Like something out of a horror film, when you least expect it, a powerful, hideous monster attacks out of nowhere. No one is safe when it appears, spewing negativity and dark thoughts. And the worst part is that this overwhelming ugliness is actually a part of you. The phrase “green-eyed jealousy” has been originally linked to William Shakespeare’s 16th-century play, The Merchant of Venice, to describe a character’s jealousy. It is thought that the color green is used to denote this emotional state because of its ties to decay and illness—when sick, a person’s skin color can take on a green tinge, and when food is rotting, it often grows green mold to signal that it is going bad. Envy is also included as one of the seven deadly sins according to Christian religion; philosopher Betrand Russell described it as “one of the most potent causes of unhappiness.” An emotional state that is tied to physical illness, decaying food, monsters, and other really bad stuff does not sound good. Yet envy and jealousy are a common state that many of us experience on a regular basis. Given that it is so terrible but so present, let’s explore this bad part of ourselves and find ways to tame it.
Understand Your Monster
Jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably but they are actually different concepts. If you think about all the monsters throughout history, they are often complicated, right? Homer Simpson, psychological powerhouse of television’s longest running cartoon, stated in a 2014 episode of The Simpsons, “I’m not jealous, I’m envious. Jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have. Envy is wanting what someone else has. What I feel is envy.” The patriarch of the Simpson family was correct. Envy involves two people, while jealousy is a three-party situation. We can feel envious about someone else’s luxurious lifestyle or their recent promotion. There is a sense of wanting what someone else has or is doing or maybe an absence of something. How often have you felt envious of someone having to work less than you? However, jealousy is a bit of a different monster. We may feel jealous of our partner’s coworker because we see how engaged our partner is with this person and that might trigger some fears or worries about losing them.
Maybe you can remember the first time you experienced envy or jealousy. Because these monsters are powerful characters, you can probably imagine that sensory experience of watching your neighbor getting that super cool new bike when you had the garage sale special with the bad stickers on the handlebars. Maybe you can imagine that pit in your stomach and that hot feeling that flooded your body. And often, because we have such a negative reaction to these monsters, you may remember trying to pretend it wasn’t how you really felt. How often do we respond with an “I’m fine” or “I don’t care,” when the reality is we are overwhelmed by these negative emotions? We are so programmed to get rid of negative emotions and those darker parts of ourselves. We deny, push aside, or run away from them, and in turn they get stronger and more powerful. Maybe that’s how it played out for you as a child—pretending you didn’t care stopped working and then you ended up pulling the streamers off of your neighbor’s bike to ruin their new, awesome thing that you wanted so you could get some relief.
Take Control of Your Monster
As negatively as jealousy and envy are characterized, they are monsters who are here to stay. It is good to normalize these emotions in some ways. We cannot expect ourselves to feel nothing but joy all the time. But if these monsters are showing up for you all the time, taking up way too much real estate in your mind—or if you still find yourself destroying your neighbor’s bike—it is time to explore that.
Jealousy and envy are both created by a cognitive distortion of what you think is happening. We live in a time where social media is the lifeblood of these monsters. We look online and are bombarded by a curated version of everyone’s life and…BAM! Everything starts to get really green really fast! So first, acknowledge when you start to feel that pull toward envy or jealousy. As we said before, these emotions are often felt in a very visceral way, so pay attention to what is happening in your body. Once we can identify that, okay, yes, the monster is starting to get a little closer, we can figure out what to do about it. Perhaps you can take a step back to compare how you felt in your body before you went online as compared to during to afterward. The aforementioned go-to move of your youth—denial, avoidance, or aggression—is not necessary. If you are noticing some moments of jealousy or envy, try to make some space for them or be curious about why they are showing up in this way and in this moment. What is creating a moment of insecurity or want in yourself? Try to challenge some of those thoughts by considering the source. Social media posts tend to be filtered and not a realistic representation of life. So if the fantasy is creating some of those monsters, acknowledge the lack of reality.
The strongest weapon you have against these monsters is gratefulness. American Humorist Josh Billings said, “Love looks through a telescope; envy through a microscope.” If you have love for yourself and your life, you can decrease the overwhelming aspects of jealousy or envy. Those thoughts and feelings are not nearly as strong if you are positive about your own side of the street. A gratitude journal is a great way to turn your focus to what is good in your life instead of focusing on what others have. Tapping into awareness of the nuance in our lives can also be helpful. We aren’t just good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, etc. So do not get caught up in creating a version of life that is black and white where what you have is bad and what everyone else has is good. Life is always changing and evolving and we can pay attention to the ebb and flow of positives and negatives in ourselves and our lives without getting stuck.
See the Good in Your Monster
Jealous and envy are nasty but we can also see some positive aspects of them. Don’t the Beast or Frankenstein’s Monster stir up some sort of empathy from us when we better understand them and their complexities? When we notice what others have, we can motivate ourselves to try harder or do better. It can push us to strive and not just be complacent with ourselves and our choices. If you feel jealous of a relationship your partner may be having, it could motivate you to be more engaged and engaging. If someone’s work schedule leaves you feeling envious, you may feel empowered to explore your own options. If the monsters move you to a place of motivation or allow you to examine your feelings in a more realistic way, then they are certainly not as bad as we have characterized them.
Take care of yourself and try to have a balanced viewpoint of your life. If monsters appear, you don’t have to be so scared. Maybe with some care and understanding, the jealousy or envy monsters in you will start to look or act different and come around less often.