Deconstructing Jealousy: Disturbing Emotions

Jealousy is universal. Our colleague gets a promotion and we think, “They don’t deserve that!” Our friend finds a great partner and we think, “What about me?” From time to time we all have these feelings. Here we look at the different types of jealousy, and how we can overcome them.

Defining Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

Jealousy is one of what Buddhism calls “disturbing emotions and attitudes.” They are defined as states of mind or heart that cause us to lose our peace of mind and incapacitate us so that we lose self-control. If you think about it, when we’re really attached to something or someone, or we’re angry or jealous, we certainly don’t have peace of mind, do we? We lose self-control in a sense because all sorts of crazy urges come up in our minds to do or say certain things that we often come to regret later on. These disturbing emotions and attitudes can cause us to act in ways that are really destructive and hurtful to others, and that are ultimately also self-destructive. In the end, we’re the losers.

Naturally, different cultures define and specify emotions differently, and these emotions include a huge range of different feelings. It’s like cutting a pie into many different-sized portions. For instance, in Tibetan language, which often originates from Indian Buddhist definitions, we only speak of jealousy, whereas in the West we have both jealousy and envy differentiated.

Jealousy: Part of a Bigger Problem

When we analyze the remedies that Buddhism suggests for dealing with jealousy, we see that they’re just addressing a small part of a larger problem. We need to look carefully at what each culture is talking about, because we might have to apply Buddhist methods that might not come under the category of jealousy, to deal with the larger underlying problems.

Buddhism defines jealousy as part of hostility, where we focus on other people’s accomplishments, good qualities, possessions, family and status, with an inability to bear these accomplishments. When we’re jealous, we can’t stand that others have accomplished certain things or possess certain things, with the reason being that we’re actually quite attached to our own situation. So, when we’re jealous, we might focus specifically or in general on other’s good qualities. It might be their intelligence, their good looks, their wealth, their success. It could just be that they had a male child and our family didn’t have one. It’s unbearable for us and the strongest emotional element involved is resentment that the other person has these things. Because we’re attached to our own situation, it’s basically us just feeling sorry for ourselves. This is what Buddhism means when it talks about jealousy; the opposite of jealousy would be to rejoice in the success of the other person.

Envy: A Combination of Jealousy and Covetousness

Obviously, our experiences of jealousy may be broader than this, and we could call the above just one type of jealousy. Thinking of other types, we could also include what we call “envy.” In Buddhism, we define this as another disturbing emotion, covetousness. Covetousness is an inordinate desire, a really excessive desire for something that somebody else possesses.

If you look up “envy” in an English dictionary, it will say that it’s a painful and resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else, conjoined with a desire to enjoy that same advantage. Added to the inability to bear other’s accomplishments, we still want to have them ourselves. Often, though not always, it also entails something nastier. Envy, as a combination of jealousy and covetousness, often leads to competitiveness. Some of you may be familiar with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s presentation of the Maitri space awareness framework, in which he discusses jealousy as the disturbing emotion that drives us to become highly competitive and to work fanatically to outdo others, or even ourselves.

In addition, there may be a further wish for others to be deprived of what they have, as if they don’t deserve it. For example, we might think, “Why should they have that job? I deserve to have it, not them!” Doesn’t it feel that way sometimes? According to Buddhism, this is a different disturbing emotion, and we have to look in a different category to find out how to deal with it.

Clearly, when we experience one of these disturbing emotions we might label “jealousy,” we have to analyze our feelings in order to come up with a strategy to deal with it and overcome it. What are all of the ingredients of our feelings? In other words, “jealousy” is a bit too encompassing. It includes so many things, and we’ll see that it covers even more than we’ve discussed so far.

The Horse Race

Because we’re jealous or envious of what others have accomplished, we push ourselves or those working under us to do more and more. A good example is the extreme competition we find in business and sports. It’s especially strong in sports! Buddhism discusses this aspect of competitiveness using the symbol of a horse to represent jealousy. When a horse races against other horses, it can’t bear that another horse is running faster. The Buddhist view would connect this behavior more with resentment than jealousy, where the horse really resents that the other horse is going faster. Buddhism doesn’t actually speak in terms of a real competition to win. It’s more like, “Why should that horse run faster than me? I’ve got to run faster.” That’s why they race.

