Months ago I was working with a female client who was struggling with jealousy. Apparently an ex-girlfriend had contacted her boyfriend via Facebook (of course) to notify him of her recent engagement. It all seemed innocent enough and, after some lengthy explaining from her boyfriend, the client understood this. However, she still felt lingering feelings of anxiety and insecurity.
“It’s so frustrating, feeling jealous,” she said with her elbows on her knees and her hands over her ears. “There’s no point in me feeling this way. Jealousy is such a wasted emotion.”
When you spend the majority of your week with people who are generally unhappy, a natural tendency grows to attempt to cure those people of any and all negative sensations. After all, that’s ostensibly why they are there. This urge is to be kept in check, however, because all emotions have their place.
“No no,” I jumped in. “Every feeling serves a purpose. A wasted emotion doesn’t exist.”
“So what’s the point of jealousy?” she asked.
Fortunately, my dissertation was on romantic jealousy so I was quick to respond. Probably a little too textbookish for most people’s tastes, but that’s what happens when you spend months on end studying a single phenomenon. You become robotic about it, like a less charming Wall-E.
“Romantic jealousy, in its purest form, is your body’s signal that there is a potential threat to what you believe is rightfully yours. In this case, your boyfriend. It generates anxiety because your mind is processing a potential loss.” I then smiled confidently, as if those words would not only make her feel better, but also cure the world of poverty, war and AIDS.
“But I kind of get that his ex isn’t a threat. She’s getting married for Christ’s sake. She just wanted to share that with him.”
“Right, that’s why jealousy is only meant to be a signal, and for some people it’s an almost automatic response. It’s not designed to say ‘my relationship is threatened,’ but rather, ‘is this a real, viable problem or something that’s not actually worth getting distressed over?’ If the threat is real, you would have to decide if you wanted to ‘protect’ what is yours.”
So every feeling has a purpose. Sadness is to teach us what we value and what truly brings us joy. We wouldn’t really know happiness if sadness wasn’t part of the package. The same can be said for grief. If we didn’t feel the sting of loss we wouldn’t love and appreciate those we care about. And anger is our signal that our rights as people might be being exploited. The list goes on and on.
That said, every emotion has the unfortunate potential to be taken at face value and acted upon. My client could have confronted the ex-girlfriend or, even worse, forced her boyfriend to “de-friend” her. People who suffer from panic generally know, at least outside of the attacks, that the anxiety is a false alarm of sorts. It’s the ‘Flight or Fight’ mechanism kicking in, but some patients believe they are having a heart attack and flee to the E.R. It’s only when they are able to do a mental check-in of this intense physiological reaction and recognize that there’s no real danger to their health present that they get better. The same can be said for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Dr. Gail knows that germs are everywhere and that avoiding handshakes isn’t going to change that. But the anxiety comes over so strongly that she can’t help but to avoid touching others.
“Out-of-context jealousy basically sounds like a mindfuck to me,” my client said.
“That pretty much sums it up. Your brain needs a little time to get comfortable with the idea that there’s no real threat present. That’s why the lingering feelings are still there.”
“So if I can train myself to recognize what the purpose of my jealousy is and to check it’s validity, I’d have more control over it?”
“And then I wouldn’t need you anymore?” she said, with a level of excitement suggesting that she was about to complete Chinese Water Torture as opposed to therapy.
“Um…yes, that’s right.”
And that’s pretty much what she did. When the feeling of jealousy came on, she reminded herself that the emotion wasn’t a waste; rather, it was a signal to ask herself if there was a true threat to her relationship. With a lot of practice – and make no mistake, changing emotional patterns takes plenty of work – she got very facile at quickly realizing there wasn’t really anyone trying to steal away her man. And when that process started to become second nature, she felt better, and the water torture ended.
Working with me must be sheer hell because the clients can’t wait to be done fast enough.
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