Spending Time with the Green-eyed Monster

(A.K.A. Jealousy and Envy)

In January, my class with the VCS focused on jealousy and envy. We explored the differences between the two, and the messages each brings (using the work of Karla McLaren). We explored the concepts in the context of a real life scenario – which lead to some interesting discussion and ideas! We ended the class with a boundary exercise designed to 1) ground students when the strong emotions come on, and 2) create a boundary (felt-sense of safety) in order to work through the emotion.

Jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably. While they do have similar messages, they are actually different emotional states. After exploring a few different resources, including the dictionary, I found the following statement helpful in determining the difference between the two:

“You can feel envy about something you don’t have but want, but you feel jealousy over something you already have and are afraid of losing” (McLaren, 2010).

Some important points to remember here:

  • there are no good vs. bad emotions
  • all our emotions arise to give us powerful messages
  • we can learn to tune in, and listen to those messages
  • we can learn to notice the felt-sense of the emotion
  • when we can be with our emotions (and not fear them) we tend to feel more balanced

Both jealousy and envy include anger and fear, and both can leave us feeling inadequate. The message in them often pertains to our intuition (we are sensing that something isn’t right), and self-protection (we are not feeling safe, and have an intrinsic desire to return to state of safety). Now, with strong emotions arising, we typically have three courses of action:

  1. Suppress it: When we do not feel comfortable with our emotions, we tend to stuff them and put on a happy face. It doesn’t feel right though, and we know we are not being true to ourselves. And to make matters worse, when we suppress our emotions, they tend to find their way out in unhealthy ways.
  2. Express it: Sounds good, right? Not really – when we express our emotions in their mood state, we tend to say hurtful things. Things that later make us feel shameful for saying, and really only have a negative impact on our relationships.
  3. Understand why the jealousy or envy came up, and work through the emotions that came flooding forward. While this may seem like the hardest option, it is also the one that brings with it greater self-awareness and an opportunity for regulation.

Practice 4: Grounding with a Boundary for Jealousy

The technique we used for regulation was a boundary exercise from Karla McLaren. While I cannot provide the entire write-up here, I’d love to share some point-form prompts, to help you stay on track with your practice.

  • Allow yourself to settle into your chair, noticing the warmth of your breath in, and out. Notice solid floor beneath you, imagine the warmth of  your breath moving down, right into the ground. Take a moment to notice what’s going on in your body; just be curious about what you are sensing, and without trying to change it. If you notice any tension or emotional upset, notice where in your body you feel it. Notice what it’s about for a moment, then imagine directing it downward into the earth. Letting your breath envelop it, and see if the tension eases up a little
  • Take a moment to image a protective boundary around you. What colour would it be
  • Notice that connection between your feet and the ground. What sensations are arising in your body? How does it feel to set a boundary for self?
  • Jealousy contains anger. It feels fiery, flaring and intense or simmering and steaming.  If we move it into the boundary – outside yourself so you can make sense of the message it is giving you – then you can reclaim your personal space and connect with a sense of calm.
  • Visualizing the boundary helps us make sense of the anger that accompanies jealousy, so that we can make sense of what it is really telling us
  • Emotions want us to take action: but if you try to take action before you restore your boundary, you will likely over-compensate (explode) or under-compensate (and collapse and suppress)
  • Noticing your breath in, the warmth of your breath as you inhale and slowly exhale
  • When you think of feeling jealousy, what is the message in the emotion? What has been betrayed? Examine your own sense of worthiness and security – what needs to be healed, secured? The goal is to return to a sense of feeling emotionally resourced, rather than powerless.
  • Sensing into that connection between your feet and the ground. Just know you can call upon the visualization of your boundary anytime, to slow down and settle strong emotions, and return to balance.

All of our emotions bring with them important messages. If we tune in and listen, we can hear that message and respond appropriately. I hope that is what students are able to take away from these classes – the ability to notice their emotions, tune in for the message, settle strong emotional upset in healthy ways, and learn to respond to those emotions, and thus to others, in healthy ways

References:

McLaren, K (2010). The Language of Emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you.

