Jealousy isn’t just feeling possessive. Dr. NerdLove investigates the role of self-esteem and masculine identity in how jealous we become.
Back in the bad old days, I did a lot of things I regret out of jealousy. Pretty much from middle-school onwards, jealousy defined the majority of my waking life.
Everywhere I looked, other people had what I thought I wanted in life. Watching happy couples would alternately make me feel lonely and almost sick with envy. Watching movies meant watching people with lives – and relationships – that I wished I could have.
Of course, it didn’t help that I was surrounded by people who seemed to have it far better than I did. My friend Miles, for example, was the sort of person who seemed to have been cooked up in a lab by romance novelists. He looked like the illegitimate son of Rob Lowe and Hugh Grant, with cornflower blue eyes and a winning smile that charmed everyone. He was friendly, funny, athletic and popular – the kind of person who attracted women the way cheese attracts mice. Hell, he was a literal rock star in college, touring the country with his friends in his band. And it didn’t help that he was legitimately the nicest guy you could ever meet. When he was around, the rest of us may as well have been invisible to women. I loved him like a brother but goddamn, there were times I wanted to throw acid in his face.
I got no relief at home either. My twin brother was already a star player on the sports teams in high-school; by college, he was an Olympic level athlete and a literal rocket-scientist.
And there I was, sitting alone in my room, reading and trying to turn scribbles into drawings, watching other people live out dreams that I wished I could have, dating people I wanted to date. I’d sit there, consumed with jealousy, simmering away at all these perceived injustices the world was inflicting upon me.
Small wonder people didn’t like being around me much.
It took me years to recognize that jealousy was an ugly, unproductive emotion and one that got in the way of everything I wanted to do. Whether I was envious of other people’s success or jealous of the time my girlfriends spent with other guy friends, those feelings of jealousy and resentment were holding me back and I couldn’t progress until I learned to overcome them.
But I learned how to deal with jealousy. You can, too. Here’s how to learn to overcome that morass of paranoia, fear, worry, envy and bitterness.
Let Yourself Feel
One of the worst things you can do – and yet something that people do all too often – is to try to pretend you don’t feel jealous. I see this often in relationships and it can crop up frequently in non-monogamous arrangements: feeling jealous is looked down upon and so they try to cram it down a hole and pretend that it doesn’t exist.
You can imagine how well this works.
Let me give you another example from my life: I had made plans with an ex-girlfriend to hang out at my place and watch the premiere of a new TV series before going out and getting drinks downtown. I, of course, had ulterior motives – I was hoping to get back together with her and was using our hanging out as a pretext to try to win her back. Before she came over she called – turns out her friend Jim had invited her out as well; she thought that Jim and I might get along well, so perhaps Jim could join us to catch the show? Needless to say: I didn’t appreciate having another person in the act – too many dicks on the dance floor as it were – but my choices came down to either saying “no” and risk blowing the chance to hang out with her or saying “yes” and dealing with the added obstacle for the evening. Naturally, I said yes. And when she and Jim came over… well, it wasn’t the worst night of my life, but it was definitely felt close enough for jazz.
She and Jim were close friends of long-standing, the kind who are very demonstratively affectionate with one another. So as we’re sitting together on my couch, watching my TV, I’m feeling irritation bubble up within me as I watch her lean in to say something, the way they’d smack each other on the shoulder and give one another side-hugs. By the time the show ended – not a moment too soon – I was too angry to do anything; I claimed that something I ate was disagreeing with me, thanked them for coming and told my ex that we’d try again another day. I couldn’t hustle them out of my house fast enough before I started yelling and kicking the walls. I was pissed – pissed that my ex had dragged this other guy into what was supposed to be our night, pissed that this other guy seemed to have the inside edge to what I wanted and even more pissed that I had to sit there and take it because there wasn’t anything I could say. Needless to say: I wasn’t in a good place at that point in time.
Also: the show kinda sucked. So it was a disappointing night on many levels.
As much as I wanted to yell, scream and pound my fists in the walls… I didn’t. I was trying to be the bigger man, so I crammed that shit down. No I wasn’t jealous, dammit! Sure, I might have wanted to skin the guy and resented the fact that he existed and had a closer relationship with the woman I wanted… but I wasn’t jealous. No, that’s for other guys. I’m the cool guy. The unruffled guy.
But as I’ve said before: none of us are as good at hiding how we feel as we like to think; our true emotions inevitably leak out into our behavior. Every time I talked with my ex, bitterness would creep into my voice and I’d inevitably have something biting to say about Jim. I’d needle at her about him, play passive-aggressive word-games about how no, it was totally cool to invite someone over to our night together and he seemed like such a nice guy for someone in his situation (i.e. “WHY ARE YOU HANGING OUT WITH HIM INSTEAD OF THE PARAGON OF MASCULINITY THAT IS ME?!?”). I’d make snide remarks about her taste in men, her friends… everything.
