For the first half of 2021, I worked as a chaplain in the ICU of a Manhattan hospital, giving emotional support to people who were going through some of the hardest things they’ll ever go through. A few years ago, I was going through the hardest thing I’ve been through, also in a hospital, not sure if I’d be getting out dead or alive or in some completely different state than I’d ever been alive before.
You’d think that both of these things would give me perspective. Not so.
After a day of working at the hospital, it would shock and embarrass me how my deadly sin of choice—envy—would still follow me around, stealing my joy and eroding any semblance I had of ‘the big picture.’ How can I be aware, face to face, with some of life’s greatest horrors, return home to my lovely home in full health, do a job that I’m outrageously lucky to get to do, and still cry because I want something I don’t have?
When I was fully recovered from serious illness, I was out to dinner with an old friend, who said to me, “I bet you’re just so grateful to be sitting at dinner right now that you don’t even have room to compare yourself to others.” Ha! Very, very incorrect. You can have all the perspective in the world and still feel sick over the fact that your boyfriend has ever dated anyone before you, or that your friend seems to be (weirdly??) having fun without you, or that a colleague got a well-deserved review on their incredible book. Enduring something hard doesn’t make you a saint; it doesn’t dehumanize you. Finicky human impulses are alive and well no matter what you’ve been through.
I’ve been a jealous person for as long as I can remember. In my defense, I've heard that highly sensitive people, empaths, and people who deal with anxiety/depression tend to experience envy much more than others--check check check! Some of my earliest memories involve longing for someone else’s name, hair, grades, home. I remember feeling my spirit shrivel into a raisin when I met a girl named Colette, and imagined how much better my life would be if I had such a name. I didn’t know how to admire without envy.
For a long time, I had a scarcity mindset: there was only so much to go around, and if someone else had something desirable, there was less for me. If my boyfriend had a romantic dinner with someone else before he knew I existed, that meant some his Romance Points had been used up; there were only so many more for me. If someone was beautiful AND funny AND cool AND could easily find shoes in their size, it made me wonder why I even bother! I’ve (mostly) grown out of that, but jealousy is still one of my defining features. I’ve just learned to suppress, stifle, shame, and punish it, as it slithers around like a sea monster beneath my mind.
Perhaps the most generous take on this personality trait is that I’m insatiable: I want it all! As a writer, I’m so interested in others’ lives that I long to try on their lives, feel them on my skin, know exactly what it’s like to have a big apartment or a husband or a green thumb. I’m distressingly curious the same way I’m a dissatisfied traveler: I see so many different ways of experiencing the world and I can’t get enough—I need to know exactly what it’s like to be a Sicilian fisherman or I simply can’t know peace.
Through that lens, it’s so much less about my deficiency of gratitude and much more about how deeply I want to learn, know, feel, experience for myself. I get FOMO easily, but for my un-lived life more than anything. I can work up a jealousy for my own sister-lives: the version of myself who went to a different college, stayed one more day in Guatemala, accepted one more drink from the compelling bartender. I'm jealous of the version of myself with a different haircut.
But there are other, tougher factors contributing to this trait. When it comes to relationships, I imagine that my jealousy stems from an old, old story about that foundational idea that I’ll never be good enough, and envying boyfriends' exes or the lives of friends is an easy way to affirm that ancient idea that I'm fundamentally lacking. When it comes to work, perhaps I’ve come to realize that external validation is the way you get jobs, fill a room, and ultimately feel valuable.
Though, that feels wrong; I love the act of writing more than anything and often feel like I could do without all the other stuff: promotion, brand-building, even accolades. When my first book hit the New York Times Bestseller list, I experienced a moment of…I wouldn’t call it happiness. A moment of wonder, perhaps? Any glee that accompanied the surprise was genuinely secondhand happiness for my editor, my agent, my mom. Honestly, I didn’t care much. I’d already gotten the joy—I’d gotten to write a book. I could easily interpret the external stuff as projection (if I don’t take the criticism seriously, I don’t feel like I can take the praise seriously), and I know how random and subjective all those accolades are anyway. It didn’t really land anywhere near my soul.
However: Putting myself really out there a few months ago with a very personal book was hard and scary and made me feel insecure that I wasn’t getting the correct validation. I always thought of myself as someone who was above all that, so it startled me. I told myself all kinds of lies, knowing full well that all the external validation in the world won't take away your insecurities.
