How to Be Jealous in a Productive Way (9 Steps)

a very colorful cartoon of a person crying
Image by Surian Soosay / CC BY

Jealousy is not some kind of crime. It’s a signal. Perhaps it’s a very strong emotional signal — and often not a very specific one — but it’s definitely not a crime. And as with all strong emotional reactions, we are tasked with figuring out how best to identify and respond to jealousy, essentially becoming our own emotional parent.

The goal, then, is not to never ever get jealous, just like our goal should probably not be to never get sad or afraid.

Instead, a better goal is to learn how to deal with jealous feelings in a productive way. Here’s how.

1. Stop and take a breather. If you can, remove yourself from the situation.

You know how they say you should stop and count to 10 when you’re angry? Take some slow deep breaths? And if possible, remove yourself temporarily from the situation causing you anger?

It’s the same way with jealousy. Now, jealousy isn’t an individual emotion per se but a system of emotions (typically some mixture of fear, anger, and sadness), but the same principle applies. Intense feelings in the moment can cause us to act out in ways that cause additional interpersonal problems and can get in the way of actually addressing the initial emotion.

So take some deep breaths and try to calm down before you say or do something you regret.

2. Assess what’s actually going on emotionally.

Once you’ve calmed down, take a step back and try to figure out exactly what emotional reaction you had. Were you sad? Angry? Afraid?

When researchers study romantic jealousy, they normally define it, somewhat narrowly, as fear and/or resentment that someone else is trying to take away someone or something that you value. This specific form of jealousy is marked by feeling insecure and threatened (e.g., Salovey, p. 18).

And they distinguish it from envy, which is simply wanting something else that someone else has that you do not, without any added threat or fear that something you value might be taken away from you (e.g., Salovey, p. 23).

In addition to this important distinction between envy and jealousy, it’s worth noting that the intense emotional experience of jealousy can effectively “drown out” other things that the jealousy can mean. This can include simultaneously occurring envy (because jealousy and envy are not mutually exclusive, you can feel both at once) or perhaps feeling left out, neglected, overshadowed, demoted, or displaced. While sometimes they aren’t readily apparent, these other explanations are extremely valuable in figuring out how to address the jealousy event.

So after experiencing jealousy, it’s important to sort through and figure out which ones apply to your situation.

And once you’ve clarified that, the next step is asking why. What happened that set off those feelings? Why do you think that happened? Are there underlying fears and insecurities that were activated? And why do you have those? What life experiences likely played a part?

It can help to do an emotional inventory, noting any leaps of logic along the way climbing the ladder of inference. See Five Steps to Feeling Safe and Secure in Polyamory — and Beyond! for more information on how to do this.

3. Figure out if you need something to change externally or not.

There are basically three ways to deal with anything difficult or unpleasant:

  1. Attempt to change something.
  2. Attempt to change your interpretation of events.
  3. Just let the whole thing slide.

Different situations call for different solutions — and some may even call for a mix of these approaches.

The third option can be a good one in certain situations. If you’re anything like me, you might just have an occasional meltdown that’s irrational. Personally, I tend to wait to see if it comes back — and especially if it becomes a pattern — before I worry too much about it. It’s fairly normal to have an occasional negative emotional experience in life, regardless of what kind it is (jealousy, anger, sadness, fear, etc.).

However, it’s good to be careful about overuse of any of these strategies, and sometimes as a long-term strategy, #3 can turn into a kind of avoidance that can actually be detrimental if the choice leads to resentment.

4. If you need something different, figure out exactly what that is.

This can be very difficult work, identifying what you would like to get that you aren’t currently.

Should you figure out what it is before you talk to your partner? Or should you come to them and jointly figure it out?

The answer might be unsatisfying: It depends on whom you’re dating. I’ve found that some people are grateful when you come to them with fully fleshed out requests. They are distressed to hear you are in pain if you don’t have a way for them to help. So offering a quick request to them is absolutely welcomed.

However, other people will feel excluded or blindsided if you come to them asking for something and they haven’t been a part of arriving at that process.

History can be a good guide, but if I don’t have experience with a particular partner to know which kind of collaborator they are, I’ll often flesh out solutions on my own and then approach them in an open-ended way, soliciting their input into the matter and how to proceed. If they become frustrated that I don’t have a solution already thought out, then I’ll introduce them to what I’ve concluded privately in as informal/general a way that I can.

If they then become upset that they’ve been excluded from the process of coming up with the solution (after I’ve offered them and they’ve rejected an opportunity to form one with me), I’ll realize that they’re likely displacing frustration with my pain into criticism for my process (since double binds usually signal scapegoating), and then I’ll endeavor not to take that negative reaction personally (which isn’t always easy).

5. Convey that to the relevant parties in a levelheaded, non-blaming way.

No matter what, have the conversation in as non-blaming and undramatic a fashion as possible.

Please note that the other person might not be very receptive to that information. We all get defensive from time to time.

But try not to start out defensive yourself. Stay calm.

Crucial Conversations is an excellent framework for having difficult conversations of all kinds, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a decent summary of the framework, but I really do recommend the book, which I reread myself periodically as a refresher.

6. Give the other person time to make those changes.

Behavioral change is hard. Humans form habits, and it’s often difficult for us to break from them and establish a new pattern, even if we want to. Even if your partner agrees to changes and is sincere in that agreement, you may not see immediate perfect implementation of those changes. It could take a little while for them to consistently apply them.

Complicating this picture is the phenomenon of incubation effect. Essentially, when we’re trying to solve problems, progress doesn’t always look linear. Sometimes, taking a break from something and revisiting it is extremely helpful.

It would be nice if change took place in a measured, consistent way, but that’s not typically the case. In some ways, we’re a lot like the download progress bar that stays stuck at 70% for hours, only to zip up unexpectedly at the last second.

7. But if nothing happens after a while, feel free to check back in and touch base.

That said, if it’s been a while, and nothing at all changed, it’s entirely appropriate to revisit the issue. Especially if the changes agreed on were rather formal, it might be helpful to have an accountability talk. Please see this post on help for having those kinds of conversations. 

8. If you’ve opted to work on your interpretation of events rather than asking for something to change externally, be patient with yourself.

If you’ve opted to work on your interpretation of events rather than asking for something to change, don’t forget to extend the same patience to yourself as you would extend to your partner.

Remember, personal change can be very hard (see #6). You didn’t form the way you think and feel overnight. You’ve been a lifetime getting here. No matter how annoying or harmful those patterns have become, you’re not necessarily going to snap your fingers and unlearn those old thought processes. Sure, it’s doable, but it also takes time.

9.  If there’s envy involved, identify steps that you can take to achieve what you desire.

As I mentioned before, sometimes people mistake jealousy and envy for one another.

In some situations, you might very well just witness someone else achieving something you wish you could. Or getting something that you yourself would want. Without any additional emotional insecurity or perceived threat that you may lose what you have.

If envy is your issue, then a productive way to respond is to think about steps that you could personally take to achieve that same outcome.

Take that longing and transform it into a kick in the pants you need to achieve your own goals.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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3 Comments

  1. THANK YOU for addressing the possibility of the double-bind/scapegoating. I tend to get very frustrated when caught off-guard by those situations, and reminding myself that I should be prepared is useful.

  2. It certainly helps me to see certain aspects of what I’ve got going on at the moment it’s just a shame that my wife isn’t receptive to change as that would certainly help the issues.

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