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Barth, F.D. (1988). The Role of Self-Esteem in the Experience of Envy. Am. J. Psychoanal., 48(3):198-210.

(1988). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 48(3):198-210

The Role of Self-Esteem in the Experience of Envy

F. Diane Barth, MSW, CSW

As a growing number of psychoanalysts turn away from traditional drive-conflict and object-instinctual explanations of human dynamics, it becomes necessary to find alternative ways of thinking about behavior previously understood from these perspectives. Envy is one of the emotions in need of such a reexamination. Traditional explanations of envy pay little attention to the role of self-esteem in the development of the emotion and the defenses against it, despite the fact that most authors who write about it seem to recognize that narcissistic needs and issues of self-esteem frequently arise in connection with envy.

Little has actually been written about envy as a whole since Klein's (1957) masterful exposition on the subject, although various authors have explored components of the emotion. Freud focused on the concept of penis envy rather than more generalized envy. Horney discussed the concepts of penis envy (1939) and vindictiveness (1948), and Rosenfeld (1971) wrote about the envy-related wish to destroy both self and object. Eichenbaum and Orbach (1983) have explored the meaning of competitiveness for women, and Rosner (1985) has written about sibling rivalry. Chasseguet-Smirgel (1974) has proposed a theory in which envy is seen as a necessary component of healthy development, and Joffe (1969) and Moulton (1970) have written fine critical reviews of the theories of envy and penis envy, respectively. Chodorow (1978) reviewed the concept of penis envy in relation to female development.

While almost all of these authors have observed that narcissistic needs and/or narcissistic injury arise in conjunction with envy, only Horney (1939) paid active attention to the significance of self-esteem in the development of envy.

Envy is a complex emotion, involving such traditionally difficult-to-manage feelings as rage, destructive hostility, greed, and shame. It seldom occurs in isolation, but instead is usually an aspect of a more complex set of dynamics operating in an individual.

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