Jealousy: Neither a Right nor a Wrong

From the Bible declaring “I am a jealous God” to Nick Jonas crooning “It’s my right to be hellish. I still get jealous,” our society has this romanticized concept of jealousy as being a necessary part of true love.

Once, I even declined to date someone because I couldn’t imagine feeling jealous if they hung out with another girl; if I couldn’t feel jealous, I didn’t think it was love.

A decade later, I’m little by little unlearning that ridiculous message. I don’t think jealousy is necessary for love or that it indicates a healthy relationship. (It certainly doesn’t work very well in my type of relationship).

It’s rather tempting to recategorize jealousy as a genuinely negative emotion and try to eradicate it from my life, feeling shame in the process for every time that I feel jealous. Indeed, it would be all too easy to adopt such a mindset between the evidence of jealousy’s destructive role in domestic violence and the “you should never be jealous” attitude that permeates the poly world.

But that’s not how I operate. I’m committed to the idea that nothing we feel, in and of itself, is ever bad. Thus, I want to get an idea of what jealousy might look like as a neutral emotion.

In The Ethical Slut, jealousy is portrayed as a conglomerate emotion rather than a pure emotion. Jealousy it the name we give to feeling a mixture of anger and fear or fear and betrayal or insecurity and anger…the combinations can vary, but you get the idea.

For some, that means that jealousy isn’t an emotion at all. However, I’m not one to dismiss “secondary” or composite emotions since they are, after all, composed of primary emotions.

However, I do appreciate that perspective because it reminds me to take a look at what might be underlying the initial name. Is there jealousy because of betrayal? Or perhaps it’s related to a fear of abandonment…a fear of not having enough love in the end.

A single word actually encompasses a wide range of possible motivations and meanings. There’s a really awesome PDF called “Making Peace with Jealousy” on practicalpolyamory.com that outlines at least four different types of jealousy, from possessive jealousy (Nick Jonas) to fear of being left out. I highly recommend it as reading material for nuances on the emotional and story content of jealousy. Note: the link above will download the pdf rather than take you to the site.

But I digress.

To a degree I have found it helpful to consider jealousy from the perspective of it being composite and able to be be analyzed as separate components. However, I feel there is more to explore beyond just “what am I feeling?”

Recently, in reading Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch for an upcoming class, I came across this quote: “Jealousy is a form of emotional fusion.”

I adore this concept as an additional layer of knowing and analyzing jealousy. It frames jealousy as a developmental task.

Since none of us start out differentiated, we are all struggling with fusion to some extent. Viewing jealousy as evidence of areas where further growth towards differentiation is needed in the relationship reframes jealousy as a potentially useful, not to mention normal, part of relationships.

However, on some levels, it still feels shaming, with this sense that if you’re well-differentiated, you should never feel jealous.

Certainly I don’t want to walk through life like Nick Jonas thinking I have a right to be an asshole because of my jealousy, but neither do I want to walk through life seeing every twinge I ever experience as an indication of a flaw within myself.

However, if I take that thought and expand upon it, framing jealousy as an emotional response stemming from the tension of connection and separation, then add a dash of existentialism by also assuming that such tension can never be fully escaped/resolved and must, instead, be tolerated—then I get a concept of jealousy that feels more rounded to me.

In fact, jealousy then becomes not just a symptom of a need for personal growth but the catalyst itself for personal growth. It is a relational existential crisis in much the same way that anxiety about mortality is a personal existential crisis.

With crisis comes possibility for transformation—transcendence really. Existential crises are the things that catapult us into the next phase of growth…if we can embrace them constructively rather than merely reacting to them (or conversely resisting them, which is also a form of reaction).

Perhaps the solution to the jealousy issue is not to either adopt it as a means of controlling another’s actions or to shun it as something that “healthy,” “mature,” or “differentiated” people won’t feel, but rather to embrace it as a valuable opportunity to appreciate the tension of interdependence. After all, duality is a dance, not a wrestling match.

 

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Falling Apart is a Delicate Art

I’ve lost a lot of people over the years, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve been contending with a loss I haven’t experienced since I was a child—that of losing someone who is dying.

