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IS JEALOUSY LIMITING YOUR HAPPINESS?

by Linda Abbott Trapp, Ph.D.


Insecurity is the root of jealousy
How to challenge your feelings of inadequacy
Deflect envy, and compete only against your own high standards

Mary and I were sitting on the porch at camp one summer afternoon and she was telling me about packing to go away to college. Her dad owned the gas company that my dad managed, and our camps were next door to each other at Green Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. My pink plaid shorts and pink t-shirt were pretty clean, and I almost had picked the scab off my knee so I looked OK. I was surprised she'd take the time to tell me about her plans.

She was older, prettier, and much richer, and I could hardly stand it. When she said she was taking a trunk with fifty-two sweaters in it, mostly twin sets, I nearly choked with envy. Twin sets were all the rage, and the prettiest girl in my class at school had several that I would have loved to own. It seemed as if everyone else had more than I did.

It was a beautiful day, the lake was cool and clear, the little sailboat was waiting, my cousin Jack would have been ready to race across the lake, or to go water skiing with me, but all I could do was pout about those sweaters and what I didn't have.

How silly it seems now, but the pain was real then.

That pain, like all jealousy-caused pain, really comes from insecurity. When you feel that someone has something that you don't, whether it's a nice smile, a good grade, a cute boyfriend, or a fancy car, your insecurity is telling you that (a) you don't deserve to have something like that, and (b) maybe you could have had it if only that person hadn't gotten in your way. So, you begin to dislike that person, perhaps spreading rumors about her, and pretty soon, you find yourself laughing when she stumbles, hoping she'll just disappear from the face of the earth, leaving all the good stuff for you.

Sadly, jealous people really do not wish others well, instead, they hope those others will fall from grace and lose their advantages in the fall. And, by focusing their thoughts on that other person, they avoid dealing with their underlying insecurity, which caused the jealousy in the first place.

Freud, who founded psychology, thought women were naturally jealous, as well as envious, and felt shame, inferiority, and that they received pleasure from being dominated and embarrassed. What a relief that not many psychologists still carry those ideas around, but they don't deal much with the whole concept of jealousy, either. The only place it seems to come up is in marriage counseling. By then, I think, it's pretty late to be addressing insecure feelings that have been troublesome for many people since at least grade school.

When you're feeling jealous, I believe the root cause is in insecurity, but more precisely, in two ideas about inadequacy. First is the belief that you're not good enough, don't have enough talent, beauty, intellect, or whatever, to be worthy of the thing you want. Second is the belief that there's not enough of that thing to go around; there's not an adequate supply. So, if someone else gets it, you can't have it.

Remember, ideas cause feelings, and feelings lead to actions, so it's important to look at the ideas behind your feelings and see whether they have any merit. In this case, I think these two ideas about inadequacy can usually be challenged successfully. The belief that you are just not good enough can be challenged by clearly defining the standards of "good enough", and seeing whether you want to work hard enough to meet those standards. Since most of us operate way under our full capacity, there's plenty of room for growth, if we decide to work at it.

The second idea about inadequacy, that there's just not enough of the prize to go around, may or may not be true. If the prize is a certain guy named Jake, then it's true that there's only one, and if Suzie has his attention right now, he's not available to you. However, he might be later on, or another guy may come along who is even more interesting, once you work yourself up to meeting those higher standards you decided were worth the effort. Or if Suzie has been accepted at a top college, but you haven't, maybe you could try again, or go to another school and transfer later, or just decide to become a top student at that other school.

It's like dessert; yes, there's only eight pieces to this pie and once they're gone, they're gone. But who says you can't bake another pie? So, jealousy could stimulate you to do some needed self-improvement, and in so doing, you'll be too busy to pout about those jealous feelings, and you'll be leading an interesting life, too.

It's a little bit of a different story when the jealousy is directed at you. That's very painful, even though some think it's a compliment. California's current Governor, Arnold Schwarzenneger, said: "Everybody pities the weak; jealousy you have to earn". I don't think it's a prize, I think it's very uncomfortable, and can cost you friends.

Because it stems from that person's insecurity, their feeling of inadequacy, it's hard for you to directly respond to it, except by building them up whenever you honestly can. Humility helps here, too, and reflecting the envy away from yourself. Attributing any success to hard work also helps, for then the jealous person can see that if they choose to work hard also, they might be able to do what you can do.

One evening some friends were over and asked me to play piano for a little while. I played a Beethoven Sonata that I had been practicing daily for some time, and it is a very lovely piece. At the end, one of them said a little too loudly that it was beautiful, and how much she wished she could play like that. I was quick to pass the compliment to Beethoven's brilliant writing, because playing piano is not a competitive sport for me, just a source of enjoyment.

I don't mean that you should never accept compliments; of course you should, with a genuine word of thanks. I simply mean that you should never encourage envy. In my way of thinking, we're not competing against each other, but rather against standards that we set at the highest level we can. We're the only person in that race, so jealousy has no place.

Workbook Questions:

  1. Under jealousy is the pain of insecurity. Think of a time you were jealous, and try to identify what you were insecure about. Now challenge that insecurity with facts.
  2. Do you agree that "jealousy is something you earn"? Why be proud of something that badly affects your relationships?
  3. How can you use your feelings of jealousy to set higher goals for yourself?

References:

  • Carlson, R., & Carlson K. (1999). Don't Sweat the Small Stuff in Love. New York: Hyperion.
  • Tannen, D. (1994). Talking from 9 to 5. New York: William Morrow and Co.

About the Author:

Dr. Linda Abbott Trapp writes from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. A former Dean at the California School of Professional Psychology, Certified Speaking Professional, and owner of the consulting firm Abbott & Associates, she’s an internationally known speaker who has authored seven books and more than 250 articles, columns, and reviews. Her recent books can be previewed at: www.abbottpub.com.

04/30/08

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