Although in Buddhism jealousy is closely related to competitiveness, jealousy doesn’t always lead to competition. For example, are we actually competing with this other woman or man to get the person we want? What might be involved here? With low self-esteem, we could be jealous of others but not even try to compete, with an attitude of, “Well, I couldn’t possibly find somebody who would love me, so why even try? I can’t possibly get a good job, so why even apply?” But, we’re still jealous of those that do have good jobs.

On the other hand, we could be competitive but without necessarily having jealousy behind it. For instance, some people like to compete in sports just to have fun and enjoy it, but they don’t keep score. They’re not competing with anyone. However, more often than not we do associate jealousy and competitiveness together. In Buddhism we find that they put the two together quite differently from the way we usually think about it.

The Importance of Viewing Others Equally

The great Indian master Shantideva provides a presentation where we’re usually jealous of those in a higher position, in competition with our equals, and arrogant toward those of a lower status. The whole discussion of overcoming jealousy is in the context of learning to view everybody equally. The whole issue is that we don’t regard everybody equally. This is probably quite different from how we would think to approach it.

I’m Special

Basically, we need to get down to our concept of “me,” because Buddhism points out that the real problem is that we all have this feeling of “I’m special.” It’s either that I’m better than everyone, or that I’m worse than everyone, or that others think I’m worse than everyone but they’re wrong. The inequality comes here because when we think, “I’m special,” it means that I’m not the same as everybody else, and they’re not the same as me.

We can look at this in terms of our jealousy. We might think that we’re the only person that can do a certain task well or properly, like teaching our friend to drive, and we become jealous when anybody else teaches them. Another example is if we’re in a class and feel that we’re the only ones capable of answering a question, and we get jealous and hurt when someone else does it. This all comes about because we feel that we are special. We should do it, not anyone else. This doesn’t necessarily lead to competitiveness though, does it?

Another example is when we think and feel, “I’m the only one that should get ahead in life. I should be the one who wins, I’m the one that should be rich,” becoming envious if somebody else succeeds. Then we become competitive and have to outdo the other person, even if we’re already moderately successful ourselves.

There’s a big difference here, and we need to analyze it ourselves. When we don’t have something that another person has, then we’re jealous. That’s slightly different than when we have a certain amount but we’re jealous that the other person has more. This case has greed in there as well as competition, and so we would have a different strategy to deal with it. In any case, behind all of it is a strong feeling of “me” and a strong preoccupation with “me” alone. The reality is that we don’t consider others in the same way as we do ourselves. We’re special.

The Remedy is Equanimity

There is one strategy that Buddhism offers for all of this jealousy, competitiveness and arrogance: seeing everybody as equal. There is actually nothing at all special about “me,” because everybody has the same basic abilities. This refers to the fact that we all have the same Buddha-nature, the capacity to develop ourselves to our fullest potential. On top of this, everybody has the same wish to be happy and succeed, and the wish not to be unhappy or fail. Everybody has the same right to be happy, and everybody has the same right not to be unhappy. There’s nothing special about “me” in terms of these things.

Love: May Everyone Be Happy and Have the Causes of Happiness

We connect all of this with love, defined in Buddhism as the wish for everybody equally to be happy, and to equally have the causes of happiness. Love is actually the way to overcome jealousy. When we learn that everybody is equal in terms of this Buddha-nature and start to open up to love, we’re more open to see how we relate to all of these different people, whether they’re more successful than us, or haven’t succeeded at all.

Shantideva teaches that even if someone is much more successful than we are, if we really wish for everybody to be happy, then we would rejoice and be happy that they’re successful. We would also try to help our equals succeed rather than competing with them, for instance by helping all the other students in the class study for an exam, rather than stealing the books from the library for ourselves so they can’t read them. As for those who are less successful than us, we would try to help them succeed rather than gloat and arrogantly feel that we’re better than them.

Automatically Arising and Doctrinally Based Emotions

These Buddhist methods are actually very advanced, and they’re especially difficult to apply. This is because there are two forms of disturbing emotions. There’s the type that automatically arise, that everybody, even dogs, experiences. For example, if a new baby comes into the house, the family dog can get jealous. Then, we have the doctrinally based disturbing emotions, which come from having learnt them from some sort of system. This could be from propaganda or religion or culture, or something in society that teaches us to be jealous. The system teaches a certain way of looking at the world that brings out jealousy, and makes jealousy even stronger.

If we look at what arises automatically, we find that almost all children automatically like to win, and cry when they lose. This automatically arises in almost all cultures. In the West, it’s difficult for us because jealousy and competitiveness are reinforced, strengthened, and even rewarded by many of our Western cultural values. For instance, Western culture teaches capitalism as a naturally best form of a democratic society, which infects our way of thinking, even when we approach personal relationships. Underlying this is the theory of the survival of the fittest, that we never question but just assume is absolutely correct. This sets competition as the basic driving force of life, rather than, for instance, the Buddhist belief that love and affection are the basic driving forces of life.

Difficulties Reinforced in Western Culture

This Western cultural emphasis on the survival of the fittest reinforces the importance of success and winning. This obsession is further reinforced by competitive sports and the glorification of top athletes and the richest people in the world. This isn’t new; the exaltation of the rich and the top athletes (look at the Olympic Games) goes far back in our culture. It pervades every level of society, doesn’t it? We’re obsessed with football, and football players are our heroes. It’s really funny – Buddha isn’t our hero, but a sportsperson is. It’s funny to think that we have a heavyweight-boxing champion of the world, but we don’t have a compassion champion of the world. To have a World Cup of Compassion, now that would actually be interesting!

This whole thinking is even more insidious when we look at our Western system of voting for our leaders, which is also based on jealousy, competition and selling oneself as a candidate by publicizing how much better we are than our rivals. This method is even seen as praiseworthy and something that the whole world should adopt.

It’s interesting to imagine what would happen when you try to transpose these values onto Tibetan society. Tibetan society values humility and really looks down on anybody who says that they’re better than somebody else. Doing so is considered a really bad character trait. Democracy and campaigning for votes is totally alien and doesn’t work in that kind of society. Nobody would ever vote for someone who says, “I’m better than that person.” Instead, you’d probably have to say, “I’m not so qualified, I’m not so good.” That’s really quite different! This underlines just how culturally specific our values are. They’re not universal. We hear the Dalai Lama describe himself as a simple monk and that he doesn’t know anything. It’s the Dalai Lama saying that!

Clearly, when jealousy, competition, and orientation toward success has been so strongly pushed by the propaganda of our culture going back to the ancient Greeks and beyond, it’s difficult to instantly go to the Buddhist methods of rejoicing in the victories of others. In the Buddhist mind training methods, the practice is to give the victory to others and totally accept defeat on ourselves. That’s a really difficult pill for us Westerners to swallow!

Re-Evaluating Cultural Values

As Westerners, a good way to start is by re-evaluating the validity of our cultural values, and the doctrinally based forms of jealousy and competition that we have. If we analyze deeply, we can see how it infects our personal relationships and how we deal with others. With competition, we have to succeed; therefore, in personal relations, we have to get the most beautiful prince or princess on the white horse. Then everyone else will admire us, won’t they? Think about it, how many of our parents would be really happy if we married someone who is really rich. If we married someone who didn’t have any money at all, but was a really nice person, perhaps they wouldn’t be so happy. I think for many of us in the West, we can often be quite jealous when someone else gets a rich partner, and our parents can be quite jealous of other families whose children got a rich partner.

So, first of all it’s a good idea to reevaluate our cultural values, to see if they are really things we want to accept, or if it’s just very old propaganda.

An example to help us see the relativity of our culturally based jealousy and competition is an Indian market or bazaar. In India and the Middle East, and of course historically in the West, you find these markets where there is row after row of stalls selling the same stuff, from clothes to jewelry to vegetables and so on. They all sit next to each other and drink tea and chat all day long. The frame of mind behind this is that it’s up to karma whether they do well or not. If you do well, it’s your karma. If you don’t, it’s your karma too.

