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Why do we get jealous

No one enjoys feeling jealous or insecure, even though jealousy is an emotion that almost all of us will experience at one point or another. The problem with jealousy isn’t that it comes up from time to time, it’s when we don’t get hold of it. It can be frightening to experience what happens when we allow our jealousy to overpower us or to shape the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. That is why understanding where our insecure/jealous feelings actually come from and learning how to deal with them, in a healthy way, is key to happiness in so many areas of our lives. 

So, why do we get jealous?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of studies have shown that increased jealousy tends to correlate with low a self-esteem driven by our critical inner voice. This inner voice is a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others and is at the root of much of our self-destructive and maladaptive behaviour. The critical inner voice is not an actual voice that speaks to us, it’s best described as self-limiting thoughts and beliefs that exists in all of us and stop us from achieving our goals. Many of us are unaware that we have a critical inner voice because it comes so natural to have self-critical thoughts about ourselves.

This inner voice can fuel our feelings of jealousy by filling our heads with critical or suspicious commentary. In fact, the reality is; what our critical inner voice tells us about our situation is often more difficult to deal with than the situation itself. A rejection or betrayal from our romantic partner is painful, but what often hurts us even more are all the terrible things our critical inner voice tells us about ourselves after the event. “You’re such an idiot. Did you really think you could really love you? You are going to end up all alone. You should never trust anyone again.”

There tend to be two types of jealousy – romantic jealousy and competitive jealousy. And whilst they do overlap it can help us to understand how both can have a negative impact our lives.

Romantic Jealousy

It’s a basic reality that relationships go smoother when people don’t get overly jealous. Concern over ones relationship is healthy whereas jealousy is destructive and unhealthy. The more we get a hold of our feelings of jealousy and make sense of them, separate from our partner, the better off we will be. Remember, our jealousy often comes from our own insecurity - a feeling like we are doomed to be deceived, hurt or rejected. Unless we deal with this feeling in ourselves, we are likely to fall victim to feelings of jealousy, distrust or insecurity in any relationship, no matter what the circumstances.

These negative feelings about ourselves often stem from our early childhood experiences. We often take on the feelings our parents or caregivers had toward us or toward themselves. We then, unconsciously, replay, recreate or react to old, familiar dynamics in our current relationships. For example, if we felt cast aside as children, we may easily perceive our partner as ignoring us, or we may choose a partner who’s more elusive, or even engage in behaviours that would push them away.

The extent to which we took on self-critical attitudes as children often shapes how much our critical inner voice will affect us in our adult lives, especially in our relationships. Yet, no matter what our unique experiences may be, we all possess this inner critic to a certain extent. Most of us can relate to carrying around a feeling that we didn’t want to have. Often, lurking behind any jealous/paranoid feelings towards our partners, or a perceived third-party threat, are critical thoughts toward ourselves. Thoughts such as, ‘What does he see in her?’ can quickly turn into ‘She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me!’ Even when our worst fears become a reality and we learn of a partner’s affair, we often react by directing anger at ourselves for being “foolish or unlovable”

Our critical inner voice then tells us not to trust or be too vulnerable. It reminds us we are unlovable and unsuitable for a romantic relationship. It’s that nagging voice that plants the seed of doubt, suspicion and uncertainty. “Why is she working so late?”Why is she choosing her friends over me all the time?”What is he even doing when I’m away?” “Why is he paying so much attention to what she’s saying?”

For those of us who are familiar with how jealousy works, knows that, all too often, these thoughts slowly start to sprout and blossom into much larger, more engrained attacks on ourselves and/or our partner. “She doesn’t want to be around you. There must be someone else.” “He’s losing interest. He wants to get away from you.” “Who would want to listen to you anyway? You’re so boring.”

These jealous feeling can arise at any point in a relationship and in an attempt to protect ourselves, we may listen to our inner critic and pull back from being close to our partner. Yet its catch twenty two because we tend to feel more jealous and insecure if we know on some level we’re not making our relationship a priority or actively going after our goal of being loving or close. That is why it’s even more essential not to blindly act on jealous feelings by pushing our partner further away.

Competitive Jealousy

While it may feel pointless or illogical, it is completely natural to want what others have and to feel competitive. However, how we use these feelings is very important to our level of satisfaction and happiness. If we use these feelings to serve our inner critic, to tear down ourselves or others, that is clearly a destructive pattern with demoralizing effects. However, if we don’t let these feelings fall into the hands of our critical inner voice, we can actually use them to acknowledge what we want, to be more goal-directed or even to feel more accepting of ourselves and what affects us.

Its okay, even healthy, to allow ourselves to have a competitive thought. It can feel good when we simply let ourselves have the momentary feeling without judgment or a plan for action. However, if we ruminate or twist this thought into a criticism of ourselves or an attack on another person, we wind up getting hurt. If we find ourselves having an overreaction or feeling haunted by our feelings of envy, we can do several things.

The unhealthy negative emotion of jealousy is that it is based on what are called ‘unhealthy irrational beliefs’. Which are, more often than not, based on a false interpretation of any given situation. When we start to experience the feeling we then tend to catastrophise about how ‘bad’ things are and our inability to ‘cope’ if our worst case scenario were to be true.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can help you understand your thought process when jealousy strikes and you’re subsequent unhelpful behaviour that follows these thoughts. CBT can help you turn any unhealthy irrational beliefs, into healthy, fact based, rational thinking. CBT also helps you understand, if our worst fears are actually realised, then although we won’t like it or be happy about it, we will of course be able to deal with it.