The Green Eyed Monster

I remember reading a book about the green-eyed monster when I was little. I think it may have been a Bernstein Bears book, but I distinctly remember the character who was jealous being drawn with these lime green, creepy eyes. Honestly, it was a little unsettling as a kid to think that you would look like that if you were jealous of something. The moral was clearly stated: jealousy is wrong.

And so, me being me, I took this very much to heart. Jealousy was never okay and if I ever felt it, I had to keep it hidden deep down inside so that no one would ever know I was imperfect. (Can you tell I’m an Enneagram one?) It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but this is pretty much what my thoughts on jealousy boiled down to. Jealous feelings were, for me, a point of shame that needed to be hidden. For a long time, I was able to push it so far down inside of myself that I didn’t think I had ever felt jealous. (Yeah, that’s realistic for a human being.)

Sometime during college, I started to get a little bit confused when I encountered jealousy that wasn’t misplaced. Let me explain: jealousy that is misplaced has for its object that which is not its own. Misplaced jealousy is when I want the shirt that my sister has. Now, this also isn’t just liking the shirt (and maybe asking if I can borrow it or where she got it) but thinking about how much I want it and how it would look better on me and how I deserve it more than she does. That is how jealousy becomes a problem. Properly placed jealousy, though rare to come across, does exist. It is why we can have passages in the Bible where God is described as jealous for His children. We are rightfully His, bought and paid for with a price, so when He is jealous that we so frequently run after idols, it is good and right.

Outside of biblical examples, the first time I remember encountering jealousy that wasn’t completely misplaced was when I found myself frustrated that my ex (who I was dating at the time) was spending a lot of time with another girl. Again and again I told myself that I was being silly, that he could spend time with whoever he wanted, and I was just being overbearing. I didn’t want to be that girlfriend. I think that if the relationship had been new, maybe what I was feeling would have been a bit out of place, maybe I would have been that girlfriend, but at the time I had been dating him for about two years and we had been talking seriously about marriage. I think that my thoughts and feelings about not liking that my boyfriend was spending more time with another girl than me were valid. Now, that relationship ended, for reasons other than this, but I think it is a decent illustration of when jealousy isn’t bad. Jealousy, after all, is an emotion. As humans, we have been beautifully created to experience the full range of emotions. It is what we do with our emotions, not the emotions themselves, that can be good or bad.

I want to talk a little bit about a jealousy pattern that I noticed in myself. First, because feeling jealous was such a source of shame, I ignored it until it was somewhat extreme. Shame made me feel that if I ever admitted to what I was feeling, no one would love me or want to be around me anymore. (This is a pretty common fear/lie that I believe when I am in stress.) To take one example, there was a time when I had a very detailed plan for my life which promptly fell apart when I tried it execute it. It included graduate school, a functioning romantic relationship, and plenty of other pieces that crashed down like a jenga tower. After this happened, I got into the very unfortunate habit of comparison. This comparison combined with what I thought of as a failure was the starting point of my jealousy. When a good friend of mine got engaged, my first thought, rather than “good for them!” was “that was what my life was supposed to look like”. Because I felt so ashamed of this, I didn’t tell anyone, which allowed the shame/jealousy cycle to progress.

Comparing what I had with what others had, though I would never have admitted it at the time, was a symptom of my jealousy. First, I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like if things had worked out for me, if my plans had worked, if I had what they had. Then, slowly, I started to decide that I didn’t need it, whether “it” was a relationship or admittance to grad school. As much as I had wanted a stable place to live, I found myself trying to make being a “wander” or a “nomad” part of my personality. I love traveling and living in new places, so it wasn’t hard to convince myself that never staying in one place for more than a few months was just how I was and that I didn’t need the stability I once craved. In order to stop feeling the jealousy, I course corrected and decided to focus on the opposite.

In psychological terms, I was using the defense mechanism of reaction formation, going past denial of negative emotions (or emotions that are considered socially unacceptable or shameful) and acting opposite to what I felt. This doesn’t always look like a bad thing, but it can be very dangerous because it so well masks the underlying issue. It is the nature of this defense mechanism to put focus on something seemingly positive (travel, for me) and draw attention from negative feelings (in this case, jealousy). It took me the better part of a year to realize that I was doing this.

So what do you do? Well, first, I combated shame and talked about what I was feeling. Though I had been afraid that sharing my “bad” thoughts and emotions would lose me friends, that did not turn out to be true. What shame wants you to believe usually isn’t true. Once I was able to address the underlying emotions of jealousy, shame, and fear, I was more honestly able to assess what I actually wanted. While I certainly still don’t want that exact plan that fell apart because I have grown and changed since then, there are certainly parts of it that I still want, things that I was denying I wanted. And there are also parts of that “nomad” life that I tried to convince myself I wanted that are appealing. I am able to see now that my story won’t look quite like anyone else’s and that is a good thing. It is uniquely my own.

While I am sure I will feel jealous of something again, I now realize that feeling that emotion isn’t wrong. Emotions, though they can be uncomfortable, are not inherently evil or any of that nonsense. Even negative emotions can be rightly placed. Further, emotions let me know something, whether that is that I want something or that I am engaging in comparison. I often say that emotions are to the mind as sensation and pain are to the body. If we touch a hot stove, we feel a sharp pain, but that pain goes away when we deal with the cause (stop touching the stove). Similarly, emotions are like an alert system for the mind. When I feel jealous (or anything else for that matter) I can ask myself why. I do not need to feel ashamed for feeling something, even if it seems unacceptable for whatever reason. It is part of what makes me human. Even if I do mess up and make a bad decision because of my jealousy, I still don’t need to be ashamed. I am going to make mistakes, and I am going to feel all sorts of things I don’t like. And that is okay. All shame does is trap us and make us think that grace is somehow not big enough for us. The grace we are so lavishly offered is most certainly big enough for any mistake we can make.

The green-eyed monster still isn’t my favorite. But I don’t need to be afraid of her or hide her. More often, I need to accept that she is there with compassion and try to understand rather than avoid. It is not easy work, but it is well worth it. The emotions that I feel do not define me. Rather, it is what I chose to do with it that reflects my character. Jealousy is a difficult emotion to process, that is for sure, but it does not have to make my eyes glow green.

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