They call me mellow yellow…¹
Recently I wrote to an acquaintance of mine – that when it came to polyamorous multiple relationships – in almost all cases in which those affected complained about “jealousy” flaring up, I could almost always identify good old, tangible envy instead. And if I then took a Sherlock Holmes-like look at the circumstances of the accompanying scenarios, I would almost regularly find quite plausible reasons for this good old, tangible jealousy among those affected – as well as in the privileged behaviour of their “concerned” partners. And envy would therefore often be justified because of these privileges – and it would, in my opinion, often point to a discrepancy in the (empowerment)status of the participants or would indicate a blind spot in their emotional contract.
Why do I think this is so?
The “Biology of Envy” takes us back to the mid-1990s of the last century, when researchers Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese and Leonardo Fogassi discovered what were later called “mirror neurons“ in the brains of macaque monkeys: When another monkey in the side cage received a raisin, certain neurons in the brain of the neighbouring monkey observing this process “fired” as if it had received this raisin itself.
In the following decades, however, further research showed that these “mirror neurons”, which are closely linked to our brain’s own “reward centre”, had their pitfalls: Monkeys, which at first had comfortably been eating pieces of cucumber for weeks, consistently refused them as soon as they were once fed a (sweeter) grape. Thus their cage neighbours, who were watching, denied cucumbers henceforth accordingly, although they had never received a grape. Therefore, if we are envious, are we something like “foreign-determined monkeys”?
The Indian neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, on the other hand, announced in 2000 that “thanks to these cells, the brain can easily translate an observed scene into something experienced by itself” and predicted that the roots of compassion and the neural basis of the ability to understand others could also be found there. But once again 10 years later scientists like Kai Vogeley in Cologne or Claus Lamm in Vienna determined that mirror neurons would only register an observed action as such and make the actions of others comprehensible. If, however, it is necessary to immerse oneself in a person’s actions or to empathize with their emotions, our brain would have to surrender the field to other mechanisms that depend to a large extent on our personal experience.
And brain researcher Richard Kinseher specified: “Our brain is designed to enable us to react immediately and quickly to a current situation in order to ensure our survival; in this respect, swiftness takes precedence over accuracy. If we would perceive an activity, our brain would immediately activate the best matching experiences from memory for this observed event. This process would be a “re-experiencing” (= “resentment”) of a stored experience. By re-experiencing a situation, we could understand it as quickly as possible – but at the same time, the reactivated experience would always activate the information that we had experienced when learning the original experience. This re-activation of experiences as “re-experiencing” would certainly be a “pre-judgement” – but as such it would be the beginning of a new decision-making-process, in the course of which readjustment and correction would be possible, if there were enough time for it.
The latter depiction – specifically the one involving “resentment”, which I also describe in my Jealousy-Entry 36 – puts “envy” in this sense much more into the context of our psychology than our biology. And there is a much higher probability of this, because as early as 430 BC the Greek philosopher Hippias of Elis wrote: »Envious people are doubly miserable: they are not only angry about their own misfortune, but also about the happiness of others.« By which Hippias demonstrated already more than 2000 years ago that envy necessarily needs a conscious kind of “downward comparison”. How necessary, only a medieval epigraph could express more clearly: »Against itself envy is a harsh judge, against others a tyrant.« – which illustrates that an envious person not only tortures its surroundings with “the suspicion of being disadvantaged”, but in the first line looks at her*himself that way.
Verena Kast, psychotherapist and professor emeritus of psychology, once summarized the previously mentioned “downward comparison” as follows:
»When we feel the sting of envy in us, or when we are completely overwhelmed by feelings of envy, then we do not feel good, and in any case we feel that we are in an”inferior position”, with the conviction that we are in a completely unjustified way worse off compared to others, without having any possibility to change this in any way.« and she adds »In situations that appeal to our envy, we are not objective: we tend to perceive the achievements, the character, the possessions of others with a magnifying glass, but our own with a reducing glass.«
But what exactly happens in us if we experience our partners in an “open” relationship – or in an already established multiple relationship – with a new lover, for example; especially if they spend time together, perhaps even enjoy short vacations, share sexuality?
In one of my comments on Entry 36 I compare jealousy with curry by calling it a “multi-component-emotion”. Verena Kast writes something quite similar about envy: »In the emotion that we call “envy”, various other emotions are at work, such as sadness, anger and hatred. Envy is thus a composite feeling; this means that some of the emotional components involved may be more prominent. […] As a rule, we can still deal with envy as long as it is an identifiable feeling. But envy can also take the form of a very strong suge of emotions, an affect, so that nothing else counts in our lives – at least for a certain time – except envy, the envied persons and the thoughts of how to free ourselves from this horrible affect, which then usually results in fantasies of retaliation.«
Here comes into play what Richard Kinseher called above “re-experiencing” and “re-activation” and what I called in Entry 36 the “highway in your mind”: An increasing manifestation of experienced disregard, of suffered debarment and endured indifference, caused by many similar and connected experiences during the course of our life. And yes, it is true that such episodes obviously arose subjectively at some point in the personality of the “envious” person. Verena Kast specifies:
»”Grudge” as envy is also called, is a mixture of anxiety, feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, of anger, hostility and feelings of inferiority, combined with feelings of – mostly suppressed – grief. […] It is the reaction to the fact that [in our minds] we still are not always the best child of the dearest mother.«
Verena Kast explains the consequences: »We feel violated in our self-esteem. Admittedly or not, our self-esteem is out of balance, and we need to re-regulate ourselves. […] For feelings of envy are – although mostly masked – tremendously aggressive feelings; they are attacks on our own self-esteem and on the self-esteem of other people. But if our self-esteem is constantly under attack, we are much less creative than we could be, we are much less competent in dealing with everyday life; we are much less satisfied than we could be, and we react more easily with hostility.«
So, while Richard Kinseher had described above that we could probably make readjustments and corrections in our decision-making-process if there were enough time – then it is easy to see here that we will most likely not be able to do so in a “resentment-rush” of envy. Obviously, just as with jealousy, a “continued attack on self-esteem” – e.g. by the environment showing no consideration for the jealous person and relying on a “hardening effect through habituation” (e.g. by maintaining the manner, frequency and duration of meetings with new/other partners) – is more likely to have the opposite effect of imminent escalation.
