By Keith Ablow, M.D.
Jealousy is normal, it's human - and it's wrecking your relationships. Here's what to do.
Maria came to see me because she was having second thoughts about the clothing boutique she'd opened with Kendra, a close friend of many years.
"It just isn't fun for me anymore," she said. "Before, it was all about the two of us going out on a limb together and being creative. Now, the place is up and running, and everything's changed. It's all about managing stock and shipping and employees."
"Do you think Kendra feels the same way?" I asked.
"She's more ambitious than I am," Maria said. "She spends a lot of time thinking about the 'next level' and how to manage people. That just bores me."
"How many employees do you have at the boutique?" I asked.
"Actually, we just hired our first full-time person three months ago," she said. "Nancy, an old friend of Kendra's from high school."
Managing one employee didn't seem as if it should take much time. "What do you think of her?" I asked.
"She's fine. And Kendra wants to grow things faster." She paused. "I mean, in the last three months, they must have had 20 lunch meetings. Personally? I think we were doing fine on our own."
It didn't take long to zero in on the real reason Maria was dissatisfied with her work. The presence of a third person at the boutique meant Kendra's focus and attention had partly shifted away from Maria. And Maria felt jealous.
"Do you ever feel like Kendra is choosing Nancy over you?" I asked.
Maria looked at me as though I were accusing her of something terrible. But her disbelief and outrage slowly faded. She shrugged. "Maybe, sometimes. I guess so."
"That could be a big part of the reason work doesn't feel fun anymore. It isn't fun to feel jealous."
Maria took a deep breath and let it out. "Wow. I'm actually jealous of someone having lunch with my friend. I guess that means I'm a pretty pathetic person."
"No," I said. "But it might be worthwhile to think about a way to remind Kendra of how much you value your friendship — instead of running away."
All of us compete, at times, for success and attention and affection. It seems to be part of our psychological DNA to judge ourselves not only on whether we're well loved but whether we're outshined or outdone by those around us. When we feel as if we haven't been "chosen," it's very painful — and entirely forgivable — to suffer deep pangs of jealousy. When friends and family members appear to be doing much better than we are, it's completely normal to get a sharp twinge of envy. The trouble is that envy and jealousy don't feel normal, or forgivable.
That's because wanting what someone else has — the great sex life she talks about or her beautiful house or, simply, attention from a mutual friend — competes with many of our "better" impulses, like altruism and generosity and love. It feels like something to hide.
Sure, plenty of people talk about being jealous. "I'm so jealous you got that car. I love that car." "I can't believe you're dating him. I have to admit I'm jealous." But I think off-the-cuff comments like those actually celebrate the success of the other individual. Real gut-level jealousy leaves us tongue-tied and ashamed. It isn't something we're likely to share with one another.
Think about it. How often have you heard comments like these delivered in a serious way:
"Hey, Marybeth, just so you know, I'm feeling really badly that you're going to go to the Caribbean for a month with Richard. I think my husband and I deserve to go away just as much as you two."
Or: "When you drove by in your fancy new car, I imagined what it would be like if it were in my driveway, not yours. I think I'm actually smarter than you are and should make more money than you do."
Or: "I can't stand seeing you in that dress. I was always thinner than you, and now you look better than I do, which makes me feel just awful. I wish you would gain weight."
Probably never. And if you heard anything of the sort, you might even decide you weren't with a real friend. There's a myth that true friends aren't jealous of each other. But they are — sometimes more than of anyone else. They just love each other enough to get over it.
Getting over it, though, means you have to admit it, at least to yourself. Because denying feelings leads not only to shame and guilt, but also to sadness, helplessness, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Quietly coveting the good fortune or success that your friend, sibling, or neighbor is enjoying makes you focus even more on the fact that you don't have it. All kinds of unconscious questions are stirred up, some of them deeply rooted in childhood insecurities: What's wrong with me? Am I not smart enough? Not pretty enough? Not diligent enough? Not lovable enough?
That was the case with Joyce, who'd been struggling with feelings of worthlessness. Her marriage of 20-odd years had just ended. What made matters worse, she told me tearfully, was how alone she felt.
Joyce was describing symptoms of major depression — but that was her diagnosis, not her story.
"No one can understand what it's like to go through a divorce unless they have," she said. "Even Carol, my sister, has no idea. It's not worth talking to her anymore."
"You aren't speaking?"
She shook her head.
"For how long?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. She shrugged. "Six weeks, maybe."
"Were the two of you close?"
"Too close. She lives a mile away. I used to talk to her at least twice a day, and we'd drop by each other's houses all the time. But she just asks maddening questions now, and we start to argue, so it's better like this."
"What does she ask?"
"Everything from how Tim and I are dividing our assets, to custody stuff, to whether I'm going to start dating. It's endless."
"Those questions aren't relevant?" I asked.
Joyce leaned forward slightly in her seat. "Not when she's sitting home with her husband and kids trying to decide whether to build a vacation house in Aspen, they're not." She seemed to catch herself and settled back. "It's not as if I'm jealous of her," she said. "I'm just saying..."
"Why wouldn't you be?" I asked.
"Jealous? Of Carol? I love her."
"Jealousy and love aren't mutually exclusive," I said. "And sibling rivalry is just another name for jealousy. It doesn't go away when you turn 15 — or 50."
Joyce thought about that for several seconds. "How do I deal with it, if I do feel it?"
That question is one I've been asked by lots of people. So I've come up with this five-step strategy:
- If a relationship in your life is in turmoil, consider whether jealousy (the fear of losing the attention or affection of a loved one) or envy (the desire to possess what others have) might be involved.
- Remind yourself that although they are painful, these are normal human emotions. Having them doesn't mean you're a bad spouse or a bad friend or a bad sibling.
- Whatever it is you feel you're missing out on, consider whether you'd really want that particular thing in your life. For example, you might envy a friend's wealth but would never actually trade your free time or the pleasure you take in less-lucrative work. Or even though you might wish your own child could gain admission to a prestigious college that accepted your friend's kid, in your heart, you know that school isn't the one that will end up enhancing your child's self-esteem and potential for success.
- Be aware that circumstances change — for all of us. The acquaintance or sibling who outshines you today may be the one who needs your help or compassion a week, or a month, or a year from now.
- If you really do want what your friend or sister has, think of one positive step toward attaining it — and take it right away. Register for a course on investment planning or changing careers, give online dating a shot, get plans drawn for a new addition to your house (even if you won't start construction for a year or two).
I shared these ideas with Joyce, and then said, "What if your sister asked you to look at plans for that house she's building? Or photos of the land in Colorado? It could be very difficult for you right now. So you're keeping your distance."
She looked down. "Which makes me a terrible sister," she said. "Add that to the list."
"No," I said. "It doesn't mean you're a bad sister — it just means you're human."
Keith Ablow, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author. His latest book is Living the Truth.
Originally published on October 15, 2007
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