They’re not thinking, “How can I outdo the others?” It’s a culturally based thing. There’s actually a German law that you can’t put a shop right next to another one that sells exactly the same thing. You can sue the landlord for renting the other space to the same type of store. This is very culturally relative. We might think the way we do things is the way the whole world does things, or how it should do things. We have to get over this.

Jealousy as Intolerance of Rivalry or Unfaithfulness

All of us experience some sort of jealousy at work and with friends and so on. But in the West, we talk about a slightly different form of jealousy, which gives us more suffering. If you look up “jealousy” in the dictionary, it says it’s “intolerance of rivalry or of unfaithfulness.” For example, we feel jealous if our partners flirt or spend a lot of time with others. There’s intolerance as if the other person is being unfaithful just wanting to be with someone else. There’s a rival.

Another example we already mentioned was with the dog when a new baby arrives in the house. The baby is a rival for the attention of the master. The master is going to throw the bones to the baby and not the dog. Like jealousy as defined in Buddhism, this has an element of resentment, with the addition of a strong sense of insecurity and mistrust.


How to deal with insecurity is an entirely different discussion in Buddhism. If we’re insecure, then when a partner or friend is with someone else, we get jealous. We’re insecure about ourselves and our self-worth, and of their love for us. There’s also a distrust of our partner and a fear that this “me” is going to be abandoned.

Again, to deal with this kind of jealousy, we need to become aware of the equality of everyone, but from a slightly different viewpoint. Actually, this is a bit easier for us Westerners to deal with because it’s not as culturally reinforced as some other aspects. It’s an automatically arising thing and so we don’t need to deal with the cultural baggage on top of it. Nobody needs to teach us to be insecure, although I’m sure some people will say that our childhood has some effect. For example, a baby that is constantly carried on its mother’s side or back, as is usually done in Asia, feels far more secure than a baby that is just left in a crib by itself. Imagine what it’s like to be a baby in a stroller as the mother is crossing the street. You see all these big noisy cars going by, but you don’t see your mother. How is the baby supposed to feel secure? In some ways, natural insecurity is reinforced culturally, but that’s a whole different discussion.

In terms of insecurity, we need to think about the equality of everyone in terms of a certain aspect of our Buddha-nature. This factor is that the heart has the capacity to love everybody. This can help us a lot with jealousy because we see that it’s perfectly natural for a friend or partner to have the capacity to love and be very friendly toward many people, not just one person. And please don’t take this to be a sanctioning of promiscuity. Instead of thinking that “I” am the special exclusive one that should have the most important place in our partner’s or friend’s heart, we open the situation up. In many ways we need to develop compassion when we feel like this, because we don’t understand the Buddha-nature capacity to be friendly and warm to everyone.

Not Only One

I first learned this interesting insight from astrology. We’re always looking for the special one, and with astrology we might match up the planets and find which planets make a good aspect to our Venus. But if you think about it, there must be millions and millions of people whose Venus makes a good aspect to our Venus. What’s so special about any particular one? Why is there only one prince or princess out there that could love me?

It’s really important to learn to have our hearts open to everyone. If our partner isn’t like that, then we should have compassion for them. It’s something they need to learn. When we open up our hearts, that one person we’re so jealous of being with someone else will become much smaller in our lives. They’re not the only one in the world that we can love. With an open heart we can have an amazing amount of love for our friends, for our partners, for our pets, for our parents. We can love our country, our people, nature, our God, our hobby, our job. The list goes on.

We can deal with all of these objects of our love, because our heart is actually big enough for them all. We can express our love – and this is an important point – in an appropriate way suited for each person or thing we love. Of course. we don’t express our love to our dog in the same way as we express it to our husband or wife, or to our parents. You never know, but usually we don’t have sexual relations with all of them. Actually, if our sexual partner is unfaithful, or even if they’re not having sex with other people but are spending all their time out of the house with other friends, it’s never a helpful emotional response to feel jealous or possessive. It doesn’t help the situation.

When we respond with jealousy and possessiveness, it is in part culturally influenced. If you think of a traditional Japanese wife and a traditional Western wife, faced with the situation that the husband goes out a lot with the other men from the office, they would experience it quite differently emotionally. The culture is different, so again we should look at how much of the response is cultural, and how much is a natural automatic response. This can be really important in the marriages of mixed cultures. We often tend to downplay the cultural influences in our emotions. This is also relevant when there’s a couple made up of partners from different generations, because they could have different values too.

