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Overcoming jealousy, excerpt

Overcoming jealousy

If we set aside the issue of amorous jealousy for a moment, jealousy signifies the negative emotion we feel when we see another person benefiting from an advantage that we do not have, or would like to be the only one to have. That jealousy is a negative feeling cannot really be disputed: jealousy makes us bitter about another person’s pleasure, causing us to secretly hope for his failure and to rejoice in his misery. What needs to be emphasized about this definition is that jealousy registers a threefold relationship: the jealous person himself; the object of his desire; and the ‘other’ person, the one who is envied because he possesses the object of desire. Moreover, being jealous does not just mean desiring something – it involves desiring something that we do not have but someone else does. As this emotion becomes more pronounced within us, we reach a point where we can no longer even stand the fact that another person might also possess what we have, and this matter serves as a source of constant distress for us.

Strictly speaking, the difference between jealousy and envy is often distinguishable. The envious person suffers from another person’s good fortune and wants for himself what the other person has, whereas the jealous person simply fears having to share with another an advantage to which he feels exclusively entitled, or fears losing that advantage to the benefit of another.[1] Nevertheless, this distinction is not strictly observed in daily usage, and the word jealousy tends to be used for both instances. In addition, the word envy does not exist in all languages. Fore the sake of simplicity, therefore, we will use these two words interchangeably, nothing simply that the words jealousy and envy should be understood to encompass all the various and often subtle nuances of the attribute under study.

The source of jealousy

The etymology of the word jealousy derives from the Greek word zelos for ardor or zeal. As the word implies, jealousy is an urge that foments something: it arises from an attachment to materialism, from the desire for exclusive possession and the intense attraction that pulls us toward something. The jealous person wants to possess whatever he deems advantageous –whether money, power, resources, beauty, knowledge, recognition, honors, etc.– and in particular wants it for himself alone. This is the distinguishing element that sets jealousy apart from other attributes such as covetousness or greed.

In his book Medicine of the Soul, Dr. Bahram Elahi explains jealousy in the following manner:

“Jealousy stems from the instinct of possession or, more precisely, envy shrouded in selfishness. The instinct of possession is a natural characteristic that is beneficial in normal doses, for it keeps us stimulated and active. If left uncontrolled, however, this instinct deteriorates into jealousy.”[2]

The concept of selfishness, then, elucidates what the jealous person desires- to eliminate others in order to possess the object of his desire alone. Pleasure derives not so much from the object itself, as from being the only one to have it. This matter is tied to an old story dating back to the dawn of humanity.

In the well-known Biblical story of Cain and Abel, God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but rejects Cain’s, causing Cain to become jealous of his brother to the point of feeling compelled to kill him. Of course, we are not all murderers, but eliminating our rivals, which is one of the main aspect of jealousy, often occurs in a variety of ways that can be more or less overt and aggressive in nature.

Among the attributes that may be transformed into jealousy is the instinct of possession, which is not inherently noxious. On the contrary, it is a natural inclination that is necessary for our development. In its natural state, this attribute takes on the guise of emulation. When we emulate someone, we engage in a form of healthy competition with that person that drives us to achieve our best; in reality, the fact that the other person has an advantage is motivational and energizing for us. Therefore, simply wanting something is not a negative attribute per se, whereas suffering because others enjoy certain advantages and wishing to deprive them of those advantages becomes a negative quality. In his analysis on envy, Aristotle noted:

“Emulation is…a good feeling felt by good persons, whereas envy is bad feeling felt by bad persons. Emulation makes us take steps to secure the good things in question; envy makes us take steps to stop our neighbor from having them.”[3]

Another root of jealousy is vanity and conceit, the pride that causes us to want to be supreme in domains in which the possibility of appearing prominent presents itself.[4] When we see that someone else has succeeded in such a field, we suffer because-mistakenly or not- we feel discarded and belittled, and  therefore inferior to others. This feeling generates negative thoughts (about our own sense of inferiority or the world’s unfairness) and negative reactions (we approach others with bitterness or directly harm them). Similarly, we may also feel jealous of the admiration meted out to one of our close friends, especially if we know that the esteem is overstated. In such a case, jealousy is bolstered by a sense of injustice that not only provides a justification for being jealous, but also all kinds of excuses that make us oblivious to our own jealousy. In so doing, it convinces us that the admired person deserves less praise than we do. Behind this seemingly justified and righteous anger, however, jealousy plays a primary role.

“I am quite a shy and withdrawn person who prefers to be alone rather than with a group of strangers. Despite this problem, I have a strong need for friends. Since it is difficult for me to talk to people I don’t know, it is extremely hard to forge friendships. On numerous occasions I have felt jealous of those who manage to make friends easily. When I am with such individuals, I want to hide this feeling and never show any outward sign of jealousy. Yet within myself, I nurse a feeling of rage, asking myself why this person enjoys such popularity with others and not me? What usually upsets me more than anything else is my belief that such people do not deserve so much attention. What’s interesting and causes me to feel jealous is their ability to speak in public and the fact that they are always surrounded by so many people. At the end of each episode, I feel a strong sense of injustice and ask myself: “How can a relatively dim person rivet the attention of others to such an extent?”

This feeling of injustice is the source of the most painful jealousies. In particular, for those who are more selfish, the success, popularity, and affection others enjoy are truly unbearable. As they are internally convinced that they’re more deserving of such boons, they ask themselves: Why them and not me? So in most cases, our suffering is tied to the feeling that our self-perceived worth and merit have been slighted. We imagine that because someone possesses something, we have probably lost something.[5] Or if someone possesses something that we don’t, it’s because we are inferior to him, which explains the lack of self-confidence that accompanies jealousy.


[1] On this subject, see the essay “Envy and Jealousy” (Envie et jalousie) in Dictionnaire d’éthique et de philosophie morale, edited by Monique Canto-Sperber (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001).

[2] Bahram Elahi, Medicine of the Soul, p.38 (London: Cornwall Books, 2001). Tr. Note: Professor emeritus of pediatric surgery and the author of several medical textbooks in the fields of anatomy and pediatric surgery and urology, Prof. Elahi has spent the past 40 years concurrently studying, practicing, and teaching the subject of ethics and natural spirituality based on the philosophy of his late father, Ostad Elahi.

[3] Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book II, Ch.11, trans. by Williams Rhys Roberts, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).

[4] Another factor that often engenders jealousy within us is the attention and affection that others receive, exactly as if this amount of love they are shown is equivalent to the amount of affection withheld from us.

[5] Along these lines, St.Thomas Aquinas has noted that “another’s good is apprehended as one’s own evil…when a man is sorry about another’s good, in so far as it threatens to be an occasion of harm to himself, as when a man grieves for his enemy’s prosperity, fro fear lest he may do him some harm.” Whether envy is a kind of sorrow? St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, tr. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London: Burns, Oates, and Washburne, 1912-36; New York: Benziger, 1947-48; New York: Christian Classics, 1981); Second Part of the Second Part; Question 36; Article 1.


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1 comment

  1. tom Oct 09, 2019 2:00 pm 1

    I have in the past few days experienced instances of extreme jealousy toward someone who is a close friend of mine. I am sincere when I say that I truly like this person, want her to succeed, and have offered to help her work on projects to help her succeed in many cases.

    I am so surprised at the level of jealousy I felt about two things that are incredibly minute. They are so minute that writing them here made me feel ridiculous. Suffice it to say, they made me feel less special (full on jealousy). I would be grateful for some advice about why and how these feelings have crept up on me toward someone I generally like a lot, and about why such minute things have made me feel so jealous lately.

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