How Not to Be Jealous

Like an ill-fitting suit, jealousy is clingy and unattractive, plus it saps your confidence. This week, by request from listener Sonia A., Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers five tips to stop feeling jealous.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #80

In common parlance, the term “jealous” often gets used in place of “envious,” as in “Your company sent you to Paris againI’m so jealous!”

But in psychology, the two are distinct: roughly, envy is when you want what belongs to someone else, whereas jealousy is when you are threatened by the prospect of losing something (or someone) that belongs to you.  For example, when you covet your friend’s sexy new leather boots, that’s envy. But when you notice your husband’s eye follow those boots across the room, that’s jealousy.

And jealousy is complicated—it’s a swirling green mix of several negative emotions. According to a 2008 paper by psychologists Robert Leahy and Dennis Tirch of Weill Cornell Medical College, jealousy is a form of angry, agitated worry.  It’s rooted in threat of loss—usually the threat of losing a relationship. 

As it happens, that same 2008 paper is chock-full of great ways to fight your jealousy, so here is the cream of the crop. One asterisk: the tips that follow assume that there’s no proof underlying your jealous fears. So as long as you haven’t found unfamiliar underwear in your laundry, here are five tips to get a handle on your jealousy.

Tip #1: Rein in your jealous actions.  Let’s make this clear: jealousy happens to the best of us. Almost everyone gets at least a little jealous in provocative situations. If your partner is texting a former flame or going on a business trip with the hot new assistant, it’s pretty natural to feel threatened, but it’s another thing to turn those feelings into fruitless jealous actions that shoot you (and your relationship) in the foot.

For instance, calling hourly to check in on your partner, scrolling through his text messages while he’s in the shower, asking over and over again if she really loves you, or making hostile and provocative statements like, “You should just sleep with her and get it over with; you know you want to,” offer none of the reassurance you’re seeking and, let’s face it, don’t particularly endear you to your partner, either.

So take a pledge: no more interrogations.  No provocation. No attacks. No talking smack about your perceived competition. 

Cutting out the jealous actions is the best and most high-yield thing you can do for your relationship. But it’s really hard to stop. So how to manage the angry worry that makes you to hack into his email?  Try…

Tip #2: Differentiate between your worry and the facts. Treating your feelings as truth is a common thinking error called emotional reasoning. For example, “I feel guilty, so I must have done something wrong.”  Or in the case of jealousy, “I feel jealous, so he must be cheating.”

Again, jealousy is a legit emotion: you are totally allowed to “have a feeling,” but stop short of using your feelings as evidence. 

Your feelings are yours; own them.  Rather than projecting a feeling of jealousy onto your partner: “He must be cheating,” start your thought with the words “I feel.”  “I feel jealous.”  “I’m feeling threatened.”  “I’m really vulnerable right now.”  State your emotion as the fact, not your extrapolation.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.