I watched this TED talk today on jealousy and envy, a topic I find fascinating. Parul Sehgal argues that although jealousy is an emotion which is pervasive throughout the human and animal world, she has never read a scientific paper which explains it as well as various novelists have managed to do. I’ve never attempted to read a scientific paper about jealousy and how it affects us, but I’ve certainly read novels which have included or confronted it, and which have explained it in ways that made me think YES! I know that feeling. Sehgal suggests that jealousy exposes us to ourselves in a way that few other emotions do, uncovering our aggression, our ambition, and our entitlement. I have certainly had times when feeling jealous has made me fear my own strength, or made me realise how much I want something, or how much I think I should have something, and I can’t think of another emotion that brings that range of feelings quite so sharply to the fore.
I find it bewildering when people say they are not jealous. I always think it must be so wonderful and calm. My first long-term boyfriend was chronically jealous, and I know for a fact he made me a lot worse. We used to wind each other up with it, sending each other on those awful bitter spirals of pain and irritation, dwelling incessantly on tiny insignificant details. He would get jealous about things that I didn’t think he would be bothered about, but I feel like he told me things on purpose that he knew I would pick over. As Sehgal says, jealousy loves information. That awful feeling you have when you’re feeling shitty but you want something to feed it, even though you know you’re going to be miserable afterwards. In a novel I just read, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, it’s explained as that feeling when you really want to pick a scab even though it will make you bleed.
Facebook is the absolute worst for this. You are open to a whole wealth of information you do not need and would never normally have access to, especially photographs. We have a visual history of our current and former partners and it can be a royal pain in the arse. Photographs are so difficult because they are so immediate – you look at a picture and even though you know it was taken a month or a year or a decade ago it feels like it’s happening right now. And nobody takes a picture when they’re in the middle of a blazing row with a partner or when they’ve gone out for a sad and sulky dinner. We are always happy in our facebook pictures, always smiling, presenting the life we want others to think we are leading (Sehgal says the currency of social media is envy, because we are all so busy trying to make ourselves look perfect and make others jealous of the amazing times we’re having).
I am a whole lot better at all this than I used to be. When I was 17 with that first boyfriend I felt crap about myself, so of course it was easy for negative jealous emotions to come in and stir up every other awful thing I’d ever thought. I have a vivid imagination and as Sehgal says, we tell ourselves stories about other people’s lives when we feel jealous, and as both author and audience, we put in all the crap that makes us feel worst about ourselves. We construct elaborate tales of people popping back into our partner’s lives and convincing them that we’re a waste of space, because we didn’t do so well in that presentation and we STILL haven’t used that effing gym membership and really, they shouldn’t be with us because don’t you think she’s been looking a bit too thin/fat lately?
Of course, it’s not just in relationships that we feel jealous. There are a lot of things I don’t get jealous about at all, but if someone gets a better essay mark than me, I’m jealous. If someone is a better dancer than me and hasn’t been dancing as long as I have, I’m jealous. These emotions generally pass quite quickly, but they show me what the things are in my life that I care about and want to be the best at. Even if I’ve got a really good grade, or feel like I’ve been dancing well, it’s easy to suddenly feel like crap when you compare yourself to somebody else.
I still have bad days now and again, because feeling jealous is a habit as much as anything else and it’s a tough one to crack. It preys on days when you’re feeling insecure about yourself, especially if you’re also bored or at a loose end, and can take over every thought in your head if you let it. Another point from the TED talk that I thought was very true was that when you’re in one of these spirals, the line between what is real and what could be real can be pierced so easily. The worst thing about that is, if you tell yourself this long and involved story where your partner ends up telling you you’re shit and to take a hike, your brain and body react in the same way as they would if it was real. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between the emotion being in your imagination and it happening in real life. If I imagine having an angry and upsetting conversation with someone, I’m going to get almost as tense and irritable as I would if it was actually happening. If I sit and brood on awful and deeply unlikely scenarios for ten minutes, I’m going to come round feeling miserable. And pathetic, because I know I’ve inflicted it on myself for that grim thrill of pulling the scab off, even though I regret it the instant the blood runs down my skin.
As I’ve got older I’ve got a lot better at telling jealous, putting myself down type thoughts to take a seat, especially in the last year or so when I’ve been on my own and pretty much doing what the hell I like and working on feeling good about myself. I used to not be able to bear hearing about a partner’s previous relationships without wanting to hit something or vomit, but I’m okay about it most of the time now. I no longer take all those details down as things to fret about later, but just acknowledge that this is part of this person’s life, I want to know about them so I want to hear it, and they’re with me now so who cares?
It’s all about having that security in myself to not worry about things that I don’t need to worry about, and in the case of relationships, to trust people. Sehgal’s solution to jealousy is to step outside it and align ourselves with the person we’re jealous of, which makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been jealous of people before and then when I’ve got to know them found that they weren’t the pictures of perfection I’d drawn in my head, but were a lot like me and had their own things that they worried about. When I’m feeling insecure or prone to feeling jealous, I try to remember that everyone feels like this sometimes, and it’s no reason to go ticking off lists of things I’ve done wrong or start dwelling on possible but entirely improbable things that I would hate to happen. It seems a whole lot healthier just to think ‘nope, you don’t need to worry about this’ and think about something else. Or do a search for golden retriever puppies.