Jealousy Is Not an Emotion: A Systems Approach

cat experiencing jealousy
Image by BuzzFarmers / CC BY

“Jealousy is all the fun you think they had.”

-Erica Jong, Fear of Flying

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When we become jealous, the source is often so difficult to pin down. Emotions are complicated, sure, but it’s not just that. We’re also not that great at identifying emotions when we have them.

As Lola Phoenix writes in their piece “Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy:”

Every negative feeling you have isn’t jealousy…Beginner reading on non-monogamy over-hypes jealousy to the point where people go into non-monogamy assuming any negative feeling they have about a person their partner is dating is inherently jealousy and any attempt to express that feeling is automatically controlling, abusive behaviour…Negative feelings are sometimes a result of your needs not being met.

I would agree with Lola. Every negative feeling a poly person has isn’t jealousy. And negative feelings can definitely signal unmet needs. But I would even take it a step further.

None of the negative feelings a poly person has is jealousy.

When researcher Paul Ekman set out to determine the universal human emotions, he looked cross-culturally, studying facial expressions. His initial studies yielded 7 universal microexpressions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

Furthermore, in his later work Ekman argued for other basic emotions not reflected in facial expressions: amusement, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, and shame.

Notice anything missing from these lists?

That’s right. Jealousy. Curious, right? It surely exists.

However, jealousy isn’t an emotion. It’s a system of emotions.

When jealousy manifests, it tends to be some mix of fear, sadness, and/or anger. Typically, fear is at its core. This can be the fear of missing out, the fear of losing something that you value, the fear of rejection, etc. Sadness and/or anger are laid over this matrix of fear. Since the anger and sadness are closer to the surface, it can be more difficult to get to the underlying cause. But we need to ask the important question: What am I really afraid of?

And it doesn’t help that people often engage in shame spiral feedback loops when they are actually feeling jealous. They do this when they have any negative emotions for that matter. They start feeling bad about feeling bad.

Some things to try instead:

  • Take the time to identify the emotions that you are feeling. Examine what they’re linked to.
  • Be patient with yourself.
  • Refrain from blaming yourself or your partners.
  • If unpleasant things have happened, focus on the problematic nature of the behaviors or situations rather than the task of assigning fault.
  • Communicate with your partners, clearly, kindly.
  • Continue to challenge yourself as you are able to. (But do not to push yourself past your ability to cope.) Coddling insecurities only reinforces them.

 

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