Much of my healing since leaving the cult has been centered on learning how to grieve, but I’m finding that the grief of death is an entirely different matter from the griefs I’ve experienced before. Rather than the emotional turmoil being spaced out over years as my subconscious gently guides me from layer to layer, they’re all there at the same time with an intensity that is nothing short of breath-taking.

There are days when I’m okay–when the routine of life makes me feel like I’m practically normal. I laugh, catching myself off guard. I get excited about my upcoming school year, work on crafts, and enjoy being with friends and chosen family while the pain of my heart recedes into the background for a time. I welcome those days because they help me get through the others, the days when I’m not okay–when I cry and rage and hide in bed, watching Netflix until I can’t feel anymore.

On some levels, I feel as though I have been building up to this moment, that the purpose of my life has been to learn how to grieve increasingly devastating losses.

Society tells me to buck up, hide my tears when I go into the grocery store, and tell people “I’m fine” when they ask. “Be strong,” they say. “Keep it together.”

Society is not comfortable with grief.

But I know better. I know by now that shoving down the sadness doesn’t make it go away. I know that putting on a brave face only helps to isolate me in my sadness and that trying to escape from the intensity of my emotions creates a recipe for crippling depression and stagnation.

So I surround myself with those who can tolerate tears. I allow myself to be utterly shattered. I am not interested in looking functioning right now. To what purpose? Because I think that others might be uncomfortable with the snot dripping down my nose and my red, swollen eyes? My grief is not about them.

Being shattered doesn’t mean I stop living. I am intentionally living each moment of this process, allowing myself to feel it in every corner of my heart.

“Grief is about letting yourself be destroyed,” my therapist tells me.

Her words offer the relief of permission, but I know there is a truth even deeper than that. I will be destroyed whether I wish to allow it or not, but surrendering to the destruction allows it to be a gentle annihilation. Over the last year with my physical therapy, I’ve learned that when there is pain, the best response is to release into it. Surrender removes the edge of resistance, allowing the pain to ebb and flow naturally.

When people tell me to “be strong,” I want to tell them that I am strong. Crying and “falling apart” aren’t signs of weakness. It takes strength to allow myself to be consumed and know that I will resurrect in the end. I am strong enough to feel the devastation of love.

 

 

Losing Access to One Emotion Causes the Whole System to Malfunction

I just saw Disney’s newest Pixar film, Inside Out, a movie which I had been waiting to see for months. If you’ve followed my series on reclaiming negative emotions, I’m sure you can understand why I was psyched out of my mind. If you’re familiar with the way that society tends to demonize shadow emotions, you’ll also understand why I was slightly apprehensive.

Spoiler Alert, by the way, for this post. I’m going to be discussing the significance of the plot.

I knew from the previews that Joy gets lost, and I suspected that it would be a movie about depression, where Sadness takes over running things because Joy is missing. I was equal parts hoping for some positive representations of what sadness does for people but also prepared for it to be all about having to find one’s joy again.

To my surprise and delight, that’s not the way that plot goes.

Joy does get lost, but she gets lost with Sadness after the two of them have a fight in head-quarters about whether Sadness can produce a core memory shortly after Riley has to move away from her home and friends.

Nobody likes Sadness, especially not Joy. Joy tolerates Anger, Disgust, and Fear because she recognizes they have a valuable job to do (yay that they weren’t demonized!). But she doesn’t see the point of Sadness. When they get lost together, she’s even willing at one point to leave Sadness behind in order to get herself back to headquarters because she sees herself as the most important emotion for Riley to have.

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are trying desperately to cover up the fact that two of the emotions have gotten lost, but it’s not their jobs to be either joyful or sad, so they mess it up. Big time. They end up planting an idea in her head that sets Riley off on a destructive and dangerous course.

The longer Joy and Sadness are gone, the more things fall apart inside Riley until the emotional control panel in her head begins to shut down and turn gray. With horror, Anger, Fear, and Disgust realize that they can’t make her feel anything anymore.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that Sadness has a really important role to play for Riley. Only Sadness can turn the control panel back on. Riley needs to grieve for her friends back in her former home and the fact that she feels completely lost in this new place.

