Thoughts on Jealousy
This is a collection of my reflections on how to manage jealous emotions.
This was a hard one to write because I had to dredge up all the negative emotions from my past that I tried so hard to bury. Here they are, exhumed for your entertainment.
1. Am I jealous?
It’s hard to talk about jealousy because to do so is to admit weakness, to confess my shortcomings against the person that I’m jealous of. Anger is the more prestigious emotion: displaying anger broadcasts your moral superiority over the person you are angry at.
It’s also easier to get support from friends to manage anger—at least your accomplices can harness your passions against your enemies. But admit jealousy and your friends may wonder if you will betray them to gain the upper hand.
But I think all negative emotions fade after bringing them into the light, and I have found that saying what I’m jealous of makes me realize how silly it sounds when spoken out loud.
Jealousy has less hold over you if you admit to it, which is part of the reason I’m writing this essay. An unknown hiss from the underbrush is much more intimidating than a serpent in the glade.
2. What do they worry about?
I was jealous that the woman I was dating in university got way more romantic attention from other men that I perceived to be more confident and attractive than me. She had an ex who drove her around in a fancy car, and I was a broke student that couldn’t offer that experience to her. There were multiple occasions where men would approach her and ask her out while I was on a date with her.
Instead of being consumed by my insecurities, I had to overcome my self-doubt to empathize with her challenges, even though her worries were nowhere remotely similar to what I constantly worried about. From her perspective, having all these men chasing her was not a benefit, but just background noise. These other men that offered her gifts and attention did so only because they expected her obedience in exchange. She was tired of men constantly trying to own her, and most desired her freedom to pursue her unbridled ambition.
I held a space for her ambitions to expand into. She told me she was attracted to me because of her relief in finally finding someone who “gets her” in this way. While we didn’t work out in the end, my only regret is that at the time I didn’t learn the full implications of what this meant.
3. What do I respect about them?
At a previous job I had a co-worker I was jealous of. We were of equal seniority level and were both gunning for the same promotion. He had been at the company for longer and I could see that his experience was a threat to my career success. In every meeting I would vehemently disagree with each of his decisions, and in response he would nitpick every idea I raised.
I fantasized about undermining him at every turn, conniving elaborate tactics to demoralize him and push him out of my team.
But it would have been a mistake to play corporate politics in this way—overt power moves would have been overplaying my position. My jealousy had been clouding my judgement. I introspected, quieted my pride, and asked what I respected about him. I admired that my co-worker had more technical skills than I did in a specific area, and this was the source of my frustration.
I changed tack by opening my mind, coming to realize these skills were what I most needed to develop in my career, and I had a lucky opportunity to learn firsthand from my co-worker. The next day at work I met with him, my demeanor totally calm as I walked in with an open mind and a notepad in hand, asking genuinely to learn from his expertise.
It was the most peaceful conversation I had with him for months. And one of the most positive personal developments, both for my career and for my blood pressure.
4. Is it just FOMO?
For a long time, I hated Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and thought it was an environmentally destructive Ponzi scheme that didn’t make any sense because it was an inherently deflationary currency that went against all monetary theory.
But by doing this, I missed out on the broader cryptocurrency revolution, and was suppressing my appreciation for the mathematical beauty, social benefits, and political freedoms granted by cryptocurrencies. I was jealous of people I dismissed as “dumb” getting rich from crypto because they had the courage and conviction to build a future I was too close-minded to see.
Jealousy was a way for me to undeservedly feel smug and smart about losing out, rejecting reality and substituting my own.
5. Am I ignoring my superiors?
Jealousy is a narcissism of small differences. I’m not jealous of celebrities or billionaires, because their status seems unrealistically unattainable, but I am jealous of a co-worker at a similar rank. Heck, I wasn’t even jealous of my boss who had a cushier and more well-paid job than me.
