Jealous–we ALL know the sting of it and have been smacked down by the shame of it, but it’s really a normal part of being humans who thrive on connection. In this article I demystify jealousy, look at it’s purposeful role in our lives (yep, you heard me right), and remove the burden of shame and indignity that always seems to go with it.

Jealous: We All Know it Well

Two recent conversations with friends got me chewing on this topic.

In one, my artist friend told me she feels jealous often. She explained that it comes with the territory of being a creative and submitting her work to intense scrutiny. My friend admitted that, of course, she’s aware of what others are doing and succeeding at, of course she makes comparisons of their work to her own, and of course it seems unfair at times when success seems so random or less deserving. Comparing herself to other artists’ work can lead to feelings of unworthiness that she has to shake herself out of it. In the end, she makes the choice to celebrate the successes of others, and knows that her opportunities are out there as well. This friend spoke of jealousy as if it were the most normal emotion in the world, putting a whole new and comforting spin on it for me.

In another conversation, my friend talked about withholding details about her successes for fear others will feel jealous of her. She did this with me once and I felt hurt by the distance it created, and the sting of unworthiness for not being included. But it led to my own internal inquiry–do I do this to others? Do I exclude others when all they’re really seeking is in-clusion? We’re often not aware of the consequences of our self-protective urges.

These conversations helped me to realize that feeling jealous IS NORMAL and has a valuable purpose for setting us right.

Jealous: The Emotion of Belonging

Jealous: it’s the emotion that leads us straight to belonging–to True Belonging, a term Brene Brown describes so powerfully in her book, Braving the Wilderness, as the “… spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world… ”

The way I’ve come to see it, jealousy is the emotion–and the internal guidance–that warns us of breaches to our sense of True Belonging.

Jealousy arises at those times when we’re at risk for lost connection, abandonment, or betrayed trust.

Feeling jealous provides us with the opportunity–if we’ll listen–for getting back on track with being our whole, true, authentic selves. For belonging to ourselves, not counting on or needing the validation of fitting in, having what they have (which makes us feel like we fit in), or trusting that others will always be there for us.

Our Noble Spirits: Jealousy has a Purpose

Truthfully, nothing makes me feel like more of a devolved human being than when I’m jealous. Like wanting what someone else has, or wanting them, and–worse!–feeling wholly inadequate and diminished by the unworthiness I feel in the face of it. As if feeling jealous isn’t enough, I have to feel like shit about it too.

We ALL know jealousy–we’ve all felt it. It comes up in a flash, unbidden, and hits us between the eyes. Jealousy gnaws and confuses. At it’s worst, it shoots us straight into a primal, painful swamp of sadness and unworthiness.

We hear a lot about the extremes of jealousy–the number one cause of all homicides in the US. Perpetrated by deeply controlling, possessive people who fly into jealous rages. These jealous outliers don’t have the support or skill sets to find better ways to deal with their feelings of unworthiness.

But that’s not us. We’re not stalkers or bad people. I truly believe in the nobility of the human spirit–there are no wasted emotions: jealousy has a purpose.

We’re Wired for Jealousy

The rest of us–the entire human race–are wired for jealousy as a mechanism to keep us connected. That’s right, jealousy is about survival. It’s not a character flaw, a terrible scar on our nobility, or something we must pay penance for. Jealousy does not have to mean we have low self-esteem, are mean-spirited, or wish others harm for having what we don’t.

Jealous is how we feel when faced with the threat of not belonging, of disconnection, of being left out, or of having our trust betrayed. It’s a warning sign that we’ve been abandoned or are at eminent risk of losing something we value. Jealousy is born from our deeply primal need to belong.

We are wired with this exquisitely sensitive emotional signal to focus our attention on what supports belonging. 

The Problem With Jealousy

Four main problems with the way we deal with jealousy in our culture:

  • We vilify jealousy. It’s always something we need to redeem ourselves from. But, in truth, it’s not the emotion itself that needs forgiving–it’s what we sometimes choose to do about it.
  • Our stories about jealousy get messy. This is how we get ourselves into trouble… Cuz we’re human and we tend to overthink things. As an alarm response, jealousy can drive obsessive thinking. We jump to assumptions before we have all the facts. Then create stories based on those assumptions–stories with disparaging conclusions about our worthiness. We become fearful about what we perceive we don’t have, or have lost. And our bodies believe every word–generating a huge stress response to support all that worry. Finally, we lose it, get lost in a world of pain and anxiety, and sometimes–on top of it all–we behave badly (you know what I’m talking about).
  • We judge ourselves harshly. First we’re unworthy because of the disconnect or loss. Second, we’re terrible human beings for feeling jealous in the first place. We’re really screwed, aren’t we?
  • Many of us do withhold our light. We’re greedy about our successes, good fortune, even our joy–for fear of making others feel jealous. How many of us have experienced the retribution from a jealous friend or family member? But what happens when we withhold sharing our successes? We shut down our hearts, we shut others out, and we INVITE jealousy through the energetic vacuum we create by our shutting down. This allows our friends to fill in the blank spaces–to make assumptions about what we are hiding. In this way, we actually AMPLIFY one another’s fear of not belonging by rejecting them through our silence.

