How to stop being jealous: The surprising truth behind this emotion

How to stop being jealous: The surprising truth behind this emotion

Wanting to know how to stop being jealous suggests a misunderstanding of the emotion itself.

I’m sure you know the feeling: Your face flushes. Your heart races. You feel challenged by a “rival” who’s trying to take away something you value. Maybe this feeling arose when you saw someone’s eyes linger on your partner a little too long. Or perhaps it reared its ugly head when a coworker landed that coveted promotion you’d been hoping for. They don’t call it the green-eyed monster for nothing—jealousy is never a pleasant feeling.

So how do you get rid of jealousy? Well, as counterintuitive as this may seem, eliminating the emotion entirely is not the goal. Jealousy is a natural feeling that arises when you’re at risk of losing something you care about. From an evolutionary perspective, the emotion exists to protect the precious resources that help you survive. So, of course, your heart will race, your body will tense up and you will feel that rush of adrenaline—your body is revving up to guard that resource! 

But the thing is, not everything that makes you feel jealous has any rational basis. Not everything that appears to be a threat is one. And what’s more, it is never okay to yell at, stalk, accuse, control or otherwise make someone miserable because you feel jealous.

So if jealousy is a normal emotion but can wreak havoc if unmanaged, the better question is: How can you cope with jealousy in a healthy way? And that, my friend, is what we’ll attempt to tackle in this article.

Jealousy vs. envy

We must clear up a big misunderstanding before discussing how to stop being jealous: Jealousy and envy are not the same things. Yes, we use the words interchangeably in everyday conversation, but at a psychological level, they are different emotions.

  • Jealousy is the desire to protect a relationship you feel is being threatened by someone else. For example, you might feel jealous when your best friend gets engaged and starts spending more time with her fiancé than with you. Jealousy arises because you value your relationship with your best friend, and you fear her fiancé might replace you.
  • Envy is the desire to obtain what someone else has, and it involves feeling pain that they have it, and you don’t. Let’s use the same situation as above but flip it to envy instead of jealousy: You might feel envy when your best friend gets engaged, not because you fear your relationship with your friend is being threatened, but because you want what she has: a committed romantic relationship.

    You can feel envious about an object, quality, relationship or position that someone else has. Envy goes beyond mere desire because it has pain attached to it, along with a perceived “rival.”

In short, jealousy is about protecting what is yours; envy is about obtaining what is not yours. Knowing this crucial difference sheds light on the misunderstood emotion of jealousy and shows that it’s actually quite useful. Why? Because it protects the relationships you value.

Most often, we talk about jealousy in terms of romantic relationships, but it can exist in any type of relationship. A child might feel jealous when her widowed mom starts dating again because she fears the new boyfriend might take away her time with her mother. Or a man might feel jealous when his boss starts mentoring a new team member because he fears the new coworker might replace his job.

Jealousy itself is not the problem. The problems are:

  1. Seeing a threat where no threat exists.
  2. Excessive jealousy and inappropriate behaviors that may arise from it.

What is jealousy a sign of?

Most of the time, jealousy is a sign that you fear an important relationship might be taken away from you. Quite simply, it’s a sign of what you value. (If you didn’t value it, you wouldn’t feel jealous.)

However, research has also shown that jealousy could be a sign of:

  • Low self-esteem [1
  • Loneliness [1
  • Low levels of trust [2
  • Anxious attachment style [2]
  • Mental health issues [3]

Why do I get jealous so easily?

If you get jealous easily—as in, you feel jealous even when you have no real evidence of a threat—there could be a few factors at play:

  1. You might have low self-esteem.
  2. You might be lonely.
  3. You might have trust issues.
  4. You might have an anxious attachment style.
  5. You might have an underlying physical or mental health issue that needs to be addressed.

Extreme or excessive jealousy is known as pathological or morbid jealousy and can be a symptom of a mental health issue. In the DSM-5, a handbook used by clinicians to describe and diagnose mental illness, there is something called delusional disorder - jealous type. A person with this disorder has “delusions about his or her lover being unfaithful.” 

