Jealous, much?

Close-up photo of two gulls hovering close to the water. One has a chunk of bread in their beak, while the other looks on, surprised and horrified. A small caption says "Damn it."Can we all just admit there are moments when we’re filled with raging, bitter, foot-stomping, fist-curling, about-to-cry jealousy? Yes, technically I’m talking about envy, but jealousy sounds so much nastier, so much more base, so much more accurate.

Recently, I started counting how many people I’m jealous of. I had to stop when I got to 40, because I’m a grown woman and that’s ridiculous. But I’ve felt so jealous of people who have things I want NEED that I’ve wanted to punch something. I’ve burst into tears. I’ve felt like I was worthless. And I feel like it’s really not OK to admit it.

Like most socially awkward British people, I’m not great at spontaneously opening up about painful emotions, especially not in person. (This is why I like therapy: you can pay them to not judge you. Or to pretend not to judge you, either is fine.)

Mental illness is still hugely stigmatised, and there’s often a backlash against women who get angry or express any hint of negativity. But the way we treat jealousy seems unique. People will shut down conversations about it as if to acknowledge it would be bad luck, or maybe because it’s just too gross to talk about.

When I asked my Facebook friends about it, the comments I got all said pretty much the same thing: that it was an “unhelpful”, “useless” emotion. That surprised me, because aren’t all emotions about as useless as each other? I know my anger and sadness have never plunged a toilet or sent a thank you card. On the other hand, all emotions are equally helpful because they all do the same thing: let us know that something in our lives is (or isn’t — remember happiness?) out of balance. So why single out jealousy for the “ew, icky” treatment?

On xoJane, a site where women have written without censure on everything from obsessing over their boyfriend’s bottle of lube to abusing the morning-after pill, the one post that was punctuated by scolding remarks from the editor-in-chief was a piece I thought was funny, charming and honest about how challenging it can be when you’re trying to make your mark on the world and your ex-classmate is Lena Dunham.

People tell lies about jealousy. One of the most pervasive is “Their gain isn’t your loss.” And sure, I get that they’re just trying to be nice, to emphasise that good things can happen to all of us. But sometimes there’s only one of something, and someone else gets it. (Last year, I entered a column-writing contest. I didn’t get the gig. Someone else did. Their gain was my loss. That’s just how it is.)

Another related lie about jealousy is that anytime someone else gets what you wanted it’s because they worked much harder for it. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t. There are people with more successful careers than me for all kinds of reasons: some are more talented, some work harder, some are better-connected, some are just lucky. (I once snagged a columnist gig by virtue of being a decent writer who sent a pitch on a related topic at the right time. They seemed to like my work, but I was way unqualified.)

That’s why it can sting so much: life is unpredictable, people make decisions for all kinds of reasons, we’re not promised it will be fair or make sense. We’re not guaranteed any of the things we want. And society is structurally biased: set up to advantage those who don’t belong to marginalised groups, so it’s easier for white, young, male, cis, straight, non-disabled, upper middle-class, neurotypical people to progress. Anger, sadness and jealousy seem like logical responses.

I guess a lot of people find jealousy unpalatable because it feels like an accusation. As if wanting what someone else has means you think they’re not worthy of it. As if it makes you a bad person who wants bad things for other people.

But that’s not what it means at all. It just means you’re a human being, having a human emotion. I once read that an intense emotional response only lasts for 90 seconds. It might come in waves, but after each 90 seconds you’ll get a reprieve. Letting that happen is hard, but 90 seconds of jealousy has to be easier than shoving your feelings deep down so you can let resentment build up for decades.

Feeling terrible when someone has something great happen for them is a bummer, but it’s motivating, too. Once you’ve cried and eaten too much ice cream and moaned a bit, you can pull yourself up and figure out what you can do to get yourself some of what they have. I’ve heard of more than one author who was inspired all the way to publication by people who wrote books they hated. And I know people who’ve cleared their clutter, become fitter, and learned to drive, purely driven by a desire to not get left behind.

Sometimes great things happen for people that I don’t want to happen for me, and I feel pleased for them. Sometimes fabulous things happen for people that I’d like to happen for me, but I’m having a good day so I only feel inspired. Last week, I was filled with jealousy for a lovely person who is killing it in a field in which I have so far utterly failed to impress. I cried about it, then I tried to relax and remember I just have to not give up.

I’m not recommending wallowing in jealousy. In taking pleasure in the pain or talking about it non-stop, telling everyone you haven’t had a fair shot. I’m not recommending anything, really, except experiencing the emotions you have when you have them, instead of trying to rationalise them or pretend they don’t exist. So come on, join me! Be jealous. It’s awful. You’ll live.

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  • Emma Haughton

    Great post. It’s good to see a bit of honesty on the subject of jealousy.

  • cal

    Enjoy all your posts but this one has helped me. Thank you for being so honest, it has helped me face my own jealousy issues which I used to be in denial about. Thank you, thank you Diane

    • Oh, thank you for telling me! And I wish you luck with it all. Feelings are hard.