artworks foundry, used with permission
Source: artworks foundry, used with permission

Don't be jealous!

“I’m not a jealous person.” “Good for you!” I think, but then inside I stop and wonder—“Come on! How is that possible?”

Jealousy, like rage, compassion, and many other human feelings and emotions, can be experienced as a usual or an extraordinary response to a given situation.

Of course, we are not just one feeling. We are not what we feel. More importantly, we do not feel just one thing at the time. I’m not only a jealous human being, nor a loving or a funny one. Framing feelings and emotions as if they had the power to define us is at the very least an exaggeration. Yet, for some reason, we are used to frame jealousy as that kind of feeling. We say that we are or we are not jealous people. Jealousy swallows all the other feelings to the point that it can define what we are. Why? Are we ashamed of it?

Let’s see what place we can assign to this feeling. I used a few scenarios to see if you recognize one you’ve been in.

Susi Ferrarello, used with permission
Source: Susi Ferrarello, used with permission

5 Scenarios

1. Kelly and her boyfriend are walking hand in hand down the street, when a very good-looking girl walks by. Kelly’s boyfriend enjoys the view; his gaze lingers—Kelly noticed. Needless to say, their harmony is broken; Kelly and her boyfriend are not walking hand in hand anymore.

2. A group of friends are having a beer one night in a bar. For most of the evening, Bob holds the group’s attention—everyone keeps laughing at his jokes. Two of the people in the group silently resent the attention that Bob gets with his stupid jokes.

3. Tina, a young woman, is waiting at the hairdresser for appointment. While distractingly reading a tabloid, she reads a story describing her favorite movie star's extramarital affair. Tina feels bad about it.

4. That girl is wearing exactly the kind of shoes I wanted to buy, but I didn’t have the money for. ‘Witch!’ Wait, I have the male version too. That guy is driving the coolest car ever. Oh, well.

5. God forbids idolatry because it means rejection of the Godhead as One and Supreme; hence God warns the Israelites[1]: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Deuteronomy 5:9).

What is jealousy?

The list of these different scenarios can potentially be infinite. The situations in which this fleeting emotion shows up are innumerable, and it is famously difficult to tame the eruption of jealousy, much less to define it.

What is jealousy? Is it an emotion or an instinct? Looking at these scenarios we may ask: Does jealousy have anything to do with intimacy? Does it involve love? We often speak of being “jealous of” someone; but does jealousy even require the presence of another person?

What has been said about jealousy

A night of dusk, lashing rain, and thunderclouds—this is the way in which Strindberg depicts jealousy (1983). All those who ever experienced jealous rage know that this image can be fitting; if Strindberg’s painting works, Toohey (2014, 5) rightfully asks, what makes this dark storm of anxiety, anger, and fear different from other states of mind?

As poignantly worded by Roland, “As a jealous man, I suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subjected to banality.” In this statement jealousy equates to shame, blame, fear, and lack of self-confidence; it represents a state of mind that encases one in an endlessly shameful loop. Let’s try to take this hint and imagine that jealousy is not just one thing, but is a layered experience that can be expressed or repressed on many different levels.

A clinical case: Are you Othello?

Artworks Foundry, used with permission
Source: Artworks Foundry, used with permission

Clinical psychology labels the experience of jealousy after Othello. Othello’s Syndrome manifests itself mostly with people struggling with borderline personality disorder. In that case, jealousy would present itself as a consuming fear of the partner’s unfaithfulness and insincerity; or it might involve people afflicted by obsessive-compulsive personality disorder who would live with jealousy as a form of ongoing, obsessive, circular thinking that elicits anxiety and fear. Finally, pathological jealousy can ‘color’ disorders that are located in the schizophrenic spectrum; in this case, jealousy would be a delusional state in which the person is not fully in touch with what is really happening. Let’s read about such a case:

Mrs. K is a 39-year-old woman who was brought to the inpatient psychiatric unit by police after being arrested for trespassing on Mr. L’s property. Upon arrival, Mrs. K was adamant about being released, stating that she was simply entering her husband’s home, adamantly declaring that Mr. L was her husband. She elaborated about how much the two of them loved each other when they got married, and how she was currently pregnant with his child. In actuality, Mr. L used to be Mrs. K’s boss, and had fired her because of her inappropriate romantic advances several years prior. Mrs. K was married to another man in Florida, with whom she denied any relationship, stating that she was kidnapped for 4 years, and after escaping, had come to California to be with her husband, Mr. L. Mrs. K was diagnosed with delusional disorder, erotomanic type, and was prescribed risperidone.

In this case, the problem is not limited to the experience of jealousy itself, but concerns mostly with the delusional state in which the person lives. As Crichton (2008) remarked, not even Othello would be actually affected by Othello’s Syndrome, because he was genuinely in touch with the reality of his situation, since Desdemona was attempting to deceive him. His rage was not delusional, since it had a foundation in the actual state of affairs he was experiencing.

What is jealousy, then?

I spare you my philosophical investigations and jump straight to my conclusions. But if at night you have trouble sleeping you can read them on my academia.edu page...