However, this article does not provide medical advice and should not be used to diagnose. If you think you might be experiencing excessive jealousy, speak with a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or therapist, to get qualified advice.

How to stop being jealous of others: A 5-step process

If you’re Googling “how to stop being jealous of others,” I’d be willing to bet that what you’re experiencing is not jealousy, but rather, envy. The quick way to find out is to answer this question: “Does the thing I desire rightfully belong to me?” If the answer is yes, that’s jealousy. But if the answer is no, that’s envy. 

Again, jealousy would be if your girlfriend starts spending a lot of time with a guy you know is interested in her, and you feel threatened by him because you fear he might try to interfere with your relationship with her. But envy would be if your girlfriend went on a lavish vacation with her family, and you feel pained because you wish your family could afford vacations like that.

So if you’re talking about envy, here are some ways to stop being envious of others:

Step 1: Accept the emotion.

Contrary to popular belief, acceptance doesn’t mean you enjoy the feeling or approve of it; it simply means you don’t shame yourself for experiencing something you can’t control. When you deny that the envy is there, an act known as suppression, you may actually make the emotion stronger while simultaneously damaging your mental health. 

In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, psychologist James Pennebaker shares his research confirming that suppressing emotions can suppress your immune system. In one study, participants who were instructed to write about emotional or non-emotional topics and suppress their thoughts had lower levels of lymphocytes (white blood cells that are part of the immune system) after the exercise. On the other hand, participants who did not suppress thoughts during the exercise showed a boost in lymphocytes. 

Further, a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that bottling up emotions can increase aggression. Researcher Kathleen D. Vohs and colleagues had participants watch a "notoriously disgusting" scene from a movie and then either express themselves freely or hide their reaction to the scene. Those who were instructed to show no reaction displayed more aggressive behavior afterward than the subjects who were free to express their revulsion.

The lesson here? Suppressing your emotions isn’t healthy. But lashing out isn’t healthy either. Instead, try journaling about your envy or talking it out with a confidante.

Step 2: Cultivate gratitude for what you have.

Since envy focuses on what someone else has, one way to stop it in its tracks is to cultivate gratitude for what you have. The next time you find yourself pining after something that belongs to someone else, push the “stop” button in your mind and redirect your attention to the things you’re thankful for. List three things you’re grateful for and spend some time thinking about why you appreciate them.

Step 3: Practice empathy for the person you’re envious of.

Empathy has a special way of pouring water on the flames of envy. Envy always involves another person whom you may see as a rival. Try, instead, to see them as the human being they are, with their own scars, struggles and stories. That makes it extremely difficult to feel pain over what they have.

Step 4: Ask yourself, “If given the chance, would I switch lives with this person?”

A lot of times, when we’re mired in envy, we have this false belief of “If I had that person’s life, I’d be happy.” So here’s a little trick I learned a couple of weeks ago when someone said, “No one has it easy.” It made me think of all the people I’m envious of whose lives seem pretty easy to me as an outsider. But then I thought, “Well, if I could, would I trade places with them?” I actually started crying because I realized that, as much as I envied their lives, I wouldn’t want to swap with them. 

Why? Because that meant I wouldn’t get to know and love all the people I care deeply about in my life. Swapping lives might mean I’d get all the nice things the person I’m envious of has, but it would also mean I wouldn’t get all the people who make my life rich and full of meaning. That instantly shifted my perspective and completely eliminated my feelings of envy.

Step 5: Give it time.

So did you go through steps one through four and still feel envious of someone? That’s okay. Just give it time. No, really. Research shows that often the best remedy for envy is the passage of time. 

Researchers at The University of Chicago conducted four studies related to time and envy and made two fascinating discoveries: First, people are more envious of future events than past events. For example, subjects' envy about Valentine's Day rose as the holiday approached but quickly plateaued as soon as February 14th had passed. 

