The Uninvited Guest: How to Handle Jealousy

Posted on 2017-01-12 By Joanna

Jealousy is one of the most challenging feelings to anyone in a romantic relationship. However, one doesn’t need to be in a relationship to feel jealous, for there are many other things to be jealous about, such as possessions or experiences. It occurs when there is a threat of losing something or someone, for instance, our partner, job or material things. This feeling is quite similar to envy, which occurs when we lack something or want to have something that the other person has.

The experience of jealousy has been described as intrusive and challenging to one’s sense of self and relationships. It’s like an uninvited guest - we become jealous when a person enters our life and threatens our relationship, possessions, or a social status. But threatens what exactly? Our right of ownership - we believe that we own a person we are in a relationship with or that we own a particular social role. In theory, if we only reduced our attachment to everything and everyone, so would the possibility of getting jealous reduce. But where is the limit if relationships are based on attachment, if our social roles play a significant role to our identity?

Since all feelings have a purpose - otherwise we wouldn’t have them in the first place, jealousy has it as well. Because it occurs in situations where there is a possibility of some sort of loss, perhaps it is there to signal us of such threat. The problem occurs however, when we have no right to control whether such loss will occur. For instance, we cannot control the fact that our partner might have found someone else, although many will try various tactics to keep their ‘precious possession’. We might feel like we own our partner but such ownership occurs only in our heads. Surely, it might be worth to fight for our relationship, but if our partner was committed to the relationship and was truly right for us, we wouldn’t feel so threatened on the first place. For many, such romantic jealousy can go entirely out of control and it all sparks from one place - the right of ownership.

There are other times, however, when jealousy doesn’t have to be toxic but can prove itself to be an ally. For example, one might feel threatened by a new co-worker who seems to be getting ready to take over one’s position. In such cases, jealousy might become a positive motivator to improve or put an effort into one’s actions. However, the question is - where is a line between the positive type of jealousy that can spice up a relationship or increase one’s motivation, and the negative one which drives an individual to destroy their partner’s belongings, or to undermine their co-worker’s efforts? The key is to know how much control one truly has.

How to handle jealousy

Jealousy does not only threaten our ‘right of ownership’ but also the core of our identity. When being jealous, we become insecure and anxious. Once again, it is caused by our belief that whatever we feel attached to, we own it, and whatever we own - defines who we are. Although it might be true that various relationships or possessions or social roles shape our identity, it is necessary to understand that our identity is not entirely our self - it is merely a social projection or an act that helps others to define or label us. Identity is very different to who we truly are. I might be defined as a coach by the society, but it doesn’t mean that my whole self is a coach. Being a coach is just a part of the whole complexity of the self.

In the same manner, one might define themselves by using their relationships with others which is a very fragile position to be at. Fragile because relationships change and dissolve, people change, circumstances change and so does our identity in relation to other people. This clinging towards having a permanent identity defined by our job or relationship is what’s causing us to feel jealous on the first place, as jealousy imposes a threat to such illusion of permanence. Although the core of your being might be quite stable through lifetime - which might include things like some personality traits or an inbuilt temperament, our social identities will change accordingly to a context we are in.

Remaining flexible in the face of changing circumstances is what can remedy feelings of jealousy. When we understand that our identity is not a reflection of the totality of ourselves, but a mere part, it is much easier to deal with threats to anything that defines our identity. The whole point is that all of us feel jealous - it’s an inbuilt evolutionary mechanism serving as a protection of our relationships and relations to various objects, such as material possessions or social roles. And although we cannot simply remove this mechanism, we can learn to handle it in a more efficient way without entirely compromising our sense of self or emotional security, by allowing ourselves to understand that we do not own anyone, that there is enough material possessions for everyone, and that social roles change accordingly to our current abilities and desires. But most importantly, it is the realisation that such social or external identity is not a reflection of the totality of ourselves that helps us to let go of wanting to control and own everything and everyone, and thus reduces the feelings of jealousy. We are pretty good at clinging and attaching ourselves - why not also improving the polar opposite of this mechanism and learn to let go?

Resources:
Becoming a Subject: A Memory Work Study of the Experience of Romantic Jealousy