Jealousy tells us what we want and don’t have, what we are missing; certainly, a useful piece of self-awareness. Knowing what we want is crucial to being able to live well. But we’ve been taught that it’s not quite right to want. It’s OK to need but not to want. There’s something about knowing what we want and going after it with zeal and ferocity that is too self-absorbed, too selfish. Perhaps this is because jealousy has fueled dangerous and harmful behavior. But again, it’s important to separate the feeling from the behavior. The feeling is potentially valuable; the behavior may not be.
The worst kind of jealousy is the jealousy that is not acknowledged, not understood, not used. Another example from my life. Around age 11 or 12, it seemed as if my father turned on me. Earlier in my life, he would bounce me on his knee, throw me up on the top deck of my bunk bed, playfully bite me. He seemed to delight in my presence. When I hit puberty, that all changed. He began to look at me with disdain, to regard me with a wariness and diffidence that hadn’t been there before. I of course, reacted to that and our relationship during my teenage years was marred by suspiciousness, distrust and veiled hostility. At the time I didn’t know what was going on. Now, I think I do. He was jealous. He certainly had a right to be. I was young, bright and healthy. I had my whole life before me. He was in his mid-fifties, in some ways stuck to his business and having to wrestle with the constraints that most 50-somethings deal with. Worse yet, I was going to use his money to go to college and enter into the adventurous and challenging time of my 20’s and 30’s. Even worse, his wife was paying a lot more attention to me that she was to him.
I became more aware of this dynamic when my own children reached puberty. I was jealous of them. My son was a strong, good-looking hunk of a young man. He had girls falling all over him, calling at all hours of the night, coming after him, a fortune I had never experienced. My daughter was a wonderful athlete, later to become an outstanding college volleyball player. The biggest regret of my life is that I didn’t play intercollegiate sports.
The difference between me and my father is that I told my children that I was jealous of them and that jealousy might cause me to behave unreasonably and stupidly towards them. I encourage any readers who think jealousy may be affecting their relationship with their children to bring it up and share it, thereby exposing it to the light of day.
I once heard a professor talking to his class about the obverse of my situation. You’ve got a 40-year-old mother who’s been married for around 20 years and a 15-year-old daughter. It’s likely that the sexual life of the mother has evened off into a pleasant but not particularly fiery occasional romp in the sack with her husband; for some such women, sex has become even less present than that. On the other hand, there’s this 15-year-old daughter who is just entering into the first stirring of sexual energy and who is looking forward to the exciting blossoming of early sexuality. Only the most heroic of us would be able to avoid at least a slight tinge of jealousy in such a situation. Could it be possible that jealousy as much as anything else fuels the mother’s admonishments to “make sure you get home by a decent hour”, “I don’t think should go out with him” “take care of yourself” and “don’t do anything stupid.”
The point here is that, perhaps more than any other emotion, jealousy becomes toxic when it goes underground, is repressed and unacknowledged. It’s a difficult emotion to experience and acknowledge. It is uncomfortable. It’s a sign of weakness and it’s against one of the Ten Commandments. It is the antecedent of murder and mayhem. No wonder it is maligned, degraded and given a bad rap. Still, it is valuable and we need to reclaim it and use it as a signal telling us what is missing from our lives and what we want.
This seems like a good place to write about the dangers of repression. Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to discover the harm in repression and an important discovery it was. He learned from observing many people that when powerful emotions like jealousy and anger are pushed down and repressed, they don’t go away. Rather they become expressed in harmful, bizarre and perverse ways. When kept inside, they make people ill. When they leak out like the steam in a pressure cooker, they do so in the form of nasty attitudes, hurtful and often self-defeating behavior. Had my father been able to acknowledge and openly express his jealousy, our relationship would have been a lot better and we both would have been happier men.
This excerpt was taken from pages 31-33 of Lighten Up. Dance With Your Dark Side. Click here to buy the book.