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Backhanded Compliments and Cold Shoulders

The inevitable effects of envy on our leadership

When I walked off the stage after giving a talk, a woman leader came up to me with a big smile. She touched my arm, leaned in, and said, “Wow, most of the time I can’t understand your messages at all, but I got so much out of this one. And thanks for not making any of us feel insecure about our beauty by wearing that tonight.” She gave me a hug with a big “thank you” and “great job” and walked away. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had been knifed. Her comments not only spoiled my night, but they left their marks for a long time. I still fret and worry about being clear and accessible when I speak, and I try on outfit after outfit before I give a talk.

If you’re a woman in leadership, you will deal with envy. This seems to be a secret that we hide or deny as women. Wanting to uphold the picture of universal sisterhood and solidarity and not confirm stereotypes of “catfighting,” we don’t admit that envy simmers below the surface of many female relationships.

Envy creates an insidious dynamic. It’s different than jealousy and competition. Jealousy is about the fear of losing. Competition is about the commitment to win. Envy holds a darker violence. It’s not about losing or wining; it’s about spoiling. Envy is a highly charged emotion that seeks to tear away what is good and cancel out what is left as bad. It seethes in silence gaining power to accuse and attack. Envy rips and bites and marks. I have the scars to prove it.

In every leadership position I’ve held—whether it has been in a living room leading a small group, in a staff meeting as a ministry director, on stage giving a message, or in the lobby after a Sunday service—I have felt the marring of envy. Sometimes it’s the prick of a look from across the room. Other times it’s the pointed finger driving home a list of criticisms and complaints. The worst is the icy withdrawal of relationship that punishes through excommunication.

Why Don’t We Talk About Envy?

It’s hard enough to say, “I’m feeling envious.” It’s even scarier to say, “I’m being envied.” Even as I write this, alarm bells are ringing loudly: You sound so arrogant! Who do you think you are? You’re egotistical and presumptuous! Who says they’re the object of envy?! A lot of women in leadership, if they were honest, would say they’ve felt the binds of being envied, and it has tangled them up. In her book, Tripping the Prom Queen, author Susan Shapiro Barash interviewed 500 women from a cross-section of ages, classes, ethnicities, and religions. Remarkably, 90 percent of them said envy colors their lives. Sadly, 90 percent of those surveyed said their primary rivalry at work is with women—not men.

Despite how prevalent these dynamics are, I rarely have had the vulnerable conversation with other women in ministry about envy. Rivalry seems to be expected between men—even encouraged and affirmed. Maybe it’s because male competition tends to be specific and limited to goal-oriented arenas, and men are upfront about duking it out. For women, though, rivalry evaluates all aspects of our lives. It includes our performance and accumulation, but it’s really more about our identity as a whole, and that makes it hard to name and acknowledge.

When men give a sermon or presentation, they mostly are evaluated on their delivery and content. Listen to the critiques of women speakers, though—especially by other women—and you’ll hear comments about their clothes and makeup, whether they’re married or single, whether they work outside the home, if they have kids, if they’re relatable or too feminine or masculine, and on and on. Often these comments are said in the sweet tone of a backhanded compliment or under the umbrella of “feedback.” This, I have learned, is the tacit code of envy.

I have a friend who is an incredibly gifted leader. She recently got invited to be one of the few women on a governing board at her church. She turned it down. When I asked her why, she said, “I am young and new to the church. There are women who have served here for years. If I said yes, I would be hated. I would have no women friends. So, I told the elders that I don’t really have anything to offer, that I am not ready yet, and that they should really ask someone else.” They believed her and did ask someone else—a man.

The Real Threat of Excommunication

Women often hold onto our “second class” status as women as a way to connect as a “sisterhood.” Because there are often so few opportunities for women, accepting one often feels like stepping outside the sisterhood. Breaking free into places of influence, visibility, and power can feel like betrayal, and so we collude to be smaller and lesser than we were created to be to avoid being judged, hated, and set apart. Excommunication is the powerful punishment of envy. The stories of Hagar and Joseph tell us that. We don’t want to risk and endure that kind of suffering.

I’ve been in ministry for over 25 years, and I still struggle with the guilt and fear that if I am fully alive in my gifting and calling, it might feel like death to a sister. Too often, in either a self-righteous or victimized way, I will align with the lie that goodness and blessing exists in limited amounts—not in each one of us. I will power down by saying and doing less, or power up by defending and demanding more. I say things like, “Oh, it’s nothing. I was just lucky.” Other times, I withdraw, withhold, and hide. I say yes to things I want to say no to, and no to things I deeply desire because I’m afraid I won’t be liked or included. And then I feel depressed or resentful.

When you feel like you must diminish or pander your gifts, your calling will become a burden. When you subdue your capacities, you must squash dreams and snuff out desires and then contend with the anger and sorrow of living a life that is not yours, a life that has been edited by others who are trying to mar your story instead of writing their own. Your gifts are how you offer the heart of God to others. Can you bless your gifting and calling in the midst of curses that come from the violence of envy?

I am beginning to realize that who I am as a leader may awaken desires in other women, and envy is an escape for them from the wounds of insecurity and the shame of feeling undesirable and unchosen. If I can bear the bites and rips of envy without retaliation or mitigation and allow myself to be kind and curious, I find that I can actually dream on behalf of those who may want to rip me apart or tear me down. Then I can invite them to dream on their own behalf, to embody their own story, to explore more deeply what they may be meant for—and they can do this without fracturing my story.

Last spring I had the privilege of being able to emcee a conference at a local church. I had a fair amount of time on stage, and the main speaker graciously affirmed and thanked me. Throughout the three days of the conference, there was one woman in particular who would me pull me aside every break to tell me something. Critiques were embedded in questions, and backhanded compliments held the sting of disapproval and disappointment. I recognized the tone and language of envy, and it got to me. I found myself toggling between arrogance and insecurity. I simultaneously wanted to apologize and indulge her with platitudes and give her a shove and put her in her place.

On the last day, I took a deep breath as she approached me again, and I took the risk to say, “It seems that my part in this conference has brought a desire up to the surface for you. I’d love to hear about what that might be.” For the next ten minutes, she shared about her journey as a woman in a community that only saw her as someone who baked great cookies. She had accepted this as “just the way it is”—until she saw me up on stage, and she realized how much more she had to share. She was able to put words to how much she wanted to be a small-group leader, and we were able to dream together a little about what it might look like for her to pursue that desire. I did not have to diminish or defend myself to affirm the good in her. She did not have to bring me down and spoil the good in me. Envy did not twist and divide us. It tried, but it did not leave its mark.

Jen Oyama Murphy is a former small group director and support and recovery ministry director. She loves working as a lay counselor and bringing care into stories of trauma and harm. She is currently working on a master’s in clinical psychology.

May19, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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