Jealousy has a bad reputation. It’s not uncommon to hear well-meaning people say things like, “Don’t be jealous” or “Jealousy destroys relationships.” But what makes this emotion so bad?
While it’s often linked to romantic relationships, jealousy can come up whenever you’re worried about losing anything or anyone important to you. This is different from envy, which involves wanting something that belongs to someone else.
Jealousy can lead to feelings of anger, resentment, or sadness. But it can often tell you a thing or two about yourself and your needs.
Here’s a look at some ways to cope with jealousy and examine what’s at the root of your feelings.
“If you get that jealous twinge,” says Sarah Swenson, LMHC, “ask yourself what lies at the root of it. Then take steps to change what you don’t like in order to get what you want.”
Examining your jealous feelings can give you insight on where they come from:
- Your sister’s new relationship causes jealousy because you haven’t had much luck dating and worry you’ll never find the right person.
- Your coworker’s promotion makes you feel jealous because you believe you aren’t good enough at your job to get a promotion yourself.
- When your partner starts spending a lot of time with a new friend, you feel jealous because that was the first sign you noticed when a previous partner cheated.
Whether your jealousy stems from insecurity, fear, or past relationship patterns, knowing more about the causes can help you figure out how to confront it.
Maybe you have an open conversation with your supervisor about getting on track for promotion, resolve to try a different approach to dating, or talk to your partner about your feelings.
If your partner’s actions (or someone else’s actions toward your partner) trigger jealous feelings, bring this up with your partner as soon as possible.
Broach the topic of jealousy when you can both dedicate some time to a productive conversation. Whenever possible, try to avoid getting into a serious topic right before bed or when you’re about to head out the door.
Your partner may not have noticed the behavior, or they may not have realized how you felt about it. Use the opportunity to talk over any relationship boundaries you might want to revisit, or discuss ways to keep your relationship strong.
If you trust your partner but have doubts because of past relationship experiences, try finding a few ways you both can help improve the situation.
If you feel nervous about mentioning jealous feelings, try to remember they’re totally normal. Your partner might even have had some jealous feelings of their own at some point.
Jealousy can sometimes give you a slightly warped sense of reality. You might wonder if that nonverbal flirting you swear you saw actually happened.
Sometimes, voicing these concerns to a third party can make the situation less frightening and help you gain some perspective.
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Jealousy can be a complex, strong emotion, and you might not feel very good when you’re dealing with it. But instead of thinking of it as something negative, try looking at it as a helpful source of information.
Jealousy, according to Swenson, tells you there’s a difference between what you have and what you want.
She adds that unchecked jealousy can turn into self-blame and create a cycle that keeps you feeling deprived. But you may be able to manage it by identifying it as helpful information that you can use to create circumstances in which your needs are met.
Jealousy sometimes develops in response to a partial picture. In other words, you might be comparing yourself and your own achievements and attributes to an idealized or incomplete view of someone else.
People typically display their best selves to the world, so it’s not always easy to tell what’s really happening in someone else’s life or relationship. Then there’s the whole issue of social media, which magnifies this concept.
But you never truly know what someone’s going through, especially when you’re just looking at social media.
Your college friend with the Facebook photos of her and her husband out in a meadow, looking so carefree and happy? For all you know, they argued all the way out there and they’re sweating bullets under all that matching plaid.
A little gratitude can go a long way. It can not only reduce feelings of jealousy, but also relieve stress.
You might not have everything you want. Most of us don’t. But you probably have at least some of what you want. Maybe you even have some good things in your life you didn’t expect.
This can help whether you’re eyeing your friend’s fancy new bike or wishing your partner didn’t spend quite so much time with friends. Remind yourself of your sturdy, reliable bike that gets you where you need to go. Consider the benefits of having a partner who appreciates the value of friendship.
Even appreciating positive things in your life that don’t relate to jealousy can help you realize that, while your life may not be perfect (but whose life is?), you’ve still got some good things going for you.
