If you’re a human who interacts with other humans, the odds are good that you know what it feels like to be jealous.
Jealousy is an angry, agitated, anxious state in which we feel threatened. It can occur when we worry that we are inferior (by comparing ourselves to others, for instance) or when we fear that we will lose someone or something we value, such as a partner.12 Jealousy can crop up in all types of relationships, including between siblings, friends, coworkers, and romantic partners.3 It can be similar to envy, which stems from resenting others who have something you desire but don’t currently have, but ultimately, it has a different cocktail of symptoms.
Psychologists believe jealousy may have evolved as a mechanism to motivate us to maintain the relationships that contribute to our lives and, by extension, our very survival.4 Small doses of jealousy can also clue us in to how much we value and appreciate the people in our lives.5 But while jealousy may be motivated by a positive outcome – like sustaining a valued relationship – it can very easily lead to negative consequences. Thanks to technological connectivity, it’s easier than ever to come up with reasons to feel jealous these days.6
The good news is that you don’t have to be a magician to cope with jealousy. Instead, you can free yourself from the green-eyed monster’s grasp with simple, do-anywhere techniques. Here’s how to recognize when jealousy has reared its ugly head – and how to deal with it before it harms your health and relationships.
This Is Your Body on Jealousy
Jealousy often manifests as feelings of anger, agitation, or intense worry. Jealous feelings activate several regions of the brain. One is the same region involved in processing physical pain; another also handles emotions such as shame.78 These emotional and physiological reactions can cause a jealous person to become oversensitive, possessive, or excessively vigilant.
Jealousy can also trigger the body’s stress response, leading to spikes in heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone; it can also lead to sleeping problems or a poor appetite.9 In this way, jealousy’s effects are similar to those of chronic anxiety; it can even provoke depression.10 When left unchecked, these jealous feelings can also turn into jealous behaviors, such as leveling accusations, moping, seeking reassurance, and lashing out.11
Just as jealousy can have negative consequences on your personal wellbeing, it can also harm your relationships. Jealous behaviors can cause anyone, including siblings, coworkers, and friends, to distance themselves from the person acting out of jealousy. For example, partners accused of wrongdoing may feel hurt, anxious, frustrated, or exhausted from having to defend themselves.12
Often, it’s not the person we’re jealous of that creates trouble in our relationships – our own jealousy leads to inner pain, relationship conflicts, misunderstandings, and, in the worst cases, permanent rifts.13
How to Cope with Jealousy
We’ve established what jealousy is and how it can affect your body, mind, health, and relationships. We’ve also recognized that when left to its own devices, jealousy can be a toxic emotion that harms you and destroys intimate relationships.
Now for the good news – while jealousy may feel overwhelming, you are never at its mercy. It’s possible to identify and cope with jealousy in healthy ways that leave your body, mind, and relationships intact. Here’s how to identify and manage jealousy.
Allow yourself to feel jealous
Denial never helped anyone work through emotional challenges. Give yourself time to really feel whatever you’re feeling without acting on it.14 When feelings of jealousy arise, excuse yourself to a quiet room or a peaceful setting outdoors. Breathe deeply and notice the emotions and tensions arising in your body. Allow yourself to feel jealousy without doing anything about it, and you’ll likely notice the feeling starting to dissipate.
Examine what you hope to gain from your jealousy
Once you realize that you feel jealous and allow yourself to feel that way for a bit, it’s time to start working with that emotion to respond to it in a constructive way. A good place to start is by asking yourself, “What is my jealousy attempting to accomplish?”15
For example, perhaps your jealousy is a projection of guilt for having flirted with someone other than your partner, or maybe your jealousy is alerting you to the fact that you don’t really trust your partner to be faithful and you need to have a conversation with them. It may be signaling an emotional need that’s not being met, for instance, needing more quality time with your friend. Perhaps it’s just showing you how deeply you care about a given relationship and that it’s time you expressed your feelings to the person involved.
After you identify what you hope to gain from your jealousy, take a moment to recognize what that tells you about yourself.16 Maybe your jealousy is teaching you that you want to be in a monogamous relationship or that you value honesty and sincerity in relationships with your coworkers. In any case, jealousy can teach you a lot about your values, wants, and needs.17 Once you’ve observed these factors, write down a game plan to address those needs in a constructive way, with no lashing out allowed.
Identify and challenge the inner critic
As mentioned, jealousy often comes with feelings of shame, inferiority, or low self-worth. For this reason, when you feel jealous, you may find that the “inner critic” inside your head becomes particularly active.18 Perhaps it’s telling you that your friend likes all your other friends better than you or that no one could ever love you enough to be faithful to you.
It’s important to notice this voice because that’s the only way to combat it. Once you identify the negative thoughts running through your head, you can choose to counteract them by telling yourself that you are worthy of love, that your friends really do care for you, and so on. Remind yourself that just because you can imagine a horrible scenario, that doesn’t mean it’s actually true.19
Often, the inner critic can cause us more emotional pain than whatever sparked the inner critic’s opinions in the first place. By recognizing and talking back to this voice, you can start to reprogram your mental state toward more positive perceptions of yourself and the situation.
Because jealousy often leads to feelings of shame, it’s all too easy to keep these feelings to yourself. But one of the best ways to handle jealous thoughts is to share them openly and honestly with the relevant party.20 Just make sure you do it without getting upset or making accusations, and frame it as something you’d like some help working through as opposed to something that someone has done to you. If you don’t feel comfortable communicating directly with the person at the center of your jealousy, consider talking through your feelings with a therapist or trusted friend.
When you feel insecure or less-than, it’s easy to lash out at loved ones. But the real antidote to the shame, anxiety, and anger that arises from jealousy isn’t more shame, anxiety, and anger; it’s compassion – and that begins with yourself.
Whenever jealousy arises, take that as your cue to dial up the self-care.21 Take a bubble bath, write down a list of your positive traits, practice meditation or yoga, go for a long walk in the woods, or do anything else that helps you feel good.22 Make sure to make a point of talking back to any thoughts that compare you to others; comparison is a surefire happiness killer. Shifting your focus away from jealousy and toward positive, loving actions can help you feel positive and loving.
If you’ve tried all of the strategies on this list and nothing seems to help or if jealousy regularly affects your health and relationships, it may be time to seek professional assistance.23
A therapist can help you process past experiences that may underlie your jealousy, help you better understand your attachment style, and provide you with additional tools to feel more secure in close relationships.
Jealousy is a human emotion. There’s no shame in feeling jealous, but there is an art to coping with jealousy in a healthy way. Human relationships are inherently messy and uncertain. Sometimes your worst fears may be nothing but fiction; sometimes they may come true. You can’t control what other people do or how they treat you, but you can manage your own emotions so you treat others with integrity, honesty, and respect. And who wouldn’t want to maintain a relationship based on that?