Opening Our Hearts

If we think that love and close friendship can only be with one person exclusively, and then if that person has another friend then there’s no room for me, that’s jealousy. We should see that this is all based on a solid “me” who is special. But what would a Buddha be like, when they love all beings equally?

When a Buddha is with one person, they are one hundred percent concentrated on that person. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an excellent example of equal love for everybody, and he is with so many different people every year, and even every day. Everyone who meets him expresses this feeling that when they are with him, he is absolutely focused on them, and not in one of those intense creepy staring ways. His heart is just totally, one hundred percent with you. Even if he looks around in the audience, there is somehow this wow feeling. It almost makes you feel special, but not in a weird, egocentric way. It’s simply because he is one hundred percent focused with his heart on each person that he meets. It’s not diluted just because there are many, many people. You feel almost zapped with some energy of love when His Holiness even looks at you. That’s what we should be aiming for!

This is an incredibly important point. His Holiness always emphasizes that the way to get over things like jealousy, resentment and so on, is really through compassion and opening up our hearts.

But, it’s still difficult for most of us at our stage to open up our hearts even to just one person, when we’re insecure that they’re going to hurt us. So, we hardly open our hearts up at all. How do we go from this to opening up to all beings in the universe?  If we slowly open up and realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of, that we can love more than one person, then the pain that one certain person doesn’t love me back won’t be so bad. After all, not everyone loved Buddha Shakyamuni, so what do we expect, that everybody’s going to love us?

I find this example of Buddha Shakyamuni very helpful. We have so many stories about Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who really hated him. Devadatta was always jealous of Buddha and tried all sorts of ways to harm him. It’s good to think about this. When someone criticizes us or doesn’t like us, what can we expect? Look at the modern-day example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. Imagine having a whole nation, a whole government, and tons of propaganda spread all over the world, spreading hate for us. It’s no big deal if one person doesn’t like me, or if one person goes off with someone else. When you see the relativity of it, it’s not the end of the world. Think of the English expression, “Not the only fish in the ocean.”

No Fear

There is sometimes the idea that if we open our hearts to many people then our personal relationships will be less fulfilling. But there’s nothing to fear. We will just be less clingy, and less dependent on any one relationship to be all-satisfying. We might spend less time with each individual, but each one will be a full involvement.

We’ll also come to realize that it’s the same with our friend’s love for us. There’s no reason to think that if they have other friends it means that their love toward us is somehow diluted. Why shouldn’t people have a lot of friends? It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be less for us, as though love is like food in a refrigerator. Love isn’t like that at all.

Dispelling the Myth

Again, we come to a cultural thing, where we have this myth that one person is going to be the special, perfect match for us, our other half who will complement us in every way, who we can share every aspect of our lives with. It’s an unrealistic myth. It comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who said that we were originally all wholes but at some point, everyone was cut in half. This makes the objective in life to find our other half, who will be a perfect match and will make us whole again. It seems to be this myth that lies behind the entire Western history of romanticism. Unfortunately, just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, it’s a myth. Here we have Prince Charming on the white horse, which is the Western concept of romanticism, but it’s not the same in other cultures.

We project the expectation that this other person is going to be our other half. Then, when they don’t merge with us, spend all their time with us, or share all their secrets with us, we get jealous. We resent it and get angry. If they share something tiny from their lives with someone else, we get very jealous. But when we think about it, it’s really quite unreasonable to expect that we’re going to be able to share every aspect of our lives with just one person. A more realistic thing would be to find a group that might share our certain interest, for instance, in sports. Why should we expect our wife to share our interest in football?

It’s more interesting when we don’t share every single aspect with just one person. There are so many different interests that people have, and it’s nice to share these with different people. In that way we learn certain things. If we don’t have this mythical expectation of an all-fulfilling relationship, then it lowers our susceptibility to jealousy.