Second, time dulls the pain of envy. In the research paper, which was published in Psychological Science, the authors conclude, "Other people's good lives sting less if they have already lived them."

To give yourself some perspective, try to remember: This will sting a whole lot less three months from now.

How to stop being jealous in a relationship

As we read in the section on envy, emotion and thought suppression do not work in the long run. However, if jealousy is not handled in healthy ways, it can ruin relationships and be extremely harmful to your partner.

So what can you do? Thankfully, you have options.

Talk to your partner about it

Do not use this as an opportunity to blame your partner. Instead, use it as an opportunity to open the lines of communication. Focus on how you feel and the facts at hand, not on how you assume your partner feels or any unfounded suspicions you have about them. Your partner may be able to offer you reassurance, and you may be able to apologize for your past jealousy-fueled harmful behaviors.

Try the Boredom Technique

Here’s a tip from psychologist Robert Leahy, author of The Jealousy Cure: Repeatedly tell yourself that the thing you fear is possible as a way of habituating yourself to the thought so it no longer controls you.

In an interview on “The Psychology Podcast,” Leahy gives this example: He had a client who was consumed with the idea that his wife might be unfaithful to him while she was away on business trips (despite having no evidence to support this). So Leahy had his client learn to accept that infidelity was a possibility but not a fact. To do this, his client had to tell himself over and over, “It’s always possible my wife could be unfaithful to me,” until the idea became so boring to him that he no longer feared it. Leahy calls this The Boredom Technique.

Schedule “jealousy time”

Another tip Leahy suggests for stopping jealousy is to schedule time to acknowledge your jealousy each day. For instance, you might schedule a “jealousy appointment” at 10 a.m.; this is your chance to focus on your jealous thoughts, write them down and then put them off until later that day. Then, at 2 p.m., revisit those jealous thoughts you wrote down. What you’ll typically find is that the intensity of the jealousy has faded, granting you relief and perspective that the next time you feel jealous, this too shall pass.

Lay ground rules for jealousy

Earlier, we talked about how important it is to keep communication open with your partner. Leahy also suggests laying ground rules for jealousy. What should your partner do the next time you’re feeling jealous? Would it be helpful for them to call it out? By deciding ahead of time what each of you should do in response to jealousy, you set your relationship up for success by helping each other cope.

Address the root of your jealousy in therapy

Sometimes, excessive jealousy has nothing to do with your partner. There may be a deeper problem at the root of your jealousy. For instance, if you’ve been cheated on in the past, it may make it harder for you to trust someone again—even if that person has never given you any reason not to trust them.

Again, uncontrolled jealousy can ruin a relationship; it can make your life and your significant other’s life miserable. You owe it to yourself and your loved one to talk to a professional about healthy ways to manage this powerful emotion. Speak to a licensed mental health professional about what you can do to get help.

How do you get rid of jealousy in a relationship?

My guess is the intent behind this question is not to completely eliminate all feelings of jealousy in a relationship, but rather, to eliminate the inappropriate behaviors attached to it. You would probably feel unappreciated if your boyfriend didn’t feel jealous that a guy at work asked you on a date—that might indicate he didn’t value your relationship. But, if your boyfriend starts accusing you of infidelity every time you speak to a man—that jealous behavior needs to go.

By using some of the exercises listed above, you and your partner can cope with jealousy in healthy ways and not let it undermine your relationship.

However, if jealousy turns your relationship into an unhealthy, toxic one—it may be time to leave. It is never okay for a partner to accuse you, stalk you or try to control you. If you need help getting out of an abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 and is completely free.

How do I get rid of jealousy and envy? Coming to terms with common emotions

The answer to that question, as you saw above, is that you can’t eliminate jealousy and envy, as these are natural emotions. The better question to ask is, “How can I manage my jealousy and envy in healthy ways?” And I hope that by reading this article, you now know the answers.

Need extra support as you learn how to stop being jealous? Get started for free with personalized coaching today!

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