The Surprising Gift of Jealousy

How to reset your heart on what you really need.

Posted May 21, 2018

Coramueller/iStock used with permission
Source: Coramueller/iStock used with permission

“How come he got the red car? I wanted that car!” says the inconsolable child sitting in the sandbox. His heart was set on one thing and now, because someone else has it, he is left with nothing. Absolutely nothing! Well, nothing except every other thing he has. But that’s not the issue. At this particular moment, it seems to him that everything he does have is held hostage by the one thing he doesn’t.

We all know that child. We all are that child, even if we are decades past our sandbox days. Our nemesis, or maybe even our best friend, not only has exactly what we want, but we imagine that car touting victor as if it were the one blocking our access to what we want or think we deserve. There is one car and one car only and they have it and we want it. We begrudge and resent the victor’s good fortune, but if we are past our sandbox days, we also blame ourselves for drinking the poison of jealousy in the first place and not being more evolved and simply happy for someone else’s success.  

Why do we suffer so? Could that car matter so much?

While we may pin our hurt on others, it is really our beliefs about the meaning of that car, about ourselves, about how things should be that are the culprits. These knee-jerk reactions inventing a story in our minds and our emotions follow suit.  The good news is that we can do the re-write. Since it’s unlikely we can get others to magically forfeit their promotions, new car, engagement ring… or boyfriend—we can do some fact-checking of those beliefs and make the relief happen all by ourselves.

Jealousy is a sign that we need to redirect our attention to ourselves so we can begin to identify whatever has been missing in our own lives (or feels that way to us). Jealousy marks the “you are here” spot clearly and at the same time suggests to you, possibly, where you want to go. That is the gift. That roadblock lights the path to what we really want to do in our lives. Once we take a closer look at what we feel we’re missing, we might even realize that we’re not missing it at all.

Though our pain and suffering would suggest otherwise, when we are in the clutches of jealousy, we aren’t really focused on ourselves so much. We are eagle-eye focused on the other person, on the unfairness, their good fortune, our bad luck—certain predictable hyperboles come out of our mouths sounding totally believable: “everyone else always gets what they want, I never do!”  We shake our fist at the universe asking why?! In short, feeling roadblocked by someone else’s success, we do everything but focus on the one person who could get us out of this mess: us.  

But this is the very good news about jealousy: there is no real roadblock. Since it is actually the narrative in our heads creating obstacles, we can dismantle them.

How do you reset your heart in the face of disappointment?

In a nutshell: Expose it. At least to yourself.

Don’t hide from the jealousy or distract yourself from figuring out your own needs by focusing intently on the other guy and why it’s so wrong that he has what you want. Take off your coat and stay a while. No, it won’t feel comfortable at first, but most worthwhile things do not. Lean in and ask yourself: what is really missing in your life? What hurts the most about this? If things had worked out how you wanted them to what would really be different?

You don’t have to be held captive by your own recrimination or your anger at the other person. Here are strategies to unwrap the gift of jealousy and free yourself in the process.

Get Specific: What is really missing in your life? Do you really want what the other person has? Is something really missing in your life? Rather than lament it, pinpoint it. Is it an achievement or a way of approaching life? Imitation is the highest form of flattery. While staying true to who you are—see if there are ways that you’d like to try adopting one of whatever it is—the other person’s work ethic, their generosity, or the daring way they do their hair. No harm in trying. Or, if it’s more that you are feeling unhappy and just the mere fact of another’s happiness is feeling like a sting and a reminder, take the opportunity to identify the types of experiences that you’d like to have more of in your life. Think of small ways to begin to include more of what brings you meaning in your life.

Separate Facts from Feelings Ever vigilant to actual threats, our wired-in first reactions to negative events (your colleague got that grant you worked so hard for; your child didn’t make the travel soccer team) speak with such authority, but wildly distort the magnitude and meaning of those situations. Fact check those beliefs and decide whether the explanations are true or false. You may feel worthless (temporarily!) because you didn’t get the promotion, but the facts beg to differ. Someone else’s success doesn’t change your worth, but it can color your feelings. Feelings come and go; our worth does not.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same Often we are convinced that if we had that thing, or did that one thing, we’d be happy.  Fact is that even lottery winners return to their baseline level of happiness within six months. The answer to our happiness may be more within our reach.  Think hard about how your life will really be changed by having the object of your jealousy. Is it worth it? If so, go for it. If not, go for what is.

Don’t Delay: Do It Anyway What are the things that you aren’t doing now that you think you could do if this new thing came your way? See if there is anything on that list that really doesn’t depend on your circumstances changing. Control what you can: If you are waiting to lose weight before working on your appearance—why wait?  If you’d like to be more social, go ahead and reach out first—there are no rules.

Get Closer to the Source Jealousy puts distance between ourselves and others, compounding our sense of isolation and inadequacy. Our anger and envy say, who needs ‘em! Our inadequacy pre-emptively decides that they, in all their success or happiness, don’t need us. But who’s staying away from whom? Get closer by directly interacting with those you keep at arm’s length. They are really just people, like you. Rather than idealizing them, or scorning them, why not compliment them, or at least get to know them better. You may find that they share some of the same struggles that you have, you may find out some helpful pointers, and you may even find that you can be friends.

Don’t Buy In to the Scarcity Model of Life Often our jealousy is fueled by a feeling that the world is finite, with limited resources and if someone else is getting it, then you can’t, as if there’s only so much attention, beauty, success, intelligence—whatever the commodity—to go around, if they have it—you’re out of luck. But life is not a zero-sum game. One person’s success doesn’t negate another’s. What if you flip that idea on its head. If you had an opportunity to be around inspiring, talented people or people who weren’t so much like that—which would you choose? Being around people doing great things elevates you too, the impact multiplicative. Your group can bring you up, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so you count too.

Value What You Have and How You Got It But I’m not the best at… I don’t have a “thing” that I’m known for. This is what is painful. When we think if we don’t have the elevator pitch, the stellar SAT score, the fancy car to point to, the award for best this or that, that we have nothing. That we are nothing. Try to round out the picture of who you are. You are probably diminishing your value because it’s yours. If it were someone else’s accomplishments, would you cheer them on—hmmm, why not share that with yourself?

Find the Feelings Inside “It’s Unfair”  Unfair is always a tricky term and even if we are on the winning side of the universe’s unfairness lottery in many ways, isolated comparisons can wrangle us. But there are feelings beyond “unfair” that are important to identify and understand.  Ask yourself to choose the emotion that matches and fill in the blank: I am sad, disappointed, angry, scared, worried, because….”

We don’t have to envy that proverbial red car, not for long. Jealousy can help turn our attention away from the things we don’t have towards what we need to know about ourselves and our true needs. Beyond jealousy lies a life of abundance. Jump in, your heart will follow.

©2018 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.