O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
William Shakespeare, Othello
I sometimes wonder to myself about the purpose of what you might call ‘negative’ emotions.
After all, it’s easy to see why, in an ideal world, we should all be filled with love, compassion and kindness, but not so easy to fathom why our human condition comes complete with the other side of the coin – our list of seven deadly sins: anger, avarice, jealousy (or envy) pride, lust, sloth and greed.
Of all of those, perhaps the most mutable is jealousy. It seems, to me at least, to be made of a shifting quicksand of emotions, ready to strike in the most surprising of ways.
As a parent, I’ve often witnessed my own children when they were little become jealous if I’ve given too much attention to another child, or even to an adult; and whilst not prone to an overload of emotional jealousy I certainly have experienced it on occasions, and I’ve also been in relationships where the male of the species has felt threatened not just by my male friendships but even by female friendships – and even by my connection with animals.
Of course, there are different types of jealousy, and for the purposes of this article at least, we will distinguish the idea of jealousy and envy by using the philosopher John Rawls’ definition of the difference between the two is that jealousy involves the wish to keep what one has, and envy the wish to get what one does not have.
So I may well be envious of the person or people who win $100million in the lottery; or envious of someone who has a job I think I could do, or envious of someone who owns my ideal horse (my personal envy demon!), but I would become jealous if someone tried to muscle in on my closest relationships, my family or friends.
Perhaps too, if we follow that line of thought, jealousy seems more associated with emotions, where envy is more associated with a desire for something material.
In terms of emotional jealousy, the obvious adult minefield is, of course, infidelity.
According to a 2004 research paper by Buss, Green & Saboni, and perhaps obviously to most of us, men are more threatened and made jealous by sexual infidelity, whereas women are more hurt by emotional infidelity (emotional withdrawal by their partner), or abandonment.
But whilst sexual jealousy is probably the kind of jealousy most of us have either experienced from someone, or suffered from ourselves, there are many other kinds of jealousy that can affect our daily lives.
I know I, for one, was extremely jealous of my younger sister, although not jealous of my younger twin sisters below her in age. I spent – or wasted – years being unpleasant to her and then had a hard time making up that spoiled ground later in life.
Jealousy in the office, romantic jealousy – even friendship jealousy – in all its forms jealousy can tear at our hearts, and it has a curious way of magnifying the situation as well, so something that many years later we look back at and laugh at as being so trivial as to be hardly worth our attention, becomes all-consuming.
As a generalization little girls, it seems to me, experience jealousy long before little boys. (In fact a wise man of my acquaintance recently said to me he thought little girls practised every single emotion between each other in order to hone their skills by the time they got into relationships, so their significant others could remain in a permanent state of confusion!)
We’ve recently been experiencing the classic two’s company three’s a crowd syndrome, which I well remember from my own childhood.
Something to be said for emotions such as jealousy and anger is that they are emotions we practice – particularly when we are young – to protect us from perceived or real threat. As such their presence in our emotional make-up bag is essential, but it’s when they become reactive or obsessive that things go wrong – and, if as an adult, we don’t adjust our emotional radar to something a little more calm and centred!
So if we suffer from jealousy, what can we do to overcome it?
As with any emotional reaction or unwanted behaviour the first key is awareness – we have to understand that just because we tell ourselves something is ‘true’, does not necessarily make it so – we have to shift our point of view so we can step back from the story in our minds, and identify our emotional triggers.
It’s hard to believe when we are in an emotional state that we can make a choice about what we feel or how we react, and for most of us mere mortals, even when we do acknowledge it there are times when reaction gets the better of us.
But I think most of us would acknowledge that jealousy is based on feelings of insecurity; likewise if someone is projecting jealousy on us, they might say that we are causing them to be jealous, which is really a statement of the fact that they are feeling insecure and powerless.
As quotation anthologist Terri Guillemets writes: ‘Jealousy injures us with the dagger of self-doubt.”