No one enjoys feeling jealous. Yet, jealousy is an inevitable emotion that pretty much every one of us will experience. The problem with jealousy isn’t that it comes up from time to time, but what it does to us when we don’t get a hold on it. It can be frightening to experience what happens when we allow our jealousy to overpower us or to shape the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. That is why understanding where our jealous feelings actually come from and learning how to deal with jealousy in healthy, adaptive ways is key to so many areas of our lives from our interpersonal relationships to our careers to our personal goals.
So, why are we so jealous?
Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that increased jealousy correlates with lower self-esteem. “Many of us are often unaware of the basic shame that exists within us, because it comes so naturally to think self-critical thoughts about ourselves. Yet, shame from our past can heavily influence the degree to which we feel jealous and insecure in the present,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone, author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. As she and her father Dr. Robert Firestone define it, the “critical inner voice” is a form of negative self-talk. It perpetuates destructive thoughts and feelings, driving us to compare, evaluate and judge ourselves (and often others) with great scrutiny.
This voice can fuel our feelings of jealousy by filling our heads with critical and suspicious commentary. In fact, what our critical inner voice tells us about our situation is often harder to cope with than the situation itself. A rejection or betrayal from our partner is painful, but what often hurts us even more are all the terrible things our critical inner voice tells us about ourselves after the event. “You’re such a fool. Did you really think you could just be happy?” “You’ll wind up alone. You should never trust anyone again.”
To illustrate how this internal enemy feeds our negative feelings around jealousy, we’ll look closer at two types of jealousy: romantic jealousy and competitive jealousy. While these two forms of jealousy often overlap, considering them separately can help us better understand how jealousy may be affecting different areas of our lives and how we can best deal with it.
It’s a basic reality that relationships go smoother when people don’t get overly jealous. The more we can get a hold on our feelings of jealousy and make sense of them separate from our partner, the better off we will be. Remember, our jealousy often comes from insecurity in ourselves – a feeling like we are doomed to be deceived, hurt or rejected. Unless we deal with this feeling in ourselves, we are likely to fall victim to feelings of jealousy, distrust or insecurity in any relationship, no matter what the circumstances.
These negative feelings about ourselves originate from very early experiences in our lives. We often take on feelings our parents or important caretakers had toward us or toward themselves. We then, unconsciously, replay, recreate or react to old, familiar dynamics in our current relationships. For example, if we felt cast aside as kids, we may easily perceive our partner as ignoring us. We may choose a partner who’s more elusive or even engage in behaviors that would push our partner away.
The extent to which we took on self-critical attitudes as children often shapes how much our critical inner voice will affect us in our adult lives, especially in our relationships. Yet, no matter what our unique experiences may be, we all possess this inner critic to some degree. Most of us can relate to carrying around a feeling that we won’t be chosen. The degree to which we believe this fear affects how threatened we will feel in a relationship. In her blog “Are You the Cause of Your Jealousy? ,” Dr. Lisa Firestone wrote, “Lurking behind the paranoia toward our partners or the criticisms toward a perceived third-party threat, are often critical thoughts toward ourselves. Thoughts like, ‘What does he see in her?’ can quickly turn into ‘She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me!’ Even when our worst fears materialize, and we learn of a partner’s affair, we frequently react by directing anger at ourselves for being “foolish, unlovable, ruined or unwanted.”
Like a sadistic coach, our critical inner voice tells us not to trust or be too vulnerable. It reminds us we are unlovable and not cut out for romance. It’s that soft whisper that plants the seed of doubt, suspicion and uncertainty. “Why is she working late?” “Why is he choosing his friends over me?” “What is she even doing when I’m away?” “How come he’s paying so much attention to what she’s saying?”
Those of us familiar with how jealousy works know that, all too often, these thoughts will slowly start to sprout and blossom into much larger, more engrained attacks on ourselves and/or our partner. “She doesn’t want to be around you. There must be someone else.” “He’s losing interest. He wants to get away from you.” “Who would want to listen to you? You’re so boring.”
These jealous feeling can arise at any point in a relationship, from a first date to the 20th year of a marriage. In an attempt to protect ourselves, we may listen to our inner critic and pull back from being close to our partner. Yet, in an ultimate catch 22, we also tend to feel more jealous when we’ve retreated from pursuing what we want. If we know on some level we’re not making our relationship a priority or actively going after our goal of being loving or close, we tend to feel more insecure and more jealous. That is why it’s even more essential not to blindly act on jealous feelings by pushing our partner further away.
While it may feel pointless or illogical, it is completely natural to want what others have and to feel competitive. However, how we use these feelings is very important to our level of satisfaction and happiness. If we use these feelings to serve our inner critic, to tear down ourselves or others, that is clearly a destructive pattern with demoralizing effects. However, if we don’t let these feelings fall into the hands of our critical inner voice, we can actually use them to acknowledge what we want, to be more goal-directed or even to feel more accepting of ourselves and what affects us.
It’s okay, even healthy, to allow ourselves to have a competitive thought. It can feel good when we simply let ourselves have the momentary feeling without judgment or a plan for action. However, if we ruminate or twist this thought into a criticism of ourselves or an attack on another person, we wind up getting hurt. If we find ourselves having an overreaction or feeling haunted by our feelings of envy, we can do several things.