Deconstructing Jealousy

We’ve looked at some ways for us to start deconstructing our emotional problems. When we have a disturbing emotion, we can start to analyze it, instead of making it this big solid thing – jealousy! If we make it that, it becomes this heavy solid thing with lines around it. When we start to analyze, we see that jealousy is made up of different parts, like resentment, greed, unreasonable expectations. There’s stuff from our culture, there’s competition, a bit of low self-esteem, insecurity. We can deconstruct these components, and it’s no longer so heavy, it’s not some big monster. Then we can start to apply different strategies for dealing with the different aspects that are involved.

The Strong Medicine of Opening the Heart

In Buddhism, the understanding of voidness (emptiness) and of how “I” and “you” exist is considered the strongest medicine one can apply. Another strong medicine, that His Holiness always emphasizes, is to open up the heart. This is where we see that we have the capacity to love all beings. This isn’t talking about having sex with everyone. We mean a warm, friendly, open, fulfilling relationship with many people. Then, if one relationship doesn’t work out, then it’s fine. We can feel sad for the other person in that they don’t realize that the heart can be opened to many. An hour with somebody in which we’re totally there with our whole hearts is much more fulfilling than a whole life spent with someone with our hearts totally closed, isn’t it?


How can we help a jealous person?

It depends on whether they’re jealousy is aimed at us, like if we’re not giving them enough time, or if it’s aimed at someone else. The general remedy for somebody who’s jealous of us, for example, feeling upset that we never spend enough time with them but spend a lot of time with others, is that same thing of having our heart fully engaged when we’re with them. We can explain, “I have a lot of other stuff I’m doing, but I can give you a certain amount of time.” This is a way of saying no and setting certain limits without them feeling as if they’re being abandoned. Of course, if you’re married to someone, then it’s different. You should try to have breakfast or something together every day. It might not be much but at least we can give our spouse a certain period of time.

My sister is constantly asking me to call her all the time, and I don’t. I call her every Saturday at a certain time, and that she can count on. Then, we’ll talk for an hour, and I’m fully with her for that hour. Even so, during the week she’ll still always ask me to call, and I simply tell her that I’ll speak with her on Saturday. That way she doesn’t feel abandoned or rejected. I find this the best way to deal with it. Give a person a certain period that they can count on and be dependable. During the period you’re with them, don’t look at your watch all the time, wondering when you can go because you’re so busy. Instead, be with them one hundred percent, with your heart fully there. This helps very much. The key words are “this is our special time” – that usually gets them.

In a situation where there’s competition, you don’t really want to have special time with that person, especially if I’ve achieved something or been awarded something, and they’re jealous of it. How do I deal with this?

It’s important here to deconstruct the identification of “I” with this one thing. The award is just one tiny aspect. Maybe you did get an award for sports or academia or art, but you can always point out that there are much better athletes, scholars or artists than you. There are millions of qualities and someone is always going to be better in most of them than me. Also, make it known that it’s not the only thing about you, “You know me. There are many other things about me besides this one thing I won an award for.”

But what if there are snide comments?

Snide comments usually come when there is a feeling of low self-worth. By pointing out areas in which they’re better than us, it reinforces their self-worth. They only put us down because they feel attacked and that they’re worth nothing. You might want to point out the price you had to pay to win the award. Let’s say you had to put in an unbelievable amount of training to win a sport event, or an incredible amount of study, or spend a lot of time at work, and you wish you would have had the time to do what they do. It’s not that you should brag about it, “Oh, I put in all of this work, and you didn’t,” but make it more realistic, “Look, it wasn’t that great. I sacrificed a lot. It wasn’t that great to win.” You make it relative, bringing it down from this high level where everything is so wonderful. Also, if you admire something in them that you don’t have, it puts them on a more equal basis with you.

It’s also important not to make yourself into a victim. I’ll provide myself as an example. In my life, I’ve accomplished a lot in terms of travel, studies, and the type of work that I’ve done. Often old childhood and college friends will say to me that they wish they could have done what I did and achieved what I have. They’ll say that all they did was form a successful business and raise a family, stuff like that. I’ll say to them, “Look at the price that I paid: I never married, I never had a family,” and they’ll say, “Well, that’s not so important.” I’ll always say, “Yes, that is important in life also. If you put all your energy into one thing, then you aren’t able to put it into something else. I admire that you’ve had your life experiences. This way you can share with me what you’ve learned, and I can share with you what I’ve learned.”