Coping with jealousy as it comes up won’t help you work through underlying causes. But it can help to keep the distress at bay until you can deal with the underlying issues.
Turning your attention away from jealousy can also help keep you from acting on your feelings (and doing something that could harm a relationship or friendship).
Take a break
Try these strategies to distract yourself from jealous thoughts before they become overwhelming:
- Write down what you feel.
- Take a walk.
- Give yourself space by leaving the situation.
- Take 10 minutes to do something calming.
Jealousy that persists and causes distress can sometimes relate to anxiety or self-esteem issues, explains Vicki Botnick, LMFT. “Learning how to deal with either issue can automatically help soothe jealousy.”
One way to approach low self-esteem involves identifying personal values, such as compassion, communication, or honesty. This helps, according to Botnick, because it lets you check whether you’re upholding these values in your daily life.
It also gives you a chance to notice your positive traits and review what’s important to you. This can increase your sense of self-respect and may help decrease distressing feelings of inferiority or competitiveness.
Anxiety can have a range of symptoms that might be more difficult to address on your own. Coping techniques can help (find some tips here), but therapy can also be a good option.
Botnick also suggests trying an anxiety workbook like The Mindful Way Workbook.
It uses principles of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to help you to:
- increase acceptance around anxious feelings so they don’t overwhelm you
- recognize unwanted or distressing thoughts so you can challenge and replace them
When jealousy prompts you to compare yourself to others, your self-worth can end up taking a hit. Your life might be pretty enviable to someone else, after all. But jealousy can make you feel like nothing you have is good enough.
Research exploring a possible link between jealousy and self-esteem found evidence to suggest jealousy can develop when you face a threat to your self-esteem.
To combat low self-esteem:
- Remind yourself of things you do well.
- Practice self-compassion (in other words, treat yourself the way you would a close friend).
- Practice daily affirmations or exchange them with your partner.
- Remind yourself of the things you value in your partner and relationship.
- Make time to do things you enjoy.
Mindfulness techniques help you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as they come up without judging or criticizing them. Increasing your awareness around jealousy can help you notice any patterns it follows, including things that happen before you feel jealous.
Mindfulness can also help you feel more comfortable with jealousy. For example, it can help you notice and accept your jealous feelings for what they are — part of your emotional experience — and move on.
Not judging the jealousy, or yourself for feeling it, can help keep it from affecting you negatively.
If you’ve experienced jealousy before, you probably already know that jealousy fades with time. It might feel less intense after you deal with your feelings, of course, but it can also lessen once whatever you felt jealous about is over.
According to research that looked at the experience of jealousy, people are generally more likely to feel jealous right before something happens, rather than after.
As time passes, you’re also less likely to feel the need to compare yourself or your circumstances to someone else. But the positive feelings you have stay.
So, while you might feel jealous as your best friend’s wedding date approaches, on the day after the wedding you might feel less jealous and more just happy for your friend.
If you’re having trouble coping with jealous thoughts on your own, talking to a therapist can help.
It’s not always easy to talk about jealousy. You might feel even more uncomfortable sharing these thoughts with someone you don’t know. But a good therapist will meet you with kindness and compassion.
Plus, they know better than anyone that jealousy is a normal emotion that everyone feels at some point.
Botnick shares a few signs that suggest talking to a therapist could be helpful:
- Jealousy leads to obsessive or fixated thoughts.
- You notice compulsive behaviors.
- Jealous thoughts become uncontrollable or intrusive.
- You have violent thoughts or urges.
- Jealous feelings trigger problematic behaviors, like following your partner or checking up on them constantly.
- Jealousy affects your day-to-day life, prevents you from doing things you want to do, or causes other distress.
“If you constantly need to check out your social media feed, your partner’s phone, or what the people in line at Starbucks are wearing, then you can no longer be present in your own life, and that’s a problem,” Botnick concludes.
Jealousy can help you focus on who (and what) you care about. It doesn’t have to cause problems for you or your relationships. It can even help relationships become stronger in some cases. It all comes down to how you use it.