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Rethinking Worry

My class at the VCS in December focused on worry and anxiety. Starting with a description and discussion of the differences between these, the focus was on strategies to be with emotions differently (working from a felt-sense, and building both grounding and emotion-regulation skills).

So what does worry, anxiety, fear, and panic have in common? Each state amps up our nervous system: awakening our senses and moving us into readiness for action – for our survival. Each state has a helpful side to it as well as a problematic side.worry_bird

Worry can encourage us to take action to change a situation. For example, a few years back I was worried that I wasn’t confident driving a car with standard transmission (which was all I had to drive at the time). I took a few extra driving lessons to gain experience and build confidence. The problematic side of worry however, shifts our thinking into a negative and catastrophic cycle. Focusing on themes that exacerbate a sense of helplessness, incongruence, and unpredictability can spiral us into anxiety. Worrying at this end of the continuum tends of focus on imagined future problems, which, by their very nature exceed our present-moment problem-solving abilities. In my example, had I focused on stalling the car while at an intersection, or rolling back down a hill, my worries would have shifted into anxiety and I might have found excuses to just not drive the car!

The trouble with worrying is that it appears as though it should be helpful. After all, we are in a sense working through a problem from many different angels! As practical as that sounds, worrying does not help us find solutions to our problems, mainly because the focus of worry tends to center on problems that can not be solved with present-moment resources.

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”
– Mark Twain

The anxiety reaction serves us well if we are presented with real-life danger and need to respond rapidly and effectively to the situation. It activates our body and our mind, putting us on high alert and causing us to scan for possible danger. Anxiety is always an attempt to stay safe – our bodies built-in survival mechanism. Anxiety becomes problematic when there is no real danger and the anxiety response goes off anyway. It becomes a problem when the intense felt-sense of anxiety and the cognitions of anxiety get in the way of our daily activities. The thoughts associated with anxiety most often focus on the future, which can lead to too many unresolved “what ifs”. These are problematic by nature because we can not foresee the future, and they have a tendency to lead us towards the negative. As we move into anxiety, subtle changes start to take place in the body as the nervous system moves into activation. The anxiety response serves us well if we are faced with real danger (flight/fight/freeze response). It is less helpful when the danger is imagined and we are trying to evaluate a future course of action: forecasting the worst-case scenario just leaves us feeling apprehensive and fearful.

Practice 1: Grounding
Learning a new way to be with emotions can ben challenging. And just reading about it, or talking about it, doesn’t really help us learn how to do it. We have to actually learn to connect with the felt sense of emotion, and develop ways to settle the discomfort or fear that can arise when we do that. To do this, I used a guided mindfulness meditation for grounding that worked with deepening the breath.

Practice 2: Noticing the Felt-Sense of Emotion
Instead of running from worry, try focusing your attention on the way worry impacts you (for example, when you notice yourself worrying, what triggered it, how do your thoughts change, what sensations do you experience in your body, what is your typical response pattern for coping?). Once you have tuned in, use the grounding technique, and then prepare yourself to deal with the situation. Sometimes we need to pause and tune in so that we can respond to the situation with conscious intention. 

Practice 3: Linguistics Play a Role
The words we use play a strong role in how we perceive our self, others, and the world around us. Our words have the power to impact our quality of life – some words can be destructive, and other words can be empowering. Over the next few days, tune in to the words you use. Do you use a lot of “I can’t”, or should, could, always, never, or other words that focus on pain, scarcity, or blame? If you catch yourself using them, try swapping them out for statements that are more empowering. For example:

  • I can’t = I’m currently struggling with
  • It’s a problem = It’s an opportunity
  • I’m not getting it = I am learning and growing
  • What am I going to do? = I will be able to handle this
  • It’s terrible! = I can move on from this

References:
McLaren, K (2010). The Language of Emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you.
Miller, K (2012). Mind-Body Attunement Therapy: Clinical Strategies