But this doesn’t make sense—if jealousy was rational, it should increase linearly and proportionally the further someone is above from me, but the emotion doesn’t work that way. This realization in itself is enough to help defeat the emotion when it arises, or at least help me channel my jealous energy into affecting systemic change instead of being a thorn to peers with whom I should be building an alliance.
Envy is always between neighbours. […] It is not the absolute differences between men which feed envy, but subjective perception, the optics of envy.
— Helmut Schoeck, Envy
6. Do I just want others to be jealous of me?
Growing up, I thought that I had to show off how smart I was to win the attention of my friends. But this was backwards; popular people are popular not because they possess a unique accomplishment, but because they care about the unique relationship they have with you. By caring too much about sharing interesting bits of trivia, I forgot that there was a more interesting person in front of me.
Achieving a coveted goal to incite jealousy is unfulfilling because you’ll be disappointed by people not envying you as much as you had imagined.
There is a growing business of people renting private jets on the tarmac for 10 minutes to take a selfie inside the jet for Instagram. The people taking these selfies think they’re going to be loved without realizing that they probably don’t care about the person who actually owns the jet beyond the fact that they provided a jet to be photographed in.
— Morgan Housel, The Psychology of Money
7. What am I grateful for?
For every person that I’m jealous of, there’s probably someone else who’s jealous of me. It’s more helpful to focus on the ways I have it better instead of the ways I have it worse. We spend so much time courting our superiors, we forget about those below us.
Back when I didn’t have any skills and was trying to break into the tech industry, I was jealous of a friend who graduated from a well-known top school, had a job at a big prestigious Silicon Valley company, and was able to open any career door he wanted.
But the more we talked and hung out the more he admitted that he was jealous of me. To achieve all his success through established institutions meant he incurred a lot of emotional debt. I was more emotionally mature in ways that he was not, because his laser focus on academics meant he scarcely had time to do any emotional development. I forgot my appreciation for having prioritized other traits that were more important to me.
Cynically, you can object that gratitude is a narcotic that gives you the high of achieving success without actually needing to accomplish anything, using schadenfreude as the active ingredient.
But I think of it this way: gratitude is a gentle kindness towards people who have it worse than me. But if I don’t hate someone who has it worse, then I also shouldn’t hate myself, because I always have it worse compared to someone who has it better; therefore, I should extend the same gentle loving towards myself.
8. Would I switch places?
Would I take everything about the person I’m jealous of? Not just the good parts, but also the bad parts.
On spring break during undergrad, I attended a party for entrepreneurs and connected with someone whose blog I enjoyed reading and ended up following. We were both recent graduates and were starting in our careers.
Five years later, he had all the things I didn’t. He got rich from cryptocurrencies the same year I spurned them, got married to someone that seems genuinely happy, and is well on his way to being one of the most widely-followed crypto influencers on Twitter.
The universe has no obligation to be fair; he really doesn’t have many flaws along any dimension I can claim to be superior at.
But even so, I still wouldn’t swap my life for his. I can’t stand his sense of humour, and I wouldn’t trade his style of comedy for my personal flavour of silliness. I would gain in happiness but I would lose my individuality, my soul.
You may argue that jealousy is a “natural” emotion, and not worth controlling with such toil. Jealousy is “natural” in the sense that dying from typhoid is “natural”. Thus I believe it is worth the effort to understand and overcome jealousy.
Jealousy is negative because it’s destructive—instead of focusing on how I can better myself, jealousy siphons my energy into tearing others down.
In the ancestral environment, social cohesion was critical for survival. Jealousy prevents people from wandering far away from the tribe and weakening the group—but it also prevents wanderers from inventing fire or practicing metallurgy.
We escaped stagnation not by weighing down anyone who tries to lift themselves above the circumstances, but by encouraging, celebrating, and promoting them.
We are jealous of anyone richer, more attractive, or more popular than ourselves, but we aren’t jealous of people who are kinder, more understanding, or more moral than ourselves.
This is the challenge to myself: to celebrate others without expecting reciprocity. To channel my jealous energy into desiring more empathy, scruples, and equanimity. A better world starts at home.
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