It wasn’t attractive – in fact, it pissed my ex right off and eventually meant that we wouldn’t speak again until years later.
Trying to pretend you’re not feeling jealousy when you clearly are only means that you’re denying yourself the opportunity to deal with it. Instead, by trying to repress it, you end up making it worse – and that is going to destabilize your relationships.
Understand The Core Cause of Jealousy
Let’s perform a thought exercise, shall we?
You’re at a party and you’re having a pretty good time. The music is excellent, the drinks are amazing and the people are fun and friendly. In fact, you’re in the middle of talking to an incredible woman – someone who’s smart, ambitious, funny and amazingly attractive – and it’s going well. But as you’re talking, another gentleman – who bears a striking resemblance to Ian Somerhalder – comes up and introduces himself; as it turns out, they’ve got a friend in common who’s been trying to put them in touch for a while now. So the conversation turns to how they both know their friend and reminiscing about things that he’s done… well, you’re kind of left out of the conversation. And you notice she’s laughing at his jokes, and his hand is brushing up against her arm, then to the small of her back…
So. With that in mind: how do you feel in that moment?1
Odds are that you’re feeling a little sick to your stomach, a little angry that someone has just moved in on your conversation, even a little possessive – he’s just “stolen” someone you were thinking of as “yours”, after all. You may feel resentful that someone who looks that good can just glide in without effort or wish that you were as socially skilled as they are. You may feel pissed off and want to roll back in there and blow the guy out of the water, to show him up somehow and retake the reins of the conversation.
All of that? Those are all feelings of jealousy.
Other ways you may experience jealousy: feeling as though your partner finds other people more desirable than you. You might feel as though your friends are being wooed away from you by somebody else – someone shinier, more socially adept or cooler than you. You may find yourself imagining worst-case scenarios where they leave you for someone else, or what they’re “secretly” doing behind your back. You may resent time they spend with other people instead of time being spent with you. You may wish you were more like this other person (and less like yourself) or that you were as popular or well liked or as smooth as someone else. You may feel left out, even excluded when some people are invited to an event or a gathering and you aren’t.
Small wonder that jealousy can be hard to overcome; it’s this seething morass of emotions… and those feelings can cloud the real problems at hand.
See, jealousy is the surface issue. It’s the mask that disguises the real cause. People may get jealous, but jealousy doesn’t arise ex nihilo; there’s always an underlying reason why people get jealous. The trick is to find it. Some people get jealous because of previous experiences – maybe a girlfriend cheated on you and as a result, you’re hypersensitive to situations that might feel like history repeating itself and your jealous behaviors are a way of trying to control the situation so it can’t happen again. If you’ve been the cheater yourself, then you might be looking for signs of your behavior in others. Sometimes it’s a matter of desiring what other people have and feeling a lack in your own life.
But more often than not, jealousy is a reflection of your own lack of self-esteem and confidence. So much of why I was jealous of my brother and Miles and my other friends was because I literally thought I was worthless. I was dealing with chronic depression and never once believed that I could ever possibly measure up to them; I would always be the shadow, never having my own chance to shine and be noticed.
You need to be willing to examine your feelings as dispassionately as possible and ask yourself why you feel that way. No, seriously: treat it like you’re five and just keep asking “why”. Take the thought experiment above: why does his talking to her bother you? Well, because you feel like he’s taken something from you. Why? Because you don’t feel as though you can compete. Why? Because you’re not as handsome or as skilled or as $TRAIT as the other guy is.
It’s only when you get to the heart of the matter that you can actually start to get a handle on the causes of your jealousy.
Confront The Fear
One of the most common threads in jealousy is fear. We fear our lovers will fall in love with someone else. We fear that they’re going to meet someone who is just so much more than we are that you can’t see for all of the panties evaporating around them. And more than anything else, we fear the unknown. Because let’s face it: most of the time, you don’t know what’s going on. You’re reacting to what you imagine is the truth rather than the facts, and if nerds have any super power it’s the ability to play out every possible worst-case scenario imaginable. So when our partners are spending a long time at the office working on that project with their co-workers, we’re picturing Sterling Cooper after dark, not red bleary eyes, piles of empty Chinese take-out boxes littering every flat surface while the stale coffee makes their mouths taste like the cat used it for a litterbox. When our girlfriends are out with their guy friends, we imagine that she’s auditioning your replacement, letting them do all the things we’ve always wanted but she never let us try… and we’re inevitably going to walk in on them.
But like I said: that’s our jerk-brains whispering in our ears, not reality. One of the best ways to overcome that fear – and overcome the jealousy that results – is to confront those fears head on. For example, if you’re feeling jealous or insecure about her guy friends then get to know them. Ask to be introduced to them or if you can meet them the next time she’s planning on hanging out; let them be real people instead of the lust-monsters your imagination comes up with. Even the model-hot guy you think your girlfriend is lusting after quickly becomes a flawed, imperfect person instead of an irresistible Adonis when you get to know him. And you know what they say: behind every hot guy is a string of friends who are tired of their shit.
