Home Beauty ‘She’s just jealous of you’ is not a compliment, so why have women been taught to believe it is?

‘She’s just jealous of you’ is not a compliment, so why have women been taught to believe it is?

‘She’s just jealous of you’ is not a compliment, so why have women been taught to believe it is?


“She’s just jealous of you.”

As children, we’re often fed this line whenever we complain of mistreatment by another child, usually a girl. It’s not you, it’s her: “She can’t control that green-eyed monster within her that wants to bring you down.”

I don’t remember thinking about the truth of this excuse much when I was young; I was happy to take this leap of logic. That girl who mocked me on the playground probably was jealous of me! While this assessment was never interrogated for accuracy, it did provide an easy emotional Band-Aid.

In our culture, we conflate jealousy and envy, even though there’s a critical difference between the two words. Jealousy is not between two people. It requires a third. This might show up as someone in pursuit of the same date to the prom, or a sibling who gets more time and attention from a parent, or a co-worker who has a better relationship with the boss.

Jealousy is about fear and threat of loss, and there’s typically a reasonable target. It’s a word that gets a lot of use – jealousy feels natural and understandable, even respectable. Sometimes we throw it at each other as a loose, passive-aggressive compliment to disguise our own dismay: “Your husband bought you earrings for your birthday instead of a coffee maker? I’m so jealous! You went to Hawaii? I’m so jealous! Your kids happily read books without being coerced? I’m so jealous.”

These are actually examples of being envious, but jealous just sounds better. It’s also intimate and one-to-one: Someone has something, or is doing something, that you would like for yourself. Maybe a friend announces her engagement while you’ve struck out on yet another blind date, or is having a baby after you’ve experienced a series of miscarriages. Maybe someone else got the job you thought was yours, or is succeeding in a way that minimises your own accomplishments. Your envy in those situations is painful. And as we learned from fairy tales like “Snow White” – the ultimate, insidious tale of intergenerational envy – envy is so powerful and bad, it might motivate someone to have you killed so they can eat your heart.

While we’re generally accepting of jealousy in relationships – love will make you do crazy things! –we can barely tolerate the wash of shame that comes from envy. “I’m so envious” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. It sounds malevolent.

Brené Brown explains in her book Atlas of the Heart that envy is typically armed with hostility and deprecation: “I want that, and I don’t want you to have it. I also want you to be pulled down and put down.” This might sound extreme, but I believe it’s accurate—the way we apprehend envy currently does not make it palatable or acceptable.

As Brené contemplates (italics her own), “I wonder if, unconsciously, we don’t use the term because it’s one of the ‘seven deadly sins,’ and two of the ten commandments are warnings against envy. Is it in our upbringing and our culture to feel shame about feeling envy?


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