The Mind-Traps that Lead to Toxic Jealousy

Jealousy becomes problematic when it arises in imagined scenarios, which can cause us to make three major “cognitive mistakes” that lead us to misinterpret the truth.

When jealousy hits, it can be all-consuming, wreaking havoc on our relationships and causing great emotional distress—often without us fully understanding the reason for it. We may not want to resent someone, yet the urge to do so feels uncontrollable. What makes jealousy so powerful?

In this video from the PBS science series BrainCraft, creator and host Vanessa Hill explains where jealousy comes from and what we can do to work with this difficult emotion.

Why Do I Feel So Jealous?

Jealousy often arises when we sense a threat to a relationship, says Hill. As children, we grow jealous of our siblings when they gain our parent’s attention. As adults, we may feel jealous of a new person who captures the interest of our friend or partner.

“It’s a constellation of emotions ranging from fear of loss and anxiety to anger, sadness, and humiliation,” Hill says.

Jealousy can be genetic. One study from 2013 found that about a third of jealousy is determined by our genes. But personality factors, like having low self-esteem, can also determine whether we tend toward feelings of jealous or not.

“It’s important to realize that jealousy itself is a normal reaction, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed about it. It’s a wakeup call that there’s danger, forcing us to take steps to preserve a valued relationship.”

“It’s important to realize that jealousy itself is a normal reaction, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed about it,” Hill says. “It’s a wakeup call that there’s danger, forcing us to take steps to preserve a valued relationship.”

Jealousy’s Mind Traps

Hill says jealousy becomes problematic when it arises in imagined scenarios, which can cause us to make three major “cognitive mistakes” that lead us to misinterpret the truth:

  1. Mind-reading: When you assume someone you care for, such as a spouse, is romantically interested in another person despite not having any reason for it.
  2. Personalizing: When you interpret everything in relation to yourself. For example, you may assume a friend who cancels plans because they’re sick actually just doesn’t want to see you.
  3. Fortune-telling: When you predict the future actions of a person, like assuming your boss will give your new coworker a promotion over you.

“It’s ok to feel jealous sometimes, but there’s a difference between controlling it and letting it control you,” Hill says.

Tame Jealous Feelings: A 3-Step Awareness Practice

Hill says we can avoid cognitive mistakes by noticing how jealousy affects our body and mind. Here are three steps you can take the next time you start to feel jealous:

  1. Notice the body. When the green-eyed monster takes over, how does that make your body feel? Is there a tightening in your chest? A pressure in your head? A body scan practice can help you notice where the stress of jealous feelings surfaces in your body—it can be different places for everyone. Hill also recommends writing down your feelings in order to focus your attention and begin to calm down.
  2. Recognize thought patterns. When you notice yourself beginning to slip into mind-reading, personalizing, or fortune telling, press pause. Consider whether these thoughts are based in fact. It may help to reflect on positive aspects of your relationship so you can focus on what you value in that person.
  3. Identify the root of your jealousy. If you can, try to understand what you think is truly threatening your relationship. Is it because your friend has been spending time with this new person—or is it because you’ve been putting in more hours at work and haven’t been able to see them as much as you’d like?
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