Once Sadness is permitted to do her job, the other emotions are able to start doing their jobs again.

I was crying so hard at the end of the movie, not just because it was a tear-jerker. I was crying because it felt like someone finally understood the importance of emotions and had codified it so well in this children’s movie. All of the emotions are vital. But when we try to distance ourselves from one, we distance ourselves from all. When we try to cover up one with another (Anger is great at covering up sadness), we only make it worse. If we try to operate without one entirely, the whole system eventually begins shutting down.

Reclaiming Negative Emotions: Lust and the Prohibition Effect

Lust.

It’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Depending on which religion or denomination you ask, lust is anything from mere sexual desire (i.e. all sexuality) to “wrongfully directed sexual desire” (Christianity Today’s “Understanding Lust” by Jim Vander Spek)

There’s no denying it gets a bad rap.

At first in my own journey, I separated “lust” (the wrong version of passion and attraction) from sexuality (a healthy version of attraction and love). It worked at a time when I was trying to reclaim my right to experience sexual pleasure. Being able to say that lust was what someone experienced when they objectified and dehumanized another person or longed to have sex with someone who wasn’t “theirs” to have sex with helped me to separate it from my own feelings of desire and find ways to embrace them, love myself, and love my partner.

I stopped actively thinking about it years ago, and my journey towards sex-positivity hasn’t really missed the equivocation of definitions. I didn’t consciously reclaim lust as a “negative emotion.” But I did consciously reclaim sexuality, and now I think it’s time to wed the two.

Here’s my definition of lust: sexual desire. That’s it.

Wherever you find a demonization of lust, you are guaranteed to find a group of people trying to dictate and control the sexual desires of another. It’s okay in “this” context, but not in “that” context. It’s okay with “this” person, but not with “that” person. It’s sacred and holy in “this” way, but it’s an abomination in “that” way.

But what happens when you stop placing value judgments on internal feelings and desires? What happens when you just let them be?

For one thing, they lose the stigma of shame.

As with most “negative emotions,” lust gets ingrained in our minds as a destructive thing to experience because the only time it is brought to the forefront of our minds is when we see its destructive expression. Just as anger is associated with violence, lust is associated with sexual impropriety, sexual violation, and sexual obsession.

Mostly because we’ve been conditioned to label it “lust” only if it’s problematic.

But sexual desire does not come with the mandate to cheat on your partner, sexually assault a person, or lose all sense of balance. Many of us experience sexual desire frequently as humans without those elements being present.

But society, especially religion, would have us believe that if we just accepted lust as a benign feeling, that all hell would break loose. We need the “this” but not “that” controls in place to prevent all manner of harm and evil.

But do we?

My partner and I were chatting the other night about what we’ve termed the “prohibition effect”—the phenomenon where something relatively benign becomes destructive as a result of prohibition, thus creating a false sense of the need for that prohibition.

For example, how many times have we heard a similar story to the following? A gay man is taught that he is sinful in his attractions to other men and is promised that if he gets married to a woman he will be cured of his sin. He doesn’t come out. He gets married to an unsuspecting wife. He struggles with trying to suppress his natural attraction, but eventually gives in to a one-night, anonymous encounter in a dark room.

He returns to his wife, distraught by the destructive power of his desire. He “repents” and tries to once again suppress his desire. A few months later it happens again.

At some point, his wife and church find out about him being gay, maybe because he contracts a sexually transmitted disease, maybe because he’s caught in the act of cheating, maybe because he just can’t handle lying about who he is anymore.

His marriage is destroyed. His and her health are both at risk. He is despised in his community. And everyone points to the “sin” of homosexuality being at the root of all of this destruction.

But his attraction isn’t the root!

Had he been given accurate information about his orientation when he was younger, had his attraction not been portrayed as deviant or abominable, had he not been talked into marrying someone he couldn’t love, had he been taught how to have safe sex, and had he not been driven into desperation and secrecy, he might never have lived out that vicious cycle.

He could have easily gone on to have a normal, happy, healthy life with relationships that were honest and with partners with whom he could be open.

It wasn’t the fact that he was gay that created the problem. It was the prohibition of his natural, normal, innocent desires.

