--The following are fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with psychologist and psychotherapist Dantua Golec. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.
Danuta Golec - psychologist, psychotherapist from the Polish Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. She is also a translator, and founder of the Ingenium Outbuilding, which publishes books in the field of psychoanalysis
Agnieszka Jucewicz: Can you imagine a world without jealousy?
Danuta Golec: It sounds like a hippie illusion. As David M. Buss, evolutionary psychologist, said: “Cultures in tropical paradises that are entirely free of jealousy exist only in the romantic minds of optimistic anthropologists and in fact have never been found.”
Jealousy and envy are two different emotions but they’re both inherent features of our psychological development.
Obviously, they might become pathological -- we hear about cars set on fire by neighbours or lovers killed by jealous husbands -- but usually, these two feelings have a milder, gentler course and can be surprisingly useful.
AJ: What’s the difference between envy and jealousy?
Envy is a concern over having something belonging to another person that is perceived as superior: a skill, an achievement or physical goods. It’s more primal than jealousy as it appears earlier in life. Its initial form occurs when an infant realizes that it’s not self-sufficient. It can’t feed itself, hug itself or keep itself warm -- its survival depends entirely on its mother and her abilities. This knowledge makes the child feel uncomfortable but also stimulates it to demand attention and vocalize its needs by crying and screaming.
AJ: So that initial envy can encourage us to action?
Definitely! It can also function as a motivator in adult life: sometimes if we lack what other people have, envy drives us to action, pushing us to improve our situation and emulate other people’s success.
Unfortunately, it can also turn into a negative, malicious force that ruins our state of mind, blocks our progress and becomes a great source of distress and misery. Driven by envy we often sabotage potential opportunities to improve our position, choose to suffer over accepting help from others, distort the truth, break up meaningful relationships and gradually isolate ourselves from people. Suddenly we wake up surrounded by hungry vultures trying to deprive us of everything we possess. It’s not reality, it’s paranoia.
AJ: Could you suggest a healthy way of dealing with envy ?
First of all, we should come to terms with our feelings without judging whether they’re good or bad. If what I desire is really so essential, perhaps there’s something I could do to obtain it? If not, it's a pity but it’s not the end of the world, I wipe my tears away and move on! The point is to accept that some things cannot be changed and focus on the positive aspects instead.
AJ: What about jealousy then?
Jealousy begins when the initial mother-child relationship is disturbed by a third entity. Usually it’s the father but it could also be work, other people, or anything else that distracts the mother’s attention. It’s a difficult and painful change for the child as suddenly it has to share its beloved life-giver with somebody else.
AJ: So jealousy is our refusal to share?
Rather it is the threat of losing our loved one or our exclusive rights to “use” them. Whereas envy relates to a desire for the advantages of others, jealousy is the fear of losing our advantages to others. Jealousy is a feature of a triadic social relationship: there’s me, my loved one and that third person who either has interrupted, is interrupting, or might interrupt in the future.
AJ: Can we control or shape our jealousy?
We surely can. The sooner we start the better. Jealousy, just like envy, enters our life pretty early. First, the baby notices another competitor in the race for a mother’s attentiveness and it has to adjust to the new, rather uncomfortable situation. As the child grows up, it enters the “oedipal phase”. Boys get closer to their mothers and girls to their fathers. This strong bond of affection is often reflected in children’s fantasies about marrying their own parents. Daughters become fathers’ little princesses and sons -- the apples of the mothers’ eye. It’s a natural course of things, as long as parents remember that it’s only a game.
It’s absolutely fine to play along and welcome these feelings, as they are genuine and meaningful, but under no circumstances should a child be allowed to win with their parent. Every child needs to realize that there’s a special connection between mother and father, one completely inaccessible to children, and that sometimes parents need to be left alone. During this stage children get used to the fact that they’re not always the center of attention and they learn to face and endure situations as passive spectators, not performers.
AJ: What if they fail to learn it. Could jealousy become a serious problem in the future?
There are two potential worst case scenarios: “oedipal triumph” and “oedipal shame”. In both instances the child’s “game” breaks up, resulting not only in its suffering but also in developmental difficulties.“Oedipal triumph” relates to the child’s sense of winning the parent of the opposite sex.
A boy might live in conviction, constantly fuelled by his mother, that he is her “little man”, her only object of affection, her chosen one. The father of the child either gets sidelined or he voluntarily retreats from the relationship with his wife.
A girl on the other hand can feel that the mother is left outside the circle of love created by the daughter and her father. That impression is even stronger if the parents remain in conflict. This “unique” bond between the girl and her father can lead to a complete devaluation of the mother’s role and the girl’s growing feeling of superiority over her mother. Such children -- boys and girls -- have never been confronted with an exclusion from the relationship between the two closest people in their life. Consequently they don’t know how to cope with a situation where a person they love is spending time with somebody else, or is busy with affairs other than fulfilling these children’s needs and wishes. This could have terrible consequences in the future. For example, having kids may become problematic. If a man, who used to be his mother’s favourite, starts his own family, he might find it difficult to accept that his wife divides her time and attention between him and their newborn baby. Quite often such men cannot assume the role of fathers as responsible and supportive protectors but remain immature boys unable to take care of their new families.
AJ: And what do we call “oedipal shame”?
This is quite the opposite situation: when a child’s “advances” are ignored, mocked or rejected by its parent. In that case the “game” I mentioned before doesn’t even begin -- the child is left with a message: “Someone I love is not worth fighting for” and with the same assurance it continues its life as an adult.
Healthy jealousy is demonstrated by standing up for yourself and for the ones you love. People who have been constantly overlooked or rejected by their parents don’t bother to fight and give up at the start.
That’s why it’s so important to openly talk to children about emotions and teach them how to get through such negative feelings as rejection or spite.
A person never exposed to jealousy may have difficulties with handling triadic situations: me, my husband and my mother-in-law or me, my colleague and our boss or me, my friend and her friend.
It can quickly lead to obsession. Pathological jealousy comprises two characteristic elements: extremely low self-esteem and hatred towards either our “loved one” or the person who’s taking our “loved one” away from us. We need to remember that there’s a huge difference between feeling a bit sad or reluctant and obsessive loathing for another person and for ourselves. The latter one is usually followed by brutal thoughts and equally brutal, impulsive actions.
AJ: What is healthy jealousy like?
It’s still irritating and unpleasant but it doesn’t turn into paranoia. Let’s say I’m not happy that my friend cannot meet up because she’s having lunch with someone else. I’m not happy but I still postpone our meeting until the following week. I accept the fact that she has other friends and commitments and it doesn’t mean that our friendship is not important. I acknowledge my jealousy but I don’t allow it to escalate or project on those around me.
AJ: Any advice on how to do it?
We should start with identifying the negative emotions and explicating them carefully in our own head. Ideally, we’ve been taught how to do it by our parents, who encouraged us to talk about our feelings and helped to understand them. In psychology, it’s called “mentalization” -- we create an imaginary room inside our head and use it to analyse our emotions, and interpret our mental states. Some people lack this inner space, they have an impulse and turn it into action almost automatically and without reflection. But this little area in our mind can be really helpful, it won’t erase the negative feelings but might ease the afflictions.
AJ: So it will hurt less?
Most likely. If we try to understand a painful feeling, it might get more bearable. For some of us, an even better solution is talking to another person. Ideally someone close, smart and trustworthy. Letting an outsider inside our head may not only relieve our internal tension but might also help look at the problem from a new, fresh perspective.
--Translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach