistic relationship.”
If you have been the target of a malignant narcissist, you have probably also been the subject of pathological envy. Remember that narcissists pick on victims they deem to have something valuable. They surround themselves with people they perceive to be “special and unique.” It was not your fault that you were abused; the fact that you were targeted is actually an indication that you have something special about you that the narcissist noticed and wanted to undermine in the first place.
Beware that while narcissists enjoy piggybacking off of the success of others, they also enjoy sabotaging those same people. This bears repeating: it is precisely because their targets represent the success they themselves have not been able to achieve or a success that threatens to take the attention off of them.
Rather than internalizing the projections of pathologically envious people, recognize these microaggressions and acts of sabotage for what they are: signs that you have something within you that is far greater than the power of their put-downs. Dare to celebrate yourself and what you worked hard to achieve – you earned it and you have every right as any other human being to be proud of yourself in a healthy way. Protect yourself from these toxic types and set your boundaries; do not let a pathologically envious person take residence in your psyche.
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American Psychiatric Association. Narcissistic personality disorder. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013;669-672.
Donato, Silvia, Pagani, Ariela, Parise, Miriam, Bertoni, Anna, & Iafrate, Raffaella. (2014). The Capitalization Process in Stable Couple Relationships: Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits. Procedia, Social and Behavioral Sciences, 140, 207-211.
Durvasula, R. & Hamilton, A. (2013, May 13). “Speaking of Psychology: Recognizing a Narcissist.” Retrieved 14 Aug. 2017.
Heller, R. (2016, July 09). Pathological envy: Can self-worth be reclaimed? Retrieved August 14, 2017, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/pathological-envy-can-self-worth-be-reclaimed/0014981.html
Neubert, A. “Professor: Pain of Ostracism Can Be Deep, Long-lasting.” 10 May 2011. Retrieved 14 Aug. 2017.
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