Janice had been seeing me for a few years, but I had never seen her quite this uncomfortable before. She was telling me about her daughter’s high school graduation party. Janice was a devoted mother who had worked hard to support her daughter through some academically tumultuous high school years. The daughter’s successful graduation and acceptance to one of her first-choice colleges ought to have been a cause for rejoicing, but Janice felt something much more complicated.
“Of course, I felt proud and happy. And of course I also felt sad. I will miss her terribly!” But she also felt something a little darker – something that she had trouble putting into words.
“We had a tent set up in the backyard, with strings of lights, and a DJ. I stopped in the middle of the rushing around getting the food and watched her. She was standing there, surrounded by dozens of other beautiful, vibrant, young people. Her hair is so shiny and full, and she has a gorgeous figure. And it was as if I suddenly saw something I hadn’t seen before. She is young and full of promise, and has her whole life before her. She doesn’t even realize. I was like that once, too. But now so much of my life is in the past. I am very proud of her, and happy for her, but if I am being honest, I have to admit that I also felt a pang of the most awful jealousy for a moment.”
It was brave of Janice to admit to me – and herself – that she felt envious of her daughter’s attractiveness and promising future. Janice’s own mother had been depressed. Left to raise Janice and her two siblings alone after her alcoholic husband disappeared, Janice’s mother struggled to cope and was often resentful of her own lost youth. In very many ways, Janice had transcended her difficult childhood. She was sending her own daughter out into the world feel safe, cared for, and confident. While she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, there was some envy there.
In the well-known fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” the young heroine becomes the object of her step-mother’s envy as she grows into a beautiful young woman. While it may be challenging to relate to the evil step-mother in the story, it in fact is not unusual to feel envy of our children at some point or another.
Feelings that are not fully felt can indeed become poisonous. Unredeemed envy can solidify into toxic resentment, which kills off new growth in our own life and also in our children’s life. On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to feel the sting of envy and become intimate with it, we allow it to transform.
Befriending a feeling is different than indulging it. When we accept our feelings – however unacceptable they may be – we can be curious about our experience, and wonder about its meaning. Such an intimate exploration of our emotional landscape can yield the treasure of new knowledge that can deepen our self-understanding. This in turn helps us become more tolerant both of ourselves and others.
Indulging a feeling, on the other hand, means that we become attached to the feeling. We believe it is “right,” and we act from it. Acting from a place of envy can be very destructive, both for ourselves and for others.
Symbolically, the acid of envy may dissolve old psychic structures that need to be cleared away. In fact, poisonous envy may have a paradoxically healing effect. In the tale, Snow White is too trapped in her own innocence complex to protect herself. Her transitional state of keeping house for the dwarves represents a kind of interim, provisional solution to her dilemma – a sort of apprenticeship to shadow. (In the original versions of the tale, the dwarves are thieves.) Snow White is getting to know the darker, more transgressive parts of herself. Ingesting some of the step-mother’s poison apple is what allows her to awaken to her own authority.
Janice came to see that her own envy may have had a positive role to play as she and her daughter got ready to negotiate their next phase. Janice was dismayed to find that she had an impulse to pull away from her daughter in those months after the graduation party. The pain of feeling her own envy was too much. But Janice was able to be curious about this feeling. She could see how the envy functioned in part to protect her from the terrible grief she felt about her daughter’s immanent departure.
We were also able to excavate her own experience of being 18. Janice recalled her mother’s resentment and bitterness when Janice announced that she would be moving out. In our work, Janice was able to get in touch with anger at her mother, but also powerful feelings of guilt for abandoning her mother. Eventually, she was able to forgive herself for leaving her lonely, depressed mother.
As Janice was able to grieve some of these frozen feelings, the heat around her envy of her daughter dissipated. The hard-won wisdom she had gained about herself as a result of exploring these difficult feelings made it easier for Janice for her to release her daughter with joy and love.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.