Another way is to examine everything about those feelings. You worry about your lover cheating on you… well, do you trust her or not? Do you have real reasons to believe she’s about to cheat? How logical are your assumptions – would you expect a complete stranger to believe that you have legitimate reason to be jealous? How might they challenge those assumptions of yours? Remember, you want to be dealing with reality, not with what you’re imagining. Don’t deal with assumptions and imagined scenarios, deal with facts.
Use Your Words
Another important way of overcoming jealousy – especially when it involves your partner: talk about it.
Seriously. So many conflicts – especially ones involving imagined potential infidelities, slights or resentment – can be solved by actually sitting down and talking it out instead of stewing in your own bitterness.
Communication is one of the most critical parts of relationship maintenance – and yet somehow it ends up being one of the most neglected. Part of the point of a relationship is that you work things out together. And if you’re worried about the state of things… well, then doesn’t it make more sense to actually bring it up instead of flailing about in a panic because you think she might be harboring a crush on her BFF?
But if you’re going to talk it out, then it’s important that you do it correctly. When you’re processing unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions like jealousy, it’s important to take responsibility for how you feel rather than putting the onus for your feelings on her. Just because you’re feeling jealous doesn’t mean it’s her fault. Moreover, shuffling the blame for your feelings on to someone else is a great way to shut down communication instead of working things out. Nothing ruins an attempt to process complex feelings like being put on the defensive.
This is why it’s important to use “I” language – that is, phrasing things so that they’re about how you feel rather than what they do. For example: “I got jealous when I saw you dancing with Rodger at the party” is about the way you feel. “Your dancing with Rodger at the party upset me”, on the other hand, puts the blame on your partner. Keeping it about you helps ensure that your partner doesn’t feel as though they’re being attacked – especially when you know that it’s irrational.
There’s more to sharing your feelings than just unloading however. You also want to work towards finding a way to make things better – without going overboard, that is. Let’s say that your feelings of jealousy are caused by having been cheated on by previous girlfriends. Explaining that to your current girlfriend and asking for a reasonable level of reassurance – reminders of how hot she thinks you are, being careful not to gush over other guys – can go a long way to soothing those fears. Sometimes it’s a matter of setting some rules – if she’s going to dance with other people at the party, she should save the last dance with you, for example.
Like I said though: it’s about being reasonable. Demanding that she check in with you while she’s out with her guy friends, for example, is less about reassuring you and more about controlling her. This isn’t about helping to relieve your jealousy, it’s letting your jealousy control her actions.
Work On Yourself
Some forms of jealousy – especially those that spring from problems with self-esteem – can’t be worked through with other people. After all, when the problem is internal, the only solutions are similarly internal. The problem comes when you focus too much on what others have that you don’t. It may not seem fair that some people have advantages you don’t… and frankly it isn’t. But that’s life. Focusing on what others have is a great way to make yourself miserable; you do far better to look inward and find the ways to make yourself better in the ways that are uniquely yours.
When we try to build up our self-esteem, it’s tempting to focus on flash and ignore substance. We have a tendency to put more importance on the things that bring us the approval of others rather than what fulfills us. Getting a sharp new haircut and dressing better all provide a much needed ego-boost and can help you feel great about yourself. But when you’re all alone and facing those long dark nights of the soul, those times when it feels like you’re having to justify your existence and fear being found wanting… it’s about who you are that brings you true confidence and self esteem. What do you have to be proud of? What do you do that makes you happy, that you can point to and say “Yes, this is something that makes me awesome”?
And yes, it’s easy to say “nothing, that’s the problem.” But that’s the start of the process, not the end. If you truly don’t have anything to be proud of, then it’s on you to find it, develop it and build it.
In my case, I learned to get my jealousy of my brother, of Miles and all those others who had what I thought I wanted by learning to find my own path to improvement. I might never be an Olympian or a triathlete2 but I’m a hell of a dancer (recruited to the swing team in college) and got my black belt in martial arts. Miles may have been gifted with good looks and a natural understanding of social interaction, but I was able to learn them through practice and determination. Looking inward, I was able to find things about me that I took pride in, things that brought me pleasure – and having had to work for it made the successes that much sweeter.
Dealing with jealousy isn’t easy. It’s messy, it’s frightening and it means confronting things that you may find unpleasant or uncomfortable. But working through it, pushing past it and getting it under control will make you stronger. It will make you happier. And your relationships – romantic and platonic – will be all the better for it.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
- And please, let’s avoid the “well, I wouldn’t have a problem because I’m dating someone and…” sort of equivocating that completely misses the point of the exercise. Yes, we all get it, you’re Mister Clever-Boots, you must be so proud. Now stop distracting people. [↩]
- Rassumfrassum shin splints [↩]
Photo: Flickr/Anthony Cain