Then we’re on an equal basis, there’s no “poor me” just because I never got married. I’m perfectly happy with my life. But, by putting us both on an equal level, by the fact that we’ve both achieved something, then jealousy and envy is totally diminished. The key is to have and show respect for them. In no way am I a better person because of what I’ve done. We need to help the other person see their own qualities.

That’s also a healthy aspect of jealousy. It makes you work for something or question the way you did things before.

I suppose it could work with some people to say that there’s a healthy aspect of jealousy that causes a person to work harder, a competition type of thing. I won’t deny that this could work with some people. But we need to be careful here because, well, “we’re playing with fire.” It could easily lead into a heavy competition trip, where we’re trying to outdo others or ourselves. We could be driven to do better and better and to reach our best. This is a bit dangerous because it very strongly reinforces the sense of “me.” “I have to do better.” Why? Because of “me.”

In Buddhism, we have this aim to reach enlightenment, the highest state of evolution possible. The motivation, however, is never because we want to be the best that we can be. We’re driven to improve so that we can better help others, not out of jealousy, competing with ourselves. This is much healthier and leads to less disturbing emotions. When we want to do better and better for ourselves, it increases disturbing emotions. We punish and drive ourselves and don’t know when to take a rest. Certainly, there’s a great deal of wisdom in the whole Mahayana path. 

Alternatively, a competitive and jealous motivation is a very heavy emotional trip. The sense of “I’m not good enough, I should have done better” is tied up with guilt. To reach enlightenment to help others is not a race. It’s helpful to have structural ways of deconstructing our emotions so we can see what is really involved. Once we’ve done that, we shouldn’t lock ourselves into categories but actually deal with our lives.

I can share an example of a good friend of mine who is a psychiatrist in Philadelphia. She works with some of the most violent people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, living in the most depressing parts of the city. This is her specialty and she’s the most successful of anybody in being able to handle these people, and they absolutely love her and can’t wait to speak with her. These are the people who are already homeless and have several children by the age of eighteen, some of them have drug and prostitution problems, and some are HIV positive. No one else is able to reach these people but her.

Naturally her colleagues are always asking for her secret, of how she can be so successful at communicating with these young people. First of all, she says, when she is with them, she is one hundred percent with them, and she doesn’t make boundaries on time. If you were to just say, “Ok, your time is up, please leave,” you never know if one of them will pull a gun and shoot you, because they do get really violent. So, the first rule is to really be with the person. One of their big problems is that nobody ever had time for them.

Then, she says, she doesn’t fix them into categories. She says that the whole system of psychiatry is based on filling out forms for the insurance company, because you have to fill in a diagnosis. This person is schizophrenic; and that person is something else. The categories learned in school can be helpful not just for insurance purposes but as helpful guidelines of how to deal with different ailments. However, when you start to think of people as categories, it isn’t effective. You have to forget all of that and just deal with the person, be open to them, and look at their individual situation.

It’s the same in dealing with our own emotional problems. We have a general analysis or strategy, but then we deal with ourselves as just human beings. We are not an off-the-shelf category but human beings. It’s like if we’re alcoholics, it’s important to identify “I’m an alcoholic,” but what often happens is that we become so locked into the identity of an alcoholic that we get addicted to help groups and so on. We get terrified to leave the groups and get on with our lives. Although at the start it’s helpful to share therapeutically with others, it’s also crucial for people to realize that we’re human beings and we have many aspects, and to just get on with life. We shouldn’t get stuck in a category but live our lives.


If we want to overcome our disturbing emotions, like jealousy, we see that it’s really important to first analyze our feelings. There are various types of jealousy and of course, each will require a different method to counteract it.

When we look a little bit deeper, we come to realize that jealousy is actually just a symptom of a much larger problem. It’s only because we’re fundamentally confused about how we and others exist that we can possibly become jealous. Because of this confusion, we become really attached to our own situation, thinking that we’re always the loser and others are always the winners, or that friends should always have time for us and not spend time with others.

When we open our hearts and minds, seeing how “I” and “you” actually exist, we can start to create a life full of fulfilling relationships with a variety of people, and cause any jealous feelings we have to diminish.