Even the lightest shade of jealousy can be injurious to your health
Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
“It isn’t easy being green” lamented Kermit the Frog of The Muppets. In today’s environmentally-conscious world, Kermit could well be proud of himself for being naturally green. But there’s another kind of green that can be even more troubling: being green with envy. And even the lightest shade of envy or jealousy can be injurious to your health.
When jealousy rears its ugly head, it comes hand in hand with feelings of insecurity, fear and anxiety over the anticipated loss of something that we value – a friendship, an object, a relationship or love.
I met Molly, a long-haired dachshund, eight years ago in the mail room soon after her guardian, Alice, moved into my co-op apartment building. I was entranced by her long pretty chestnut brown snout and wagging tail as she waddled over to me. I dropped to the floor to meet her eye-to-eye and we quickly became best friends.
Dachshunds were bred to burrow out small animals in holes. So when I would visit Alice, I would put a treat in each pants pocket for her. True to her burrowing nature, Molly would bury her snout in one pocket to retrieve her prize then jump over my legs and retrieve her second treat from the other pocket. Alice was always amused by this, but one day, she commented, with an edge to her voice, that Molly didn’t kiss her as she did me. I realized that Alice was jealous. At that time, she was a smoker so I put the blame for Molly’s affection to me on Alice’s smoker’s breath. I didn’t want her jealousy to become a wedge in our friendship. I also made a mental note that Alice always had an excuse not to let Molly have a sleepover. It wasn’t until an emergency arose that Molly spent the night with me. I could understand how she might feel about her beloved dog loving someone other than her.
The difference between jealousy and envy
Jealousy is not quite the same as envy. Philosopher John Rawls distinguishes jealousy from envy, explaining that jealousy involves the wish to keep what we have, while envy is about the wish to get what we do not have. For example, a woman is jealous of her boyfriend’s attention to another woman and fears losing his attention. But the woman is envious of her friend’s new car which she doesn’t own, but covets.
Jealousy involves elements such as low self-esteem, uncertainty and loneliness, distrust, suspicion or anger about betrayal. It is a strong emotion that can evoke an aggressive reaction. It can be corrosive to oneself and to the other.
When feelings of jealousy arise within a relationship, deep trouble often follows. The jealous partner could benefit greatly from psychotherapy to understand and resolve the genesis of the insecurity that fuels the jealousy and to prevent its development in other relationships.
Jealousy among pets
Jealousy is not limited to humans. Scientists agree that other animals can experience complex emotions like jealousy and pride. Molly the dachshund would bark incessantly if I visited her apartment and did not give her a proper greeting before chatting with Alice. And one of my patients who lives alone with her dog, tells me that when she has a partner, the dog will aggressively make sure he sleeps between them. Sometimes there has been an ultimatum from the partner – “the dog or me.”
Linus, my sweet next-door-neighbor Lhasa-mix, has become quite possessive of me when I am dog-sitting him and his friend, Happy. Happy is an energetic toy black poodle with a tail in perpetual motion. They play well together, but if Happy tries to get kisses and attention from me, Linus runs interference like a linebacker for the Jets, blocking Happy from getting near enough to me to get the love that Linus believes belongs to him and him alone.
Maggie, a Westie, takes another approach. She will growl at any dog who dares to try to get their share of love. Then she will jump on me to have me reassure her that she’s “numero uno.” (But as soon as her guardian arrives, I become yesterday’s leftover lunch!)
A patient who was jealous of a pet
Inter-species jealousy came into a therapy session I was conducting recently. I often have my neighbor’s dogs visiting me, and had started to include them (one at a time) in my therapy sessions, where they soon became my canine assistants, providing comfort and calm to my clients.
One day, I was working with Laura, who comes from a large family. Growing up with five siblings, she was constantly struggling to be heard and for attention from her parents. It was a sensitive issue for her if she didn’t have my undivided attention. I was fostering Lucky, who knew Laura and had always been quiet during therapy sessions. But this day he wanted to play and wouldn’t accept our ignoring him. He kept dropping his squeaky toy at the feet of Laura or me. While listening to Laura, I tossed the toy a few times for Lucky to retrieve until, unable to contain herself any longer, Laura blurted out, “I’m going to have Lucky pay half my bill today.” She quickly withdrew this remark as “just kidding.” I sternly settled Lucky and extended our session by 15 minutes. This proved therapeutically beneficial for Laura. For now, as an adult, she had used jest to get what she needed.
We all have experienced jealousy sometime in our lives. It’s an unpleasant emotion that often overtakes our rational thinking and can distort our judgment and actions. We need to strive to tame the green-eyed monster so we can live peacefully with ourselves and others.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.