Seeing Green: How to Break Free From Jealousy

Whether it's your husband's coworker or an online influencer, you'll want to address it and move on.

In this day and age, it’s no wonder jealousy is everywhere—and we’re not just talking about spousal jealousy. It is easier than ever to scroll through your social media feed and become jealous of someone else’s life. And while a little envy is normal, becoming consumed by jealousy can cause problems with family, friends and colleagues.

“I describe jealousy as insecurity or fear,” says Kathleen Hall, MD, founder and CEO of The Stress Institute and Mindful Living Network. “If you notice you’re overly concerned, or you’re envious of lack of possessions, status or really anything of great personal value, it may mean you’re jealous.”

Jealousy is complicated—and so are the root causes

Jealousy is pretty complex, and can involve all sorts of emotions, like fear, anger and humiliation. There are many explanations for seeing green, and for decades, psychologists have been researching what may be to blame.

One study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, polled nearly 64,000 Americans about whether they were more concerned with emotional infidelity or sexual infidelity. Research suggested that men were more likely to be concerned with physical or sexual infidelity, while women were more concerned with emotional infidelity.

In addition to fears about infidelity, other emotions may lead to jealous thoughts:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Insecurity or possessive thoughts
  • Moodiness, anxiety, emotional instability
  • Complete reliance on your significant other

4 types of jealousy

Jealousy can appear anywhere—at home, at work, on girl’s night, between neighbors or at a family gathering. Despite its source, there are specific types of jealousy that are common:

  • Romantic jealousy: May be the most common type of jealousy, it is usually related to emotional or physical infidelity.
  • Power or career jealousy: This occurs when someone else gets a promotion, raise or other reward at work.
  • Platonic jealousy: This often arises when you compare yourself to a friend or if you have a fear of being replaced.
  • Sibling or family jealousy: It’s common for family members to compare themselves to each other, especially among siblings. The cause may be school, career performance or even when a child needs extra attention because of a disability.

It’s also possible to be jealous of another person’s possessions, such as when a friend gets a new car, has a well-groomed house or breezes through an easy fertility journey. And it’s even possible to be jealous of someone you don’t even know on social media, like a health influencer or someone who shares your same hobbies.

The dangers of extreme jealousy

Jealousy feels different for everyone. While some instances are minor and temporary, issues arise when jealousy becomes severe and all-consuming. “Getting irritated, over-reacting all the time and being obsessed or paranoid is what we call extreme jealousy,” says Hall. Intentionally initiating and escalating arguments or withdrawing from family and friends are common signs as well.

Extreme jealousy can even bring about physical symptoms. “When you compare yourself with a rival, you have stress responses,” says Hall. “Your amygdala, which manages your emotions—fear, anger and sadness, to name a few—will kick into high gear and you may experience physical pain.” Hall says that intense jealousy can lead to:

  • Stomach aches
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Chest pain
  • Gastrointestinal issues

What to do about jealousy

A little jealousy is natural, but dwelling on it can bring anger and bitterness into your everyday routines—not to mention physical pain if it’s severe enough, says Hall. Eventually, it can to take a toll on you mentally and physically. Pent up jealousy can lead to constant anger, obsessive thoughts and violent acts like abuse. It can also alienate your partner, friends and family, since it’s difficult to be around someone who is bitter.

Psychologists—including Hall—recommend you look at jealousy as something positive rather than something negative. Recognizing your envy can serve as a relationship wake-up call. “Jealousy can save our lives. If you’re aware of it and able to talk about what’s causing it, you can deepen your relationship or use it to your advantage.” For example, if you are jealous that your friend can play the piano, why not sign up for lessons?

Here are some other ways to ease jealous thoughts:

Talk about it: Jealousy is not something that most people want to talk about, but in order to heal, you’ll have to be open. If you have children, Hall says to teach them from an early age that a little bit of jealousy is a normal human emotion, and that they should talk about it.

“If we normalize it, then people will become aware and think, ‘Oh this is a really bad feeling that’s getting me nowhere. How can I get a handle on it?'"

No matter who your jealousy is directed to, figure out if there is a valid reason. If so, address it and work on your relationship. If your jealousy is unfounded, have a conversation to let them know you are trying to control your suspicion—for example: that your husband is having a romantic relationship with someone else—but it would help if they would avoid provoking you in any way.

Try “ACE”: With any highly emotional situation, Hall recommends using a technique she calls ACE:

  • Awareness: The first step is recognizing the physical, emotional or relational symptoms of jealousy. Are you checking your husband’s phone? Are you being disrespectful towards a colleague? Are you up all night obsessing over a friend’s social media account? Be conscious of your own behavior.
  • Choice: Once you’re aware of your actions, then you have a choice about how to handle it. That might mean talking to your husband about the way you’re feeling, or speaking to your boss about goals and future plans.
  • Experience: The last step is all about thinking through your experience and your feelings. “You’ll probably think to yourself, ‘Wow. I feel better that I talked to my boss or I talked to my husband about looking at the female neighbor across the street,’” says Hall. Reflect back on your conversations so you can remember how freeing admitting your jealousy was, and how much better you feel afterwards.

Breathe: If you’re having feelings of jealousy, take a deep breath, says Hall. Inhale through your nose while observing your chest and lower belly rising as your lungs fill up. Once your abdomen has fully expanded, breathe out slowly through your mouth while listening to your breath. There are many phone apps that can help guide you through the sequence.

“Breathing takes you away from that focus; it helps you come back to your mind and body, and really connects you,” says Hall. “The minute strong emotion hits, your adrenaline starts pumping. When you take a deep breath, you turn on your relaxation response instead of your stress response.”

Find a positive affirmation: Hall says that loving yourself is really important for your overall wellbeing, and especially if you’re trying to heal from jealousy.

“Studies show that when people are stressed and they say a positive affirmation, it actually reduces the level of cortisol within a few minutes,” says Hall. One study from Carnegie Mellon University found that participants who used self-affirmation tactics, like identifying on their most important values, boosted their ability to solve problems.

Find and memorize a phrase that resonates with you, says Hall. A quick online search will lead you to thousands of mantras that you can repeat when you’re stressed or trying to overcome jealousy.

It also helps to think of your positive traits when you notice that you’re comparing yourself to others. If you’re jealous of how much free time your friend has to play sports with their child, remind yourself of the time you value with your family, such as eating a family dinner together.

Jealousy is very emotional and, at times, difficult to work through. Acknowledge your feelings, talk with the person involved and shift your mindset to the positive parts of your life. These steps can help you break free from envious thoughts.

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