We have all heard it more than once, especially those of us who are women: “Don’t worry, she’s just jealous.” Maybe a friend suddenly became distant after a major change in your life, or maybe a colleague rolled her eyes when you presented a great idea. You vent about it to your girlfriend, who adamantly replies, “She’s just jealous.” This is offered as solace among girlfriends and to little girls early in their development.
Although jealousy is a feeling experienced universally and regardless of gender, “She’s just jealous” is stated far more frequently to young girls than young boys. It is meant as a reassuring compliment, but as women, we are trained from the outset to deflect compliments. In fact, research shows that compliments often cause greater discomfort than satisfaction for women (del Mar Ferradás, Freire, Valle, Núñez, Regueiroa, & Vallejo, 2016). This is the opposite of what is needed when seeking support after a difficult social interaction. However, the ineffectiveness of the “She’s just jealous” consolation runs deeper than this.
The underlying message of “She’s just jealous” is that there is something that another woman admires about you, and she therefore treats you badly. The risk is that women take this as an indication that they ought to shrink themselves in order to avoid being a threat to others. Although “She’s just jealous” might initially feel comforting, that comfort is often swiftly replaced by an unsettling aftertaste. That is because, on a subconscious level, we are attuned to the pitfalls of this refrain, including the emotional message it leaves behind.
While “She’s just jealous” is meant to help, it is understood that people don’t enjoy being around those who make them jealous. In this way, beyond sometimes feeling like a stale, default consolation, this message incidentally tells women, “shrink yourself.” Although not the intention of whoever delivers the message, this breed of compliment implies that your envied asset is disruptive to relationships. Moreover, we usually attempt to hide the things that disconnect us from others.
If we operated from an entirely logical space, our conclusion after being told “She’s just jealous” would be something like, “Janey’s sudden iciness after my promotion is because she is jealous of me, which is her problem, not mine. I’m fine.” While this might be logical, our brains don’t work that way – jealousy-related messages leave more complex emotional residue (Mosquera, Parrott, & Hurtado de Mendoza, 2010). After all, we want to feel connected, liked, and loved. If your assets are a source of jealousy to other women, to shine bright means that others will be jealous because they see you as a threat. The subconscious, internalized message behind “She’s just jealous” can easily become: “In order to not be threatening to other women, I must soften my presentation, diminish my accomplishments, downplay my assets.” Women are socialized to self-shrink in many areas, and the “She’s just jealous” refrain perpetuates that.
On a macro level, “She’s just jealous” is another modern-day reinforcement of the idea that women are inherently against each other. It indicates that any social conflict among women can be explained by envy, or the idea that one woman’s success results in another woman’s resentment. Although young girls are socialized, just as boys are, to be competitive with one another, over-emphasizing competition presents roadblocks to healthy relationships. Fostering female divisions works to support gender inequity because encouraging anything other than sisterhood as the default orientation among women means that women are precluded from valuable alliances with their female peers. In spite of male competition, “old boys clubs” and other inter-male empowerment tactics have been the norm among men for decades, providing avenues for men in power to lift up each other.
Recently, women advocating for inter-female empowerment has become more mainstream, and the viral nature of memes such as “real queens fix each other’s crowns” represents this. However, serving up “She’s just jealous” to explain any slight social conflict among women is a vestige of traditional ideology that leaves women more equipped to self-shrink than self-expand.
Gender inequity is sustained in numerous ways. Reconsidering the way we console our friends, our clients in therapy, and – perhaps most importantly – young girls who are hurt by the actions of other girls will not single-handedly dismantle gender inequity. However, it might help with some of the subconscious things we do to diminish and further disconnect ourselves from other women. To shine bright should be admired in little girls and women; the expectation should not be that to shine risks posing a threat and therefore becoming a target of jealousy and derision.
As friends, a more tactful approach in supporting a girlfriend who has received the cold shoulder from another woman is to join her in how terrible it feels to have someone turn on you. A more nuanced discussion about what has disrupted her relationship would be more effective than jumping to the “She’s just jealous” refrain.
As educators and parents, we can guide young students and daughters to practice sharing or including other little girls in whatever might be their source of envy. And as clinicians working with female clients, open dialogue that accounts for both the individual hurt and structural-level pain caused by a system that pits women against each other can provide a space for empowered healing.
del Mar Ferradás M., Freire, C., Valle, A., Núñez, J. C., Regueiro, B., & Valle, G. (2016). The relationship between self-esteem and self-worth protection strategies in university students. Personality and Individual Differences, 88, 236-241.
Rodriguez Mosquera, P. M., Parrott W. G., & Hurtado de Mendoza, A. (2010). I fear your envy, I rejoice in your coveting: On the ambivalent experience of being envied by others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 842–854.