We can think of jealousy as a layered phenomenon that involves organic bodily instincts, lower and higher feelings, habits, and finally cognitive interpretations. Similar to the storm of fear, hate, and other instincts, I described above it is very difficult to distinctly name the instinct. Since they are by themselves a form of excitement that pushes a person toward a specific direction, the peculiar essence of an instinct such as jealousy is defined by the direction that the drive tends to assume within the range of actions that a person’s volitional body decides to undertake. (As a side note, instinct from Latin means instingere, moving forward.) Instinctive actions can be later interpreted as motivated by insecurity about ourselves, fear of loss, anxiety about a potential change, and many other states that the social environment would name as motivated by the instinct of jealousy—yet the last word about that interpretation is only up to the person who is experiencing it. In the first scenario, for example, that person might decide to be aware of having left the hand of her partner and she might decide to validate the overwhelming input of instincts through meanings; in that case she might explain her instinctive jealousy as a way of caring for her partner. Conversely, it might happen that the event has no meaning for her. In both cases the instinct was there, it generated an intimate connection between that person and her inner organic world, while going in two different directions, equally illustrative of the intimate world of that person.

In Othello’s Syndrome instead, the connection that the person experiences with her inner passive life is abrupt and inconsistent with the meanings she assigns to it, and that leads to a delusional state (Miller et al., 2010). The person affected from that state does not seem to be able to establish an intimate contact with its passive matter and felt ungrounded in relation to it. The woman affected by Othello’s Syndrome seems to have been in contact with her passive syntheses—that is, with the organic and affective life of her body--but her interpretation of them was considered delusional from the viewpoint of the person involved in her sense of reality (the others in her life).

Hence, jealousy is primitively a drive, an organic instinct; when it is directed, as any instinct in general, toward a form of self-preservation, the individual might feel drawn to defend the status quo in which she feels safe. Of course, safety is a problematic and very intimate term; we do not, in fact, know what safety means for the person involved—even the homicidal instinct can be considered a defensive mechanism. Therefore, we need close observations of the active and interpretative layers of the person’s life in order to come to a full understanding of the phenomenon of jealousy as lived by him or her. Depending upon the traumatic events to which one’s personality has been exposed during life, habitual responses to that instinct of preserving a safe life may be sedimented on a lower or higher level, becoming a full-fledged meaning, a value, a feeling, a mood, or instead just an affection. If a person feels generally safe (with all the meanings that the word can imply), they would not feel driven to thematize their instincts and accept them as meanings or values; rather, they might remain on the level of moods. 

Susi Ferrarello, used with permission
Source: Susi Ferrarello, used with permission

Rereading the scenarios: A conclusion

Let’s start with the last one; in the Biblical scenario jealousy is a value, incarnated in the jealous God. In the shared culture of southern Italy, jealousy can easily be a meaningful value because the tendency toward jealousy is seen as conducive to keeping one’s family together and avoiding temptation. In the first scenario, jealousy is just a mood that can influence one’s bodily reactions, like dropping the hand of a partner, but it is not fully acknowledged by the person who experiences it. In the second scenario, jealousy is an emotion that the person might acknowledge without giving it too much weight. In the third scenario, jealousy is an instinct that might reveal a split between the active and passive layers of the person involved; in this and in the former case no beloved needs to be involved for that person to feel jealous. 

Hence, the instinct of jealousy, which we might call a primordial instinct of self-preservation in response to a threat, can remain locked in an instinctive level or can be gradually validated and emerge on a volitional, valuing, and cognitive level either as a rejected or an accepted instinct. One of the most common ways to summarize these layers is the sentence: “Yes, I’m jealous. You should be happy about it, because this means I care about you.” This might be read from the interlocutor’s point of view as, “I have this instinct. This instinct might produce a feeling of joy for you and can acquire a meaning of care for me.” Of course, this sentence summarizes one version of reality that can be taken either as delusional (in the sense explained above as communicative of a non-understandable concern), or confirmed by the person’s partner. In the former case, the bodily reactions to affections, moods, and feelings of jealousy might still be observable, but the person would never acknowledge them as a genuine jealous reaction because these affections have no meaning for them, or conversely have more refined meanings than that of simple jealousy. These feelings are just organic syntheses comparable to being hungry at noon because “I always eat lunch at noon,” but then choosing not to eat because “I don’t have time to stop until I finish class at 1.”

On the other hand, in case the active ego decides to validate the instinct of jealousy and assign a meaning to it, feeling hungry is an important and meaningful signal that one should listen to, because otherwise a stomach ache or other worse symptoms could occur.

Unfortunately, since jealousy is an instinct first, any meaning or value can provide a fulfilling answer that placates the jealous storm. That is why when jealousy reaches a cognitive level it generates obsessive thoughts; nothing or anything can fully fit in the interpretation of that organic instinct. For example, when our instinct relates to hunger, we can placate the instinct by eating. Conversely, when our instinct relates to something organically more complex like emotional self-preservation, any action we undertake would only momentarily placate our anxiety, similar to compulsive eating. Any meaning or value we can attach to that instinct might only feel provisionally satisfying, because our way to self-preserving our volitional body is complex and built on many different layers.

Many people might experience jealousy, and their body might react, but the way in which they decide to answer and own that instinct can change considerably, and also the interpretation can be more or less refined. In the fifth and second scenarios, jealousy has more to do with envy and competition, the fourth with devotion, and in the first with freedom. We do not know what meanings these underlying affections might include.

[1] Of course, here I am using one of the many interpretations available for this biblical verse.

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