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Act well, feel well, be well

Taming Jealousy

How to defeat "the green-eyed monster."

Jealousy is a complex emotion encompassing feelings that range from fear of rejection, loss and abandonment, to humiliation, anguish, and even rage. In essence, jealousy strikes when a person perceives a third-party threat to a valued relationship (which distinguishes it from envy, which involves desire of things, status, or position someone else has).

Jealousy is a tricky, two-edged emotional sword because, in small amounts, it can serve to protect important relationships by motivating people to be attentive and act desirably. In large amounts, however, jealousy is often very corrosive to relationships and can even give rise to violence that can utterly destroy them.

As suggested above, people do not express jealousy through a single emotion or a single behavior.  Rather, they express it through diverse emotions and behaviors. Nevertheless, looking at it through a higher magnification, the common experience of jealousy for most people usually involves: Fear of losing a romantic partner or other important person to another person; suspicion and anger about a perceived or potential betrayal; diminished self-esteem and sadness over perceived loss; anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness; and distrust.

The tragic irony of excessive or irrational jealousy is that can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. For example, if a jealous person starts to express his or her suspicions, they will often be met with denial or defensiveness. These, often truthful, defensive responses can easily be viewed as confirmation of one’s suspicions despite the fact that defensiveness is a natural response when people are placed under pressure to justify their actions, whereabouts and thoughts. Indeed, being constantly questioned about what you're doing, where you're going, who you’re meeting, and where you've been is tiring, disparaging and quickly demoralizing. Most people feel squeezed, controlled, badgered, and angry by a jealousy-driven interrogation and their reactions of impatience, frustration, irritation and anger are not confirmations of guilt. Rather, they are signs that the person has reached the end of their rope by having to constantly defend his or her genuine, innocent actions. Eventually, due to its corrosive effects, the jealous behavior that was originally motivated by the fear of losing a significant partner can ultimately lead to that very outcome. Not because the other person actually had an intimate, sexual, or romantic interest in another person but because the relentless drumbeat of jealous questioning, suspicion and distrust compel to other person to take flight and leave the relationship!

So, what is the antidote for jealousy?

First, deal with your feelings right away instead of avoiding or denying them. Learn to question your jealousy every time that it emerges. For example, say to yourself: "Is this jealousy because I feel afraid or angry? Why am I feeling fear or anger here?" When you begin to question what makes you jealous in the moment, you can begin to take positive steps to manage the feelings constructively, without the cloud of negative emotion that typically accompanies jealousy. Some other questions to ask yourself include:

"What is making me jealous?"

"What am I afraid of losing?"

"What am I trying to keep?"

"Why do I feel threatened?"

Next, carefully evaluate any false beliefs that might be fueling your jealousy. There are often false, baseless beliefs that underlie reactions of jealousy. If you examine the belief, you can often reduce the jealousy. Some common underlying beliefs usually without basis include “I’m not good enough for him/her,” or “If this person leaves me, I’ll never cope,” or “I’ll never find anyone else and be all alone.” In most instances, these notions are not grounded in truth and reflect what many therapists refer to as overgeneralizing or catastrophizing. Be aware that your thoughts can happen so quickly that you don't even realize consciously that they’ve occurred. Then, try to pinpoint actual proof of the belief’s validity and also evidence that contradicts the jealous thoughts. Developing greater awareness of your thoughts and what triggers them is a large part of solving the problem.

Also, make sure to act respectfully, trustingly, and affectionately toward your partner despite feeling suspicious and insecure. This is because, as I often state, action strongly influences thoughts and feelings. When we act insecurely we’re likely to feel more jealous and when we act securely in our relationships, we are more likely to feel better.

Finally, discuss your jealousy problem with your significant other. Sharing your true feelings with the other person, and talking it through can be a very cathartic and constructive way to avoid serious relationship damage. When talking through your jealous feelings, take heed of the following:

  • Avoid blaming the other person. His or her behavior is not the cause of your feelings—you are responsible for your feelings.
  • Stick to "I" statements rather than “You” statements. Thus, instead of saying "You shouldn't have done that," or “You made me feel…” say instead, "I felt terrible when that incident happened."
  • Be aware that how you perceive situations may be completely at odds with how the other person saw them. Stay as open-minded as possible, even though this will probably mean that you sometimes feel extremely defensive. Do your best to keep quiet and listen rather than constantly butting in with justifications.
  • As difficult as it can be, empathize with your partner. Really try to put yourself in his or her shoes and imagine what it must be like for him or her dealing with you and your jealousy.

In most cases, this won’t be a single conversation. You'll need to agree to keep coming back to talking any time the “green-eyed monster” gets out of hand again.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D., is Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute.

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