There were moments when I really believed that if I could just get one certain review, one press feature, or the spot on some list, that it would give me infinite confidence, like bouncing on a coin in a video game and instantly getting immunity and speed. But I know way too much to know that’s not how it works.
I tried coping with this wave of jealousy and insecurity by reading a lot about the positive sides of envy: “It shows you what you really want!” But I’m not motivated by competition and I already know what I want. Getting jealous over an author whose essay was published in The New Yorker doesn’t give me any new information about what I want or value. If anything, it tugs me in the opposite direction. I know the things that give me sustained joy and long-term validation are my beloved community, my home filled with memories from adventures, and my pure enjoyment of creating. I know that getting cool press wouldn't come close.
So if I've grown out of scarcity mindset and I know that external validation won't really make me happy, shouldn't I just will myself out of jealousy?
Nope, apparently not. Jealousy is trying to get my attention, and won't rest until I turn toward it. It doesn't need logic, it doesn't need gratitude; it needs a listener.
With that in mind, here is how I've come to befriend and cope with my darkest shadow:
I'm really, really gentle with myself. Envy comes from my inner child, a part of me so young that it might not even know what I do for a living now. When I get jealous, I'm a lonely and rejected four-year-old on the playground, not an author with wonderful friends. My wounded self is very young and very hurt, and speaking to her in an authoritative or shaming adult voice ("Ugh why can't you just get over it!") doesn't work. Nor do gratitude lists. Nor does perspective. Have you ever tried giving perspective to a screaming child? So, I speak to the tender, fearful kindergartener who doesn't feel like she matters. I watch good movies, eat good food, and let myself rest as much as possible. I soothe the littlest version of me, which often includes eating an ice cream sandwich in bed, feeling very sorry for myself for a few hours. I let the emotion slither and burn through my body, and let myself enjoy the trashiest TV that has ever existed.
Then, I extend curiosity. Instead of suppressing the sea monster who will just keep slithering away, I go down to the depth of my shadow and begin exploring the swamp where the monster lives. Yes, it's murky and unpleasant at first, but there's so much to learn in those caves. Instead of shutting down the feelings and asserting, "That's not me," I admit that it definitely IS me, and wonder what's going on there. I have a conversation with myself: "Hey, wow, oh gosh, you're really struggling with jealousy today, huh? I'm so curious about that! What's going on? How does it feel? Which memories does it bring up? How are we going to move through this?"
When I get information about what's really going on, then I can begin to cope. I think about all the lies and false stories that I'm writing in my head ("I'm not enough, I don't matter, nobody likes me") and I gently give some evidence to the contrary, reminding myself that there is always a different story to pick from. I ask close friends of mine to "Remind me what's true" and I look through a folder I keep of cards and sweet words that make me feel good and remind me of my North Star, my guiding light: my brightest essence.
I make friends with jealousy. It's a part of me, as much as the parts I favor. Like any person, jealousy is not going to heal if it's banished to the basement. There, it will become angrier, more isolated, more inflamed. If I invite my jealousy out for dinner, what could it become? Perhaps, instead of scanning for everything lacking in my life, it will take on a new job: it will look for the good and the beautiful. But first, I have to give it a seat at the table. I have to say "I love you" to the ugliest part of myself. I have to let it know it's welcome here, because it has stories to tell. I sit down, I lean in, I pour it a drink, I give it attention.
Then I get out of my damn head. This usually involves physical activity, or volunteering, or creating, or making dinner for a friend, or ANYTHING that can take me out of my brain cave and back into the world. Introspection is a beautiful thing, but for people like me who self-reflect the way that athletes work out, I realize I really need to just get out and be in the world sometimes. Self-awareness over the span of many hours can easily turn into self-absorption, and sometimes the best antidote for a jealousy spiral is just getting your freaking self together and going outside.
One of the hardest parts of dealing with jealousy is dealing with the shame around it--feeling like I should be better than this. But talking about it alleviates that shame, and laughing about it helps too. If you're someone who keeps a pet jealousy sea monster in the cave of your brain, know you're not alone. And if you're listening to me talk about this openly, you're part of my healing!