- Be aware of what gets triggered. Think about the specific events that cause you to feel stirred up. Is it a friend who’s having financial success? An ex who’s dating someone else? A co-worker who speaks her mind in meetings?
- Ask yourself what critical inner voices come up. What types of thoughts do these jealous feelings spark? Are you using these feelings of jealousy to put yourself down? Do they make you feel insignificant, incapable, unsuccessful etc.? Is there a pattern or theme to these thoughts that feels familiar?
- Think about the deeper implications and origins of these thoughts: Do you feel a certain pressure to achieve a particular thing? Is there something you think you’re supposed to be? What would getting this thing mean about you? Does this connect to your past?
Once we’ve asked ourselves these questions, we can understand how these feelings may have more to do with unresolved issues within us than with our current life or the person our jealousy is directed at. We can have more compassion for ourselves and try to suspend the judgments that lead us to feel insecure.
How to Deal with Jealousy
What to Do:
- Consider what’s being stirred up – Daniel Siegel uses the acronym SIFT to describe how we can sift through the sensations, images, feelings and thoughts that come up when we reflect on certain issues in our lives. We should try to do just that when we feel jealous. We can consider what sensations, images, feelings and thoughts jealousy brings up. Does the current scenario trigger something old – a family dynamic or long-held, negative self-perception? The more we can connect these emotions or overreactions to the past events that created them in the first place, the clearer we can feel in our present-day situation.
- Calm down and stay vulnerable – No matter how jealous we feel, we can find ways to come back to ourselves and soften. We can do this by first, accepting our emotions with compassion. Remember that no matter how strong we feel, our feelings tend to pass in waves, first building, then subsiding. It’s possible to accept and acknowledge our jealousy without acting on it. We can learn tools to calm ourselves down before reacting, for example, by taking a walk or a series of deep breaths. It’s a lot easier to calm down in this way when we refuse to tolerate or indulge in the angry words of our inner critic, so learning steps to challenge it is essential. When we do, we can stand up for ourselves and the people we care for and remain vulnerable and open in how we relate.
- Don’t act out – Our critical inner voice tends to advise us to take actions that can hurt us in the long run. Once it spirals us into a state of jealousy, it may tell us to give up or stop going after what we want. It may lead us to self-sabotage, blow up at or punish someone we respect. If we’re in a relationship, it may tell us to ice or lash out at our partner. When we do this, all we do is create the dynamic we’re afraid of. We may hurt and undermine our partners’ loving feelings for us and stir up their own feelings of distrust and fear. We may inadvertently encourage them to become more closed off, less open about their feelings, thoughts and actions, which then adds to our feelings of distrust and jealousy.
- Seek our own sense of security – The best thing we can do is focus on feeling strong and secure in ourselves. We have to do the work to conquer our inner critic and believe that we are okay, even on our own. We don’t need one specific person’s love to believe we’re loveable. Human beings are full of flaws and limitations, and no one can give us what we need 100 percent of the time. This is why it’s so important to practice self-compassion and learn to stand up to our own inner critic. This doesn’t mean shutting people out or shutting ourselves off from what we want. It actually means embracing our lives wholeheartedly, while believing that we’re strong enough to fail or lose. No matter what, we can handle the emotions that arise.
- Stay competitive – A lot of people frown upon the idea of competing, but what we’re talking about here isn’t a goal of being the best, but a personal goal of being at our best. That means feeling like ourselves and embracing the qualities that will serve us in pursuing what we want. Rather than letting the green monster turn us into monsters, we can allow ourselves to feel inspired, to connect with who we want to be and take actions that bring us closer to that. If we want the respect of those around us, we have to be mindful and considerate in our interactions. If we want to feel the consistent love of our partner, we must commit to engaging in loving acts each and every day. If we maintain a desire to act with integrity and go after our goals, we win the most important battle we will face, the struggle to realize and become our true selves -separate from anyone else.
- Talk about it – When something like jealousy is taking over, it’s important to find the right person to talk to and a healthy way to express what we feel. The people who support a positive side of us and who help stop us from ruminating or sinking deeper into our sorrows are the kind of friends we want to talk to about our jealousy. We all have friends who get a little too worked up when we bring up certain subjects, and these may not be the best friends to seek out when we ourselves are feeling triggered and riled up. We should try to find people who will support us staying on track and being the kind of individuals we want to be. Venting to these friends is fine as long as it’s a matter of letting out our irrational thoughts and feelings, while acknowledging that they’re exaggerated and irrational. This process works only when it relieves us of the feeling and allows us to move on and take reasonable actions. If we’re suffering with feelings of jealousy, it’s also very wise to seek the help of a therapist. This can help us make sense of our feelings and get a handle on them, while acting in healthier, adaptive ways.
In a relationship, it’s important to maintain open, honest communication with our partner. If we hope to have their trust and for them to have ours, we have to listen to what they say without growing defensive or rushing to judgment. This open line of communication is not about unloading our insecurities on our partner, but instead, allowing ourselves to be kind and connected, even when we feel insecure or jealous. This naturally helps our partner to do the same.
There’s no question, that it takes a certain level of emotional maturity to deal with the many feelings around jealousy. It takes a willingness to challenge our critical inner voice and all the insecurities it generates. It also takes willpower to step back and resist acting on our impulsive, jealous reactions. However, when we foster this power in ourselves, we realize we are a lot stronger than we think. We become more secure in ourselves and in our relationships.