How (And Why) I Trained My Brain Not To Feel Jealousy

Photo: weheartit
How (And Why) I Trained My Brain Not To Feel Jealousy
Love, Self

Exercising control over emotions doesn’t deny they exist or betray them.

There is a groundswelling discussion about the desirability and pragmatism of open relationships. A closely related subject is: Can the brain overcome jealousy? It can. But a more important question: Should we want it to? Well, that depends.

Raw emotions emerge from the depths of our reptilian brains, and our neocortex acts as CEO regulating their output. There are two schools of thought: one is that you can't/shouldn't control your emotions, and the other is that people should exercise emotional intelligence. I'm in the latter.

People control and train their emotions everyday. Whether by repression, or by employing cognitive shifts, people do this because if they didn't they would be unsociable. In this way, society codifies our behavior.


Exercising control over emotions doesn't deny they exist or betray them. If you met someone and they introduced themselves as a very "hateful" person, you'd hopefully judge it as socially unacceptable. Yet, if someone introduced themselves as a very "jealous" person, you might find it endearing and acceptable. Why?

First, let's distinguish: Jealousy is the fear you might lose something you love. Envy is resentment for wanting something you don't have.

Jealousy can be viewed as a romantic sign someone cares. This is true. It can feel good and boost our ego when our partner is a little jealous of us. No shame in that. But jealousy is a sour seed when allowed to sow. It's important not to view your partner as a possession, but as an autonomous individual whose happiness you care about.

If you don't want your partner to be happy, then you might want to reevaluate why you are in a relationship. People who struggle with jealousy or with an overbearing partner know how corrosive jealousy is to trust and happiness.


Modern neuroscience teaches us, validating millennia of Buddhist cognitive theory, that the traditional notion of the self doesn't exist; it's an illusion. You are literally the story you tell yourself. You do not find yourself; you create yourself. So it is a conceit to say, "I know myself."

Because literally you are what you think  you are conscious experience. You are the story you tell yourself.

If you tell yourself repeatedly you are a jealous person, you become one! If you tell yourself repeatedly you are not a jealous person, or that you don't want to be, you will become that instead.

Identity is not an act of finding yourself; it's an act of creating yourself. While you might be predisposed to certain behavior, ultimately, identity is not some constant, unchanging, absolute thing. Is it fluid, adaptable, and can be shaped.

So why did I want to rewire my jealousy? Well the simplest answer is because I want to operate on a mental program that maximizes my happiness and wellbeing, and the happiness and wellbeing of people I care about. Jealousy is an unpleasant emotion to feel, and I only want to feel it out of necessity to signify potential threats. Otherwise, I do not believe people are genetically monogamous.


So why would I want to force my partner into a strict monogamous Procrustean Bed? As Havelock Ellis wisely phrased, "Jealousy is the dragon that slays love in the name of keeping it alive."

Helen Fisher tells us to keep romance alive by sharing novel experiences with your partner. Louann Brizendine M.D., author of New York Times bestseller The Female Brain, tells us the fear of losing a loved one reignites romantic passion. In my experience, the novelty of dalliances coupled with positive emotional stressors is the best recipe I have found to keep the flame of love alive.

It's important to approach love with a scientific perspective. Shedding myths and fantasies about what love is and isn't doesn't take away the magic  it enhances it.

This is why we should not over conflate jealousy with passion in our minds, just like we should not inseparably conflate hate with passion in our minds; lest we want to program ourselves for crimes of passion. Instead we should celebrate forms of passion like compassion, compersion, and romance.


People are sometimes overly-sentimental about parts of their identity. The emotions we naturally feel are authentic, so what does that tell us? Repressing your emotions is inauthentic. But learning to control your emotions without repressing them  by employing cognitive shifts for consciously desired outcomes is not inauthentic.

Lying and not being honest is inauthentic. I rarely feel jealousy but there are times I may fear losing someone I care about. That's when I take time to process my fears and insecurities, reflect, then find opportunities to talk aiming to resolve tension and conflict.

Our brain's emotional apparatus is like a muscle. Just like athletes are ill advised to abuse painkillers to push through injuries, you do not want to numb yourself to emotional stress you feel. If you are not treated well, or if you don't treat your partner well, it will be impossible to overcome jealousy and resolve tension in a healthy or stable manner.

Overcoming jealousy does not mean becoming indifferent or apathetic. In this pursuit, striving to tame the emotion in your brain forces you to focus on things that work and don't work in a relationship. That's why you want to let yourself experience emotions as they pass through you, so you can perceive them, ask yourself what they tell you, then ask yourself how you want to behave.


Maturing jealousy in your brain requires a sense of security. You wouldn't tell the average person to run a triathlon before they were accustomed to appropriate physical stress because they could hurt themselves. In the same vein, you wouldn't tell two emotionally fragile partners to carelessly voyage into an open relationship (with stability in mind) and recklessly abandon sensitivity.

Baby steps are important. As you build a tolerance over time, you should not stop being aware or blind yourself to immediate stressors. The purpose of controlling negative emotions is to mitigate them from swelling and misfiring, not to ignore them.

Imagine someone who starts with a 20-pound weight, then months later lifts a 40-pound weight. No matter how strong someone gets, they will still feel the 20 pound weight as they lift. But it becomes less overburdening. In fact, it becomes light work and even comfortable.

You can train yourself to process a pang of jealousy, internalize it, understand the signal and what it is making you aware of, then choose how you want it to affect your behavior. Give it a try. It can be a little scary at first, but it's a powerful and liberating feeling.

These days I find these pangs desirably invigorating; it always ignites a spark and keeps the flame burning.

It's important to be capable of feeling jealousy because it's an invaluable communicator for when something might be wrong. In this way, feeling jealousy should be a prompt for compassionate and nurturing discussion aimed at emotional reassurance and conflict resolution.


The first time a lover in an open relationship told me they slept with someone else, they used graphic detail. I felt my body surge with adrenaline and endorphins. It reminded me how I felt before skydiving. My body told me, "Danger! You are about to jump out of a plane!" Because of this, I recognized my body saying, "Danger! You might lose your girl!"

In that moment, I reminded myself my partner had not betrayed me; she had done nothing wrong. So instead of an angry outburst, I breathed deeply to cool myself and volunteered a passionate hug.

My emotion was telling me I didn't want to lose her, so I chose to lovingly embrace her. I found I had disarmed the emotion, felt great, and was as in love as ever.


Explore YourTango