Confessions of a Jealous Person (Because I’m Wired for Belonging)

The discussions with my friends got me thinking about myself–do I feel jealous when faced with what others have that I don’t? Do I stay silent about my successes for fear others will feel jealous of me? Well… yes, yes I do. All of it. I’m guilty.

Sometimes it’s just the wistful wish to have what they have. But other times it’s when I sense abandonment, betrayal, or when I rub up against my unworthiness, real or imagined.

I feel jealous of my husband and sons’ astonishing intelligence–I wish I had it, but I also delight in theirs, and benefit from it. My good friend and her college-aged daughter are close and talk and text all the time (including emojis!). My sons and I share our own closeness and ways of staying connected, but I sure would love the texts with emojis! I envy another friend’s long and frequent vacations and explorations of the world and would love to do that too. But I also delight in the photos she posts frequently on social media and in the joy she obviously experiences on these adventures.

I’m jealous of my sister who gets a three-month PAID sabbatical every few years, but am glad for her joy in having time to really sink into projects she loves. Closely noting when runners pass me by on my walking trail, I feel wistful–especially if they appear older than me–but I cheer them on!

And, yes, there are also those jealousies that take me deeper and closer to my own shame–for not being enough, for not measuring up, and for feeling left out. It’s really uncomfortable for me to think about–and admit–but these experiences take me straight to the painful parts of me that need my attention and kindness–not judgment or shame-on-top-of-shame.

 Jealous: My Action Plan

  • I check my assumptions. Often what I perceive about other people–those things I wish I had–aren’t even true! I’ve made assumptions that are completely false. We ALL do this. Our brains are actually designed to make assumptions–we fill in the gaps where there is a vacuum, like missing data or silence. What we don’t know is our worst enemy!
    • Write a list of what you are feeling jealous about.
    • Now, what assumptions have you made–do you have all the facts? That person who appears so successful may be suffering the same self-doubt that you do.
  • I check my self-judgment: I’m not a bad person for feeling jealous, and I’m not deserving of the harsh criticism I often marinate myself in. The comparisons I make–often false–harm no one but me, and often inspire me to improve myself.
    • Write out a list of positive affirmations to neutralize the the self-criticism. “I love myself.” “I am a blessing to this world.”
  • I accept responsibility for the painful feelings: When I brave the pain of jealousy rather than try to avoid it, make excuses for it, or blame others for it, it flows on through (eventually). And I get to learn something about myself that needs my care and attention.
    • Writing is a great method to walk right up to painful feelings. Being truthful with yourself, write the details. Take a close look, then apply the first two parts of this action plan.
    • Release the shame. Because when you do your best, you are enough–we’re ALL enough–just as we are.
  • I Practice Gratitude: This is the best antidote for the sting of jealousy. I run through a list of at least ten things I feel grateful for, and open my heart and feel each one deeply, reminding me how full my life is (despite my perceived deficiencies).
  • I Celebrate: I celebrate the successes of my friends as well as my own–our accomplishments and good fortune. We are all in this together. Celebration softens the sting that comparisons can bring.
  • I Brag: Truth is, I don’t know how to brag… I’m terrible at it. I was taught to be modest and not blow my own horn. But I love how Mama Gena (of Regena Thomashauer’s School of Womanly Arts) empowers women through the fine art of bragging and celebrating their own and other’s accomplishments.
  • I Choose Love: For me and for everyone. LOVE helps disperse the stories, judgments, and assumptions we make about others and ourselves.
  • I Suck It Up: Because in the end, life is and always will be UNFAIR–we’ve got to suck it up and celebrate anyway. There will always be people who get the goods and the success we wish we had. Who are better at something, or more accomplished, or more fortunate, or born into privilege, or–bigger, faster, richer, smarter, prettier–than we are–always. And why limit ourselves anyway? Perhaps there’s a much bigger, better ship right around the corner? Life’s unfairness is just a matter of how we look at it.

“True Belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True Belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”                                                                                           —Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

 

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Resources:

Brene Brown. Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House, 2017.

Regena Thomashauer (Mama Gena). The School of Womanly Arts.

Karyn Shanks. Forgiveness: Essential Power Tool for Health Resilience, 2017.

Karyn Shanks. Optimism: The Key to Starting Over When We’ve Failed, 2017.

KARYN SHANKS MD

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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