Chris Fariello, PhD, LMFT
In my counseling practice, I work with many people who struggle with jealousy for a variety of reasons. It can become a major obstacle to an intimate relationship. Despite how enlightened we think we are, most of us experience jealousy. A few rare individuals never experience jealousy. I advise clients to treat jealousy as a given: assume that it will occur, and be prepared with strategies to successfully address it and minimize the damage.
Jealousy is really a bundle of emotions
We tend to think of jealousy as a single emotion, but actually it is a whole bundle of feelings that tend to get lumped together. Jealousy can manifest as anger, fear, hurt, betrayal, anxiety, agitation, sadness, paranoia, depression, loneliness, envy, feeling powerless, feeling inadequate, feeling excluded, etc. It often helps to identify what is the exact mix of feelings you experience when you feel jealous. What is the primary emotion you feel when you are jealous? Demystifying the exact components of your jealousy can be a giant step towards getting a grip on things and resolving the problem. Is it always the same for you or does the mix change from time to time depending on circumstances?
Jealousy is often based in FEAR
It is crucial to understand what jealousy is and what it is about. Jealousy is about fear– fear of the unknown and of change, fear of losing power or control in a relationship, fear of scarcity and of loss, and fear of abandonment. It is a reflection of our own insecurity about our worthiness, anxiety about being adequate as a lover, and doubts about our desirability.
For every jealous feeling there is an emotion behind the jealousy that is much more significant than the jealousy itself. Behind jealousy there is an unmet need or a deep fear that our needs will not be met. Recognizing those fears and unmet needs is the key to unmasking jealousy and taking away its power. Jealousy is just the finger pointing at the fears and needs we are afraid to face. When jealousy kicks in, it is the ancient reptilian part of our brain going into a “fight or flight” response because we feel that our very survival is threatened. When you feel jealous, ask yourself, “What is it that I am really afraid of? What do I need to make this situation safe for me?” “What is the worst thing that could happen and how likely is that to happen?”
Managing jealousy as a phobic response
Learn to accept jealousy as a normal but exaggerated response to a stressful, emotionally charged change in your life. I often use the phobia model to help clients manage jealous feelings. For instance, if someone were afraid of heights, a therapist would pinpoint exactly what situations frighten that person, and then gradually try to make those situations safe enough to tolerate. By exposing someone with a fear of heights first to a few steps and then to a ladder, and then going up an escalator, and eventually even going to the top of a hill or mountain. By gradually experiencing the situation that triggers the phobia, and by incrementally escalating that exposure, a person can slowly overcome their fears. To treat jealousy, I ask clients to pinpoint as specifically as possible exactly what is triggering jealousy for them.
Identify your jealousy triggers
When you discover exactly what triggers your jealousy, it puts things in perspective. Realizing that you are only jealous of a small piece of the overall picture makes it much more manageable. After identifying you jealousy triggers, you have two basic choices. You can “engineer the problem away” by making agreements with your partner to avoid that particular behavior or situation. Or you can use the “phobia model”, taking the risk of gradually exposing yourself to situations that trigger your jealousy in the hopes that you will learn to tolerate and eventually feel comfortable with it.
It is important to keep in mind that there is no simple and easy solution to jealousy. It usually requires trial and error to discover what works for your individual situation. And jealousy can bring up many powerful feelings and unpredictable emotions. So be gentle with yourself and your partners, and don’t expect instant changes. Try to be understanding of each persons needs and feelings. Make every effort to create a “win- win” situation for everyone by giving each person as much voice as possible in decisions and rule making. And be willing to compromise to make sure everyone’s needs are met.