Oliver Page

Reframing jealousy as a gift, not a curse

17 January, 2021
Jealousy Article Featured Image

Photo by Alru4

The sharp pang of jealousy: I know it well.

At the age of 15, when it was time to choose my A-level subjects, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Being interested in several subjects, I flirted with various possibilities. There was architecture, but then there was also journalism. And what about psychology? That sounded especially fascinating.

When I toyed with the idea of studying medicine, I wasn’t exactly met with protest. In fact, people reacted as though I’d landed on the “correct” answer. What was there to even question? With a medical degree came job security, and reputation, and it promised to satisfy my love of learning.

To help me get in, my school advised, I would need to take ‘hard’ subjects and avoid ‘soft’ ones such as psychology. Soft subjects, after all, were for the unambitious – they wouldn’t look very good on my application form. I lapped up the advice, and in turn, parked my nascent passion for psychology deep in my psyche.

In the years that followed, feelings of envy would emerge when I overheard peers revising for psychology exams in the common room. While they were discussing interesting theories, I was trudging through chemistry textbooks. It somehow felt like I was getting left behind in my own life.

Rather than confront this issue, I swallowed my jealousy.

Surprising linguistic roots

Sometimes dismantling the root of a word totally shifts my perception of it.

The word ‘jealous’ comes from the Latin zelosus. This sometimes denoted jealousy, but it often had a more positive connotation. It could also mean ‘fierce rivalry’, ‘enthusiasm’ (zeal), or be used to describe a person with abundant energy.

Later, these words split into the English terms ‘jealous’ and ‘zealous’, effectively making them cousins.

Perhaps then jealousy is a form of energy, fuelling us with enthusiasm (even if misdirected) for something we want; something we think others have.

Rather than seeing jealousy as an ugly feeling to be hidden away, I’m finding it more practical to see it as a useful signal. I can either marshall that energy towards a constructive, internally-derived purpose, or I can keep projecting it outwards onto other people.

It’s my decision whether to own my envious feelings, reflect on them, and unpack the hidden wants and needs trying to escape from my psyche.

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One step behind inspiration

Jealousy is one step behind inspiration.

Comparing ourselves to others needn’t fill us with shame. As long as we can stay oriented to our wholeness and worth, we can use comparison to map out an inspiring future for ourselves.

Sometimes I have to listen carefully for the inspiring truths behind my envious feelings. When I follow these feelings, I can uncover the themes, interests and values which make up who I am.

Practically speaking, here are a few ways I’ve been able to do this:

  • Jealousy journaling: if someone or something triggers jealous feelings in me, I journal about what stirred them up. It might not be apparent straight away. For instance, I recently experienced a pang of jealousy while watching an interview of the author Stephen King. Through journaling, I realised this isn’t because I want to be a world-famous author (my gut reaction), but because I aspire to be more consistent and disciplined with my writing. Awareness of this prompted a reevaluation of my weekly schedule.
  • Jealousy dialogues: another interesting journaling technique has been to personify my jealousy and set up a two-way dialogue with it. This works for any emotion, actually. Beforehand, I try to visualise my jealousy in human form – for example, as a crotchety old man with a bitter face. I even give him a name – Jealous Jonah. I then begin writing lines of dialogue between ‘me’ and ‘Jealous Jonah’, switching perspective each time. It feels weird at first, but it’s a fantastic (and often surprising) way of understanding what purpose jealousy is trying to play in my life.
  • Getting curious: the pain of jealousy can cause a fight-or-flight response. It’s tempting to distance myself from the object of my jealousy (flight), or even try to take them down a peg (fight). The third route is to see these people as gifts and allies. When I get to know them and stay curious enough to draw lessons from their experience, my experience of jealousy can transform into one of inspiration.

Final words

When I follow the jealousy, amazing things happen. I create a space for things to click into place, not just in one but several areas of life.

Halfway into medical school, I had the chance to take a year out and pursue an ‘intercalated’ degree. There was an enticing smorgasboard of options to pick from, ranging from traditional topics like Physiology to more niche ones like Medical Anthropology.

It felt like a second chance – I hadn’t been enjoying Medicine much, but I did know I was interested in the brain, and in human behaviour more broadly. I came close to opting for Neuroscience, a popular choice which I thought would bode well for my career. But a deeper voice was speaking to me. A voice which knew not choosing Psychology would be a mistake.

Remembering my earlier jealousy in school, I made a choice based on deeper reflection this time. I took Psychology and had one of the best and most successful years of my life. I was suddenly excited to get up for lectures. I started reading beyond the curriculum. I found myself branching out to researchers. In short, I was engaged, motivated and full of enthusiasm for life.

It’s no coincidence this was the year I also met my (now) fiancé, kicking off what continues to be an amazing relationship.

While I went on to practise as a junior doctor for a few years, an irreversible process was sparked that year. Had I not paid attention to my jealousy, I’m not sure any of it would have been possible.

When it comes to jealousy, there are two options.

I can stay on the outside looking in, or I can figure out why I feel like I’m on the outside to begin with. By doing so, I can put the gift of jealousy to work.