Make Jealousy Into a Gift, Not a Curse

January 17, 2021

I’m no stranger to feeling jealous.

I can remember that familiar gnawing sensation it can bring, especially during my last couple of years at school. The feeling of being on the outside looking in.

The year before, at age 15, I had gone to the school Career Fair with my parents. At the time I had very little idea what I wanted to do with my life. Being interested in several subjects, I felt able to entertain several possibilities at once. Having to narrow down and pick 3 or 4 A-levels was tough.

When I voiced interest in checking out the Medicine stand, and later in becoming a doctor, I wasn’t met with much opposition.

Flanked by a school system eager to boost their prestige on one hand, and parents keen for their son to pick a traditional job on the other, it came down to me to tease out why Medicine was something I wanted to do.

Being young and ill-equipped to do so, I put my blinkers on. I mean what was to question? Medicine meant job security, reputation, and it promised to satisfy my love of learning.

The school clamoured for me to take ‘hard’ subjects and avoid ‘soft’ ones, which they said would look worse on my application. I listened. The only problem was, ‘soft’ was what I wanted – deep-down I dreamt of exploring my nascent love of Psychology. But it was drowned out by other voices.

So in the years following, feelings of envy would emerge whenever I overheard peers enthusiastically discussing Psychology theories in the common room. While I was trudging through Chemistry textbooks, it somehow felt like I was getting left behind in my own life.

Rather than talking about it, or thinking about it, I swallowed my jealousy.

***

Sometimes dismantling the root of a word totally shifts my perception of it.

The word jealous comes from the Latin zelosus. This was sometimes used to refer to jealousy, but often it had a more positive connotation. It could also mean ‘fierce rivalry’, ‘enthusiasm’ (zeal), or generally be used to describe a person with an abundance/excess of energy.

Much later, these words split into the English terms ‘jealous’ and ‘zealous’, effectively making them cousins.

To be jealous is to be filled with enthusiasm and energy for something you want that others have. It doesn’t have to be as negative as we’ve made it – jealousy is usually suppressed and shamed.

The basis of jealousy is comparison. We’re only human, and we all compare ourselves to others here and there.

When it comes to other people’s careers, for instance, jealousy – or ‘career envy’ – is very common. But that’s ok. In fact, when you look at it from the right angle, it can be a gift.

Rather than seeing jealousy as an ugly feeling to be hidden away from yourself, it’s more practical to see it as a useful signal. There’s a reason it brings up energy you didn’t know you had, getting you riled up. Suppressing this can lead to a sense of shame that eats you up on the inside.

I’m not saying you need to shout about your jealousy from the rooftops, just that you could consider owning it. Reflecting on it. Unpacking the deeper wants and needs which are likely trying to escape from your psyche.

There are two diverging paths when you feel jealous. One is to let the feeling consume you, with the risk self-sabotaging your success and relationships. The other is to put it to work.

Putting the Gift of Jealousy to Work

Society trains us not to let even 1% of our jealousy slip out. We must keep tight-lipped. We’re told to be content with what we have, where we’re at, and accept our lot.

I’m all for cultivating acceptance and gratitude. What I disagree with, is the notion that jealousy is a sort of disease of the mind/ego.

The way I see it, jealousy is one step behind inspiration. Yet comparing to others is taboo, although it can function as a useful tool for mapping out a better future.

Granted, comparison can easily become unhealthy. It can also prevent us from doing important inner work. This is an easy trap to fall into and when I do it myself, it’s because I’m using a measuring stick of my own invention. It could be money, recognition or how happy the person appears to be.

But taking a second to stop and look down at your measuring stick can be intriguing. What’s written on it, and why? Is it something you genuinely want, or something you think you want?

This is where jealousy becomes something you can turn around for your own benefit. Sometimes you have to listen really hard for the signal, because it’s been pushed down so deep. But it could be trying to say something about who you are and what you truly value.

When you don’t know what you value, your filter for making decisions is poor. It’s like a huge fishing net that has big, gaping holes. In contrast, a well-honed framework of values is like a harpoon that hits the target, every time.

Follow the jealousy and uncover the themes, interests and values which set you apart from everyone else. Here are a couple of concrete steps you could take right now:

  • Start a jealousy journal: I’m serious; start a jealousy journal. I’m big on keeping journals for every occasion – just keep a running list of situations which make you feel jealous. Or if you want to frame it more positively, an ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘inspiration’ journal. It’s here you’ll regularly unpack conversations which stir you up. Shine light on them objectively – be curious rather than feeling ashamed. What themes emerge? It’s best to think outside the box here. If you had a pang of envy while talking to a novelist, you might not necessarily want to be the next J.K. Rowling. Perhaps you aspire to more time alone honing a craft, or autonomy in managing your workday.

  • Move towards people you’re jealous of: the pain of jealousy can cause a fight-or-flight response. Most people either distance themselves from the culprit (at best) or try to take them down a peg (at worst). The third route is to start seeing these people as your allies. Get to know them better. Stay curious and draw lessons from their experience. Maybe it turns out things aren’t as you thought, or maybe you’ll realise a deeper ambition – in which, case they may be able to help you!

***

When you follow the jealousy, amazing things can happen. You create a space for things to click into place, not just in one but several areas of life.

Halfway into medical school, we could take a year out to pursue another degree (called an ‘intercalated’ degree here in the UK).

The options were weird and wonderful, ranging from more traditional topics like Physiology to the slightly more niche, like Anthropology.

It felt like a second chance – I hadn’t been enjoying Medicine much, but I did know I was interested in the brain, and in human behaviour more broadly.

I came close to opting for Neuroscience, one of the more popular choices which I thought would ‘look good’ on my CV for job applications. But a deeper voice was speaking to me. A voice which knew not choosing Psychology would be a mistake.

Remembering my earlier jealousy in school, I made a choice based on deeper reflection this time.

So I took Psychology and had one of the best and most successful years of my life. I was suddenly excited to get up for lectures. I started reading beyond the curriculum. I found myself branching out to researchers who weren’t on the official supervisor list. I became engaged, motivated and full of enthusiasm for life.

It’s no coincidence this was the year I also found my (now) fiancé, kicking off what continues to be an amazing relationship.

While I went on to practise as a junior doctor for a few years, an irreversible process had been sparked that year. And it led me to leave medicine, land some great writing gigs, start this website and get into coaching.

Had I not paid attention to my jealousy, I’m not sure any of it would’ve been possible.

When it comes to jealousy, there are two options.

You can stay on the outside looking in, or you can figure out why you feel like you’re on the outside to begin with – and then if needed, act accordingly. By doing so, you put the gift of jealousy to work.

Which will you choose?

Thanks for reading,

Oli