Nobody ever loves to admit it, but we all get jealous once in a while.
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Jealousy, which is slightly different from envy, is a feeling where you become protective of something you have and fear that something or someone will take it away from you. Specifically, when it comes to relationships, this can happen when someone feels like something is threatening an important person to them.
“Jealousy is a complex and uncomfortable emotion,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “But it’s also a normal feeling.”
Dr. Albers explains what jealousy exactly is and how to stop it from negatively impacting your well-being or relationships.
In contrast to envy, which is coveting something that someone else has and you don’t, jealousy manifests through fear that what we have is being threatened to be taken away.
Dr. Albers points out that this can happen with a person in our lives, or even with someone we perceive or want to have. Either way, jealousy comes out when you feel very strongly about keeping someone or something close to you.
“It comes in little bouts and it might be uncomfortable, but in extreme forms, it can be toxic, and damaging to relationships,” Dr. Albers says.
While jealousy is a normal feeling, it can morph into something harmful if you give it too much power. It can also lead to you losing the thing that you’re trying to hold onto by causing stress and tension in a relationship.
Here are some ways that jealous feelings can manifest in relationships:
Along with that, jealousy can hurt us as individuals, too. “Little twinges of jealousy often come and go, but persistent jealousy can really eat away at our self-esteem or self-image,” points out Dr. Albers.
“Jealousy is a feeling often associated with shame,” she notes. This is because often when we feel jealous, it’s also paired with negative thoughts, like, I’m so stupid for feeling jealous. “It can really define your self-image in a negative way or make you feel intense shame,” Dr. Albers continues. Or you feel judged by someone else with words like, They’re so controlling.
Jealousy can be a complicated feeling to unknot because it can be a combination of past experiences, mental health issues and even personality traits.
Here are some common factors that can cause persistent jealous feelings:
While it may seem that jealousy mostly involves how you feel in regard to someone else, it’s really our relationship with ourselves that’s often the root cause of toxic jealousy.
“For many people, the true root of jealousy is insecurity,” says Dr. Albers. “And being able to pinpoint what is pushing on that insecurity is enlightening and illuminating about not only yourself, but also the relationships.” At the end of the day, if you feel unworthy of the relationship you’re in, your brain will start to overanalyze any threats that will harm or take away that relationship. In some cases, it can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Feelings of low self-esteem around your image can also magnify jealousy in a relationship. If you have a history of dealing with self-image issues, it may lead you to constantly compare yourself to others and measure yourself against how worthy or unworthy you are of your relationships.
“If you don’t perceive that someone else values you or your relationship, it’s going to put you further in that belief that your relationship is at risk,” explains Dr. Albers. “So, really, your self-image can be a mirror, or illuminate how your jealousy may come to light.”
If you live with anxiety, you know that certain triggers can set off feelings of fight or flight. So, if your triggers are specifically tied to your relationships, it can lead to jealousy manifesting in unhealthy ways.
A lot of times, one of the hardest things to do after experiencing significant trauma from past relationships is to forge ahead with new ones. If you’ve experienced emotional abuse or betrayal from past relationships, that can start to taint your view of future relationships if the trauma goes unchecked. This is where jealousy can rear its head and feed into those feelings, by making you feel anxious or afraid of losing the person you’re with now.
Sometimes, jealous feelings may stem from one of your personality traits. As Dr. Albers explains, people who tend to fixate on details or have very intense emotions about things may experience jealousy more than others.
“This may lead to you constantly evaluating what someone says and how it matches up or doesn’t match up and looking at every detail,” she says.
If jealousy is sabotaging your relationships, it may also be due to things outside of your own mental state. If you’re the one who’s feeling jealous or suddenly protective over your partner, Dr. Albers says it’s good to take stock of what else might be going on in the relationship.
“My one small caveat is that sometimes jealousy is not all in your head,” recognizes Dr. Albers. “There can be some real threats to a relationship and sometimes, what you’re picking up on may be tied to a gut feeling that is signaling to you that your relationship may be at risk. The tricky part is figuring out when it is truly at risk or it is due to your own fears and insecurity.”
Taking note of any signs of love-bombing, gaslighting or emotional abuse may help illuminate any valid concerns about your jealous feelings. This is why it could be good to talk to either a relationship counselor or an individual therapist to help untangle these issues or help bring conflicts to the surface in a healthy way.
So, what’s the key to finding peace with the inner green monster, while not letting it take over our relationships or mental state?
Dr. Albers lays out some steps to take if you want to tackle your jealous feelings.
The first step to taming jealous feelings is to recognize your internal triggers. As we mentioned above, these triggers could be tied to anxiety, your personality traits, past trauma or even a combination of several things. If you’re catching yourself feeding into jealous feelings, it’s important to identify when and why these emotions are igniting.
For example, maybe you feel anxiety when your partner goes out late with their friends and forgets to text back. Or maybe you start to feel intense worry when you notice that a close friend of yours is making new friends.
“For many people, there’s a pattern of ways in which they become jealous or the kinds of situations that may trigger jealousy,” Dr. Albers says. “So, understanding the patterns that may emerge can be helpful.
“It’s also important to understand how much of the jealousy is perceived and how much might be based on actual facts that may be actually threatening the relationship.”
In some cases, extreme bouts of jealousy could be coming from internal insecurities or mental issues that we’re currently dealing with. So, if you find yourself fixating on a certain aspect of your relationship that’s justifying your jealousy, it may be helpful to take a step back and reframe.
“It’s also good to acknowledge that jealousy is normal as a human emotion,” advises Dr. Albers. “It simply means that you are human.”
This is important for the next step – communication – because if you’re not acknowledging and being honest about your feelings, you won’t be able to address them with the other person.
Once you reflect on where your jealous feelings are coming from and you still feel that twinge in your gut that something just isn’t right, it’s important to voice these concerns with the person in your life. If this makes you feel nervous at first, find a trusted friend or loved one to help you put your feelings into words.
“Communication, not detective work, can create trust,” notes Dr. Albers. “It’s important to communicate with your significant other what you’re feeling. Also, gauging their reaction to your jealousy, I think, is very revealing about the relationship. If they are willing to talk with you and understand the jealousy versus being reactive to it, or shaming or blaming about it, that can say a lot about your relationship’s dynamic.”
While jealousy is often commonly talked about in romantic couples, it can be a very present emotion in other relationship dynamics as well. For example, maybe you start to feel intense feelings of jealousy when a new friend joins your friend group. Or maybe there’s a new co-worker at your job that you feel may threaten your position in some way.
“Jealousy is not exclusive to romantic relationships,” says Dr. Albers. “It really transverses all types of relationships.” Similar to romantic relationships, it’s important to have open communication and pay attention to why your jealousy is being triggered in these situations and relationships.
At its best, jealousy is a twinge of emotion that signifies that you have something or someone valuable in your life that you want to hold onto.
“From an evolutionary perspective, jealousy is actually an adaptive behavior. It signifies that we have a relationship that we care about, and we don’t want to lose it,” explains Dr. Albers.
But at its worst, jealousy can become damaging to you and your relationships. This is because in extreme cases, jealousy can cause you to feel anxious, depressed or even unworthy of the thing or person you have. If you still feel persistent jealousy that’s affecting your well-being, try talking to a relationship counselor or therapist to help make you feel more at peace with the people you love.