This morning I yawned widely, waking up at five am and, like most Americans, I grabbed my phone and checked Facebook status updates. The first image to pop up was of a close friend announcing his new relationship status, making he and his boyfriend “Facebook Official”. I had a moment of pure joy for them, good people who fought the odds and found each other. And then I had one brief stabbing moment of bitter jealousy.
I had the same experience yesterday having coffee with a good friend, as I was genuinely happy for him telling stories of skiing with his boyfriend and preparing for an upcoming epic vacation, yet I had that bitter flavor in my mouth again, envious at the good things in his life.
Every human gets jealous of other humans, it’s the way of things. Jealousy is a complex emotion rooted, a complicated mix of shame, fear, and sadness. When we experience jealousy, we are feeling our own shame at not having the thing we want in conjunction with worrying we aren’t good enough to have that thing, while we are at the same time sad about not having it and scared we won’t ever have it.
Jealousy isn’t necessarily an unhealthy emotion–it is rooted in the idea of human want and need, and we always have things we want and need. Jealousy can become ugly when it dictates thoughts and interactions. Jealousy can complicate human relationships and can facilitate setbacks that can last for years, and jealousy is almost always accompanied by deep internal pain.
At its essence, jealousy is always understandable.
My mother has a stomach condition that prohibits her from eating most foods. And she loves eating. So our family gathers for meals in a restaurant and we order fresh fruits and deep fried cheeses and crunchy breads, and she eats saltine crackers.
One of my sisters tried for years to get pregnant, and was unsuccessful, while the sister closest to her in age had six successful pregnancies and deliveries during the same time frame.
A dear friend of mine lost his father when he was young and has spent his entire life grieving him, and he’s married to a woman who has a close relationship with her father, constantly causing him internal pain.
Jealousy is often accompanied by being genuinely happy for someone at the same time.
Sometimes jealousy is irrational as well, as people envy what they see in others but refuse to work on in themselves. John is obese and is jealous of Sam being fit but John doesn’t want to eat right or exercise; Sally hates her job and is jealous of Jane’s great job but Sally doesn’t want to spend four years in college.
Like any human, I grow jealous of other humans frequently. And like any human, others grow jealous of me. I frequently have friends say they are jealous of my relationship with my children, my recent travels, or my self-employment. I don’t like hearing this information, and I sometimes feel the need to justify and explain away why they shouldn’t be jealous by emphasizing how expensive the kids are, how unsteady self-employment can be, or how long I had to wait in my life to be able to travel. But instead of growing frustrated, I focus on the positive. When someone says I’m lucky to have children, I nod and agree that I am lucky, for indeed I am.
When I grow jealous, I do my best to break it apart into smaller emotions. What am I experiencing shame over? What am I sad about? And what am I scared of? I let myself feel the feelings and then process them (the same kind of work I would do with a client, I do with myself).
This morning, for example, seeing two people celebrate their relationship on Facebook, I processed silently to myself. What am I experiencing shame over? Well, I date and I haven’t found a lasting healthy relationship, and though I’m very happy being single, I still have the idea somewhere deep down that being in a relationship is the desired thing, and it is something that I want. What am I sad about? I’m happy for them, and sad that my own efforts haven’t resulted in a happy and lasting relationship. And I sometimes find myself lonely. And what am I scared of? I’m scared that I won’t find that.
There, jealousy dissected. I can then focus on the happiness I feel toward the other person and go about my day.
Like all complex human feelings, jealousy is one of the feelings in recent years that I have learned to be grateful for, it is a powerful and rich emotion that comes to the surface when my heart has a message that my brain needs to hear. I can be jealous of and happy for someone all at the same time, and I can be secure in my own life and still want more.