In common parlance, the term "jealous" often gets used in place of "envious," as in "Your company sent you to Paris again-I'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.
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…..
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.
Remember your thoughts are just thoughts: Your current worries may come from real experiences-maybe your mom left your dad or your heart was broken by your last partner. But remember those relationships are different than the one you have now. Your thoughts are thoughts, not reality itself. So test out a tool called metacognition, or thinking about your thoughts. Catch the thoughts that spike your jealousy: "He thinks she's prettier than me." "She's going to happy hour with her friends because she's not interested in me anymore."
"He's always looking at other girls." Jealousy makes you think the problem is with your partner, but it's likely that the problem is those angry and worried thoughts. So put those thoughts under a bright light and see them for what they are: just thoughts. Your next step isn't to suppress them, which doesn't work anyway, but to notice them when they creep up. You don't need to take any action.
Use metacognition to think to yourself "I can keep this in perspective," "I don't have to do anything about these thoughts," or "I don't like having these thoughts, but it's OK to have them and it doesn't mean they're true," all of which are better than interrogating her about whether the new guy at work is her type.
Challenge your need for reassurance: Speaking of which, interrogations, no matter how gentle, are basically digging for reassurance. You want air tight verification that your relationship is safe. But even if your partner reassures you, how long does it last? Right: not long, if at all. You can do two things about this. First, you can try your hardest to stop asking. File this under jealous behaviors from Tip #1 and remind yourself it's not working for you or your partner. Second, if your partner is willing, you can enlist him or her in a project to battle your anxiety.
Together, come up with a gentle, kind, but non-reassuring response for him or her to give you when you ask if they really love you. "I think the worry is acting up again," "I know you can handle this anxiety--you've been doing really great these past few days."
Say your jealous thought over and over again: I know, you're skeptical about this one. But hear me out. First, phrase your fear as an uncertain statement: "It's always possible that he could cheat." "I'll never know for sure if our relationship will last." You'll cringe at first, but say it over and over, until your brain gets bored. In the car by yourself, at home with no one around, say out loud, "He could cheat on me at some point" for a good ten minutes.
The next day, do it again. This is called flooding and will get your brain used to-indeed, downright bored with-the uncertainty inherent in loving someone deeply. And yes, at first, you'll hate saying your fear out loud, much less repeating it.
But I promise: it will get easier and easier until you can think it without that green spike of jealousy. In short, jealousy is one of the toughest emotions because it's a mix of feeling anxious, hurt, and threatened. But with willingness and practice, you can wither that green-eyed monster until it fades away. Now you'll just have to deal with your cat being jealous whenever you get sucked into cute kitten videos on YouTube.
The writer is a Clinical Psychologist & Podcast Host
Boston University, University of California, Los Angeles, Cambridge, Massachusetts