Transforming the Destructive Power of Envy – Cinderella and Her Stepsisters


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Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

The Cinderella story is (among other things) about the destructive power of envy that all of us have experienced sometime in our lives. The sisters envied their stepsister, Cinderella, for her admirable qualities (e.g., her kindness and goodness) – qualities that the sisters perceived they did not have themselves.  Consequently, the sisters marginalized Cinderella, denigrating her and trying to diminish her in the eyes of others.  In so doing, the sisters hurt themselves because they compromised their own potential for goodness.  One interesting aspect of envy is that it can hurt both the person who envies as well as the person envied. Let’s consider the variety of ways that envy is expressed:

  1. The “your good qualities are interpreted as bad” put down. People envious of the good qualities in others often interpret these characteristics negatively. For example, the strong and assertive woman leader is described as pushy.
  1. The “tall blade of grass gets cut down” response. Sometimes the cultural or gender role expectation dictates that no one should rise above the others. For example, if someone frequently toots his or her horn about achievements, the group quickly censors that individual.
  1. The “I hate you for all that is good about you” phenomenon. Consider the woman who is trapped in a long marriage to an abusive husband. She transfers her hate for the husband onto her independent daughter who pushes back in the face of mistreatment by the father.  Her mother envies and hates her daughter for the strength that the mother cannot express.
  1. The “I am going to ignore you” response. Cinderella’s sisters refused to acknowledge Cinderella’s good qualities. They ignored her, thinking she did not deserve validation and/or hoping that by ignoring her, her goodness would somehow disappear or be overlooked by others.

Why are some people consciously or unconsciously envious of the strengths and abilities of others?  Why do they despise them so much”? Let’s look at why people envy and what happens when they do.

Cinderella’s Sisters – The Enviers 

Let’s take a closer look at the inner life of the sisters.

  1. The sisters are (consciously) unaware of their own inadequacies.  However, they experience pain in the presence of Cinderella’s good qualities because, unconsciously, they feel inadequate. This pain is difficult for them to tolerate. As a result, the inadequacy they experience is projected or transferred onto Cinderella, resulting in them viewing Cinderella as inadequate instead of themselves.
  1. The sisters cannot move forward to uncover their own positive qualities and potential. The gaping hole they feel in their lives and the resultant hate for those who seem to have what they long for keeps them stuck and unable to move toward uncovering their own goodness and/or spirituality.
  1. The sisters are excessively critical of Cinderella, which generalizes to others. The sisters, for example, may constantly compare themselves to others and judge others to be wanting in relation to themselves.  They in turn assume a position of superiority vis-à-vis others, resulting in statements like: “I am privileged and wealthier than you are” or “I am more accomplished than you are”. All such comparisons are an attempt to bolster their perceived inferiority by posturing a critical superiority.

Cinderella – The Envied

What does it feel like to be in Cinderella’s shoes? What do people typically do in response to being envied?

  1. Mute their strengths and giftedness. In response to the critical disposition of their enviers, the envied may become inhibited. Because they want to avoid the pain of being criticized, the envied may make self-deprecating statements or render themselves altogether invisible by not expressing themselves at all. This is an unhealthy response because it is self-negating.
  1. Accept the abusing messages as the truth about themselves. The envied (especially in childhood) may internalize the toxic criticisms of the enviers and turn it against themselves. This can manifest itself in self-abusing behaviors such as eating disorders, undermining their own success, or lowering expectations for themselves.
  1. Escape from the pain through compensating behaviors. The envied may try to cover up their pain by behaviors such as overworking, promiscuity, and substance abuse. These maladaptive responses dull the pain of  feelings of  inadequacy and shame that they experience at the hands of the envier.

 Pain – The Portal to the True Self

 How do those that envy and those who are envied release themselves from the pain caused by these destructive emotions? Below, are some suggestions:

  1. Get out of denial and come to terms with the fact that envy exists. Unless we name it for what it is, it will continue to eat away at us like an emotional acid rain. This is true both for those who envy and those who are the targets of envy.
  1. Push back against the enviers. For those who are envied, come to recognize that you are not the person the abusers are saying you are. This position of strength will lead you to respond with a resounding “No” to all envious bullies in life and put you on the path to personal wholeness.
  1. Affirm the goodness within. Both enviers and those envied can acquire the psychological strength and spiritual knowledge to express the best that is within them. People are capable of accessing their authentic selves and through that connection, can validate their worth and make strong, loving connections with others.

The healing of envy, for the envier and the envied, represents the resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Envious sisters can become loving siblings. Cinderella can cease to be the target or victim of abuse and embrace the fullness of her humanity. How has envy manifested in your life? What was your path to recovery?

Your comments are valued.


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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