But why did I talk in my introduction especially about a discrepancy in the (empowerment)status of the participants or a blind spot in their emotional contract*?
A key position is taken here by the above mentioned “inner best child of the dearest (inner) mother”. For strictly speaking, this formulation puts its finger in a wound concerning our own self-care. For which we are all primarily responsible ourselves today, since our biological parents will usually no longer appear on the scene to make up for past shortcomings in terms of former rejection, exclusion and disregard towards our “inner child”. If we have now crammed our potential partners in that “need-fulfillment-manner” described in Entry 58 as a patch into such deficit gaps, then we must now realize again in the bitterest way that another human being can never be suitable for such an intentional purpose.
But what if we are the “patch” or the “need fulfilment” of the others – or if we have built most of our existing partnerships on such a premise over a long period of time? In this case, the phenomenon “envy” does 100% justice to its status as a valid emotion – since all emotions are fundamentally intended for us as warning and signalling mechanisms that are essential for survival – and which are therefore supposed to put us in a state of self-preservation and self-efficiency. Verena Kast illustrates this mechanism as follows and appeals to our self-efficacy: »The feeling of envy signals to us, in other words, that we no longer agree with ourselves. Either we have to make more out of our lives, or we have to change the idea of ourselves, adapt it to reality or change reality.«
How I comprehend this? On the surface, envy might seem as if, while drinking tap water and eating stale bread her*himself, the envious person would accuse the rest of the world of indulging in jelly beans in their absence. Thus, applied to a mutual emotional contract, one could perhaps accuse the jealous person of the already mentioned “grudge”, in a sense that – if the jealous person were to have its way – nobody would ever be allowed a “treat”: Any shortage would have to be perceptibly evenly distributed among all, because just then, and only then, it would it be okay.
In fact, I, Oligotropos, have spent several years in such a fallacy (not as the jealous person, but as the supposedly “restricted” one).
Actually, however, this gloomy way of thinking is a 180° reversal of the principle, to which I would like to invite by means of Oligoamory: Exactly the fullness, the “more than the sum”, must be evenly distributed in a perceptible way for all participants!
In practical terms, this therefore cannot mean sending one person to work for more than 40 hours a week, while another person uses those “day off” thus gained as an opportunity for various dates. This is even more true for vacations of any kind, which parts of a so-called multiple relationship want to spend 1:1 with each other without the rest, because quite apart from the resource “time” almost in every case also the resource “money” is affected – where it has to be checked properly to what extent that was contributed by whom and in what way according to existing liabilities from implied emotional contracts. And this includes even more the respect for existing partners, where it speaks for itself when somebody says around a potential date “What’s the thing? Why don’t you get somebody yourself…!” (Good old envy couldn’t have revealed a higher degree of interchangeability and/or arbitrariness more easily…).
A true multiple relationship worthy of the name requires for all parties involved the participation in the “Celebration of Life“ (quoted in my Entry about Emotional Contracts) and thus in the jointly generated abundance instead of a”distribution of shortage(s)”. Only in this way can we succeed in moving from the downward comparison of the destructive nature of envy to its constructive side and its upward comparison: What can we, what can I change? Where am I (already) self-effective? What lies within my power?
Loving relationships (and the emotional contracts attached to them) should allow us room for both co-creation and self-realization.
Therefore, relationships are always problematic when we perceive them as places to which we are fatefully “bound”, because there are “always worse things in the world – and by which we believe that we at least do not deserve anything “better”. Which means that we are merely repeating the patterns of our past with all its subordination (And do we really want to experience a [multiple] relationship with former dynamics of powerlessness today?).
Active participation and access to the “joint cake” therefore includes beating one’s own drum loudly and pointing out one’s own competencies as well as the awareness of potential shifts in the distribution of resources. In this way envy is perfectly allowed to be a motivating force for us, especially in a relationship to “distinguish” ourselves.
And thus “envy” becomes a rather valuable (warning)signal in multiple-relationship contexts and as “bigger brother”, has also much more frequent cause and reason to appear than its sister “jealousy”, who in my eyes is distinctly more related to issues of trust and attachment.
I leave the final word to Mrs. Kast, who once more summarized how important it is to perceive and be perceived with noticeable, all-round appreciation in every loving relationship: »It is important for our self-esteem and a resilient sense of identity that we can express the joy of success, as well as that other people perceive what we accomplish, what we do. […] If we don’t allow ourselves this joy, we reduce our self-esteem and thus also our competence to actively shape life.«
((So eating jelly beans is actually more enjoyable if you a) jointly savour the yield and b) really get actual jelly beans instead of being allowed to enjoy merely the eating pleasure of the others…)
¹ Line from the song “Mellow Yellow“, written and recorded by Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan in 1966.
² Verena Kast: “Surpassing oneself – envy and jealousy as opportunities for personal development”; Patmos Verlag; 2nd Edition (February 2015)
* “Emotional Contract” – I remind: “Implied acknowledgement and agreement – as a result of a mutually established emotional close-knit relationship – regarding the totality of voluntary yielded obligations, self-commitments and care which have been reciprocally contributed and are potentially enjoyable by all parties involved.”
And thanks to muse Svenja, who once again got the wheels turning with her input.