What Is Really Behind Jealousy?
The emotion of jealousy is an age-old problem and one that can bring out the worst in a person. There’s no doubt every human can experience some level of jealousy in their lifetime. (There may be exceptions, but they are few and far between).
In fact, people aren’t the only species who fall victim to this feeling. Research indicates some animals (dogs, primates, and horses, for example) are capable of experiencing jealousy.
A popular misconception is that jealousy and envy are the same emotion, but they refer to two different thought processes and resulting feelings.
The feeling of envy refers to wanting something that someone else has. Think, for example, how you might feel envious of your co-workers’ new sports car or your friend’s great head of hair.
Jealousy, however, is more aptly described as the fear of losing something (a lover, promotion, friend, etc.) to someone else.
In short, envy is a reaction to lacking something, while jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something.
There are different types of jealousy:
- Romantic jealousy
- Work or power jealousy
- Friend jealousy
- Family jealousy
- Even what’s considered abnormal jealousy (which can be pathological in nature and caused by mental illness or chemical imbalance).
So why does this emotion exist? From an evolutionary perspective, jealousy plays an important role in our lives by serving a critical adaptive function for humans—the vigilance over and protection of relationships that are valuable to us. As for what inspires feelings of envy and jealousy, neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., says it comes down to how our brains are wired.
“It all depends on how the amygdala connects with areas of our brain that establish our values and our motivations,” she explains. “We understand more of where sadness, anger, and fear originate in the brain, but jealousy and envy are complex in that the interplay between biochemistry, anatomy, and our environment within which we develop can dictate to what extent we feel either jealousy or envy.”
Jealousy is a natural instinctive emotion and a little bit of jealousy can be a useful reminder that you shouldn’t take a loved one or friend for granted.
This emotion becomes toxic for relationships, however, if left unchecked. Trust is a key component of any healthy, successful relationship. Jealousy breeds suspicion, doubt, and mistrust, and can result in preoccupation with the fear of betrayal.
At one point in our evolutionary history, being triggered by jealousy in an extreme way may have been important for our survival. But today, that type of aggressive response can become maladaptive. It causes stress and usually isn’t the best way of addressing the problem.
The good news is there are things you can do to conquer these feelings of jealousy that will inevitably arise from time to time. You can learn how to move from that reactionary part of your brain to the logical and more reasonable part of your brain.
1. Pay attention to what you are telling yourself.
Our self-talk drives the intensity of the emotions we experience. For example, do you find that feelings of jealousy arise out of thoughts that you don’t deserve that certain person in your life? Or that you’ll never be good enough to match up to others? Perhaps you tell yourself no one will ever be faithful to you because life is never fair.
Take a hard look at those things that trigger your jealousy. Carefully think through the potential scenarios you have imagined about your partner and what real evidence you have to validate them. Focus only on true facts.
It is imperative to work on improving yourself as an individual in order to be a whole and equal partner in your relationship. Security in yourself and your worth will help combat feelings that create jealousy.
2. Figure out what’s really bothering you.
Sometimes jealousy is a red flag that something really isn’t right in a relationship, which is why it’s important not to just shrug the emotion off and bury it. But often, jealousy has more to do with what’s happened to you in the past than what’s happening now — and that past stuff is worth digging into, too.
Did you have a parent who was unfaithful? Have you had a past relationship that involved infidelity? Take the time to figure out what’s coming from old wounds vs. your current situation.
3. Talk to your partner/friend/family member.
It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to admit that you’re jealous, but it’s important to do so if you’re feeling it on a regular basis.
Sit down when the jealousy isn’t in full-force so your emotions aren’t running high. Then, tell the person in a calm and non-accusatory way what you’re feeling jealous about.
They may not even be aware that their behavior was problematic for you, and from there, the two of you can work to establish ground rules or agreed upon behaviors that allow you to both feel safe and happy in the relationship.