That is the power of the prohibition effect, and its fingerprints are all over our sexual ethics. Those who wish to control the sexual behavior of others conveniently attach the label of “lust” to anything sexually prohibited. Then when people step outside the lines of prohibition, everything from eternal damnation to name-calling (slut) is rained down on them in an attempt to shame or scare them back into the confines of approved sexual expression.

But there are those of us out there who are tired of being shamed and punished for something that is arbitrarily decided to be bad. There is a movement of sluts, feminists, and queer activists who are redefining sexual ethics to be not about what others think of what you do in the bedroom or with whom you do it but about what is right and good for you and your partner/s on an individual basis, even if it’s taboo for another.

We free ourselves from the negative connotation surrounding lust. And we return to a far more basic version of good vs. bad sexual ethics. It’s easy to remember. It leaves room for everyone to be themselves.

It’s called consent.

In the world of The Ethical Slut, the only right or wrong about sexual desire is whether each person is consenting to the actions that follow.

 

 

Selfishness: The Character Flaw That is Also a Virtue

We live in a society that views selfishness as the ultimate character flaw. Labeling something as “selfish” doesn’t even need an explanation; we just know that it’s horrendous.

We also live in a society that has had to resort to encouraging self-care as a prescriptive thing, ordered by others before being sought out by ourselves, rather than an automatic one.

When I interviewed for grad school, I was asked about my self-care techniques. I’ve since found out that the school’s concern for student well-being wasn’t a formality. Almost every time I’m on the campus, I’m hearing or reading something about the importance of taking care of myself.

I’ve also noticed that even though I want everyone else to take care of themselves (and routinely scold my friends if I think they’re not), I have a backlash of shame at the idea of carving time out for myself. There are a million other things I should or could be doing, and taking even half an hour to do something fun or nurturing feels like a sin…and I’m not even really that busy right now!

Although selfishness isn’t an emotion, per se; I’ve determined that it needs to be the next step on my “negative emotions reclamation” journey. My ability to pay attention to myself and give my body, mind and spirit what they need in the coming years will depend on my ability to be comfortable with seeming selfish from time to time.

And really, if you think about it, why is being selfish such a horrible thing?

That question first crossed my mind a year ago when a friend of mine was called ‘selfish’ for choosing to be child-free. Of course, my initial reaction was to fire back that it was far more selfish to have children for the wrong reasons than to choose to not have children…but then, so what if the decision to be child-free was selfish? What harm did it cause?

I think when we think of selfishness within our society, we automatically get a picture of someone doing something for their own benefit to the detriment of others. Obviously, self-focus that does not care or bother to understand the effect on others is a problem. Too much selfishness, and you have the infamous narcissist, obsessively staring at his/her metaphoric reflection.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio public domain

But should it automatically follow that any amount of self-focus is negative?

In the case of choosing to be child-free, I’d say it’s the best “selfish decision” a person could make. There is no child who will suffer as a result of that choice. No one gets hurt.

And with regard to self-care, I don’t think it’s possible to care for the self without at least a little bit of self-focus and self-concern.

I took a moment to look up “selfish” in the dictionary. Unlike most of my reclaimed emotions, I was surprised to find that there didn’t seem to be a positive or neutral definition that was forgotten at the end of a list. I can’t think of an alternative word that implied a healthy amount of self-focus.

So I’m left with reclaiming selfishness.

I want to learn how to be selfish—meaning, I want to learn how to practice self-care without feeling like I’m doing something wrong, I want to be able to say “no, that doesn’t work for me” without having to provide a convincing altruistic or globally beneficial reason to make my choice seem more palatable, and I want to have the right to love myself as much as I feel I should love others.

 

Why I Hate The Mental Illness Rhetoric about Depression

Following the death of Robin Williams, I watched Facebook flood with articles and discussions of depression. It’s a tough subject at the best of times, even harder following the fresh sting of loss.

Emotions were high, so I prepared myself for an onslaught of insensitive posts about suicide being selfish, cowardly, etc. I was dismayed, though, to see phrases like “depression is a life-threatening illness” and “depression is out to kill you” dancing alongside the other comments.

I’ve watched the fight to raise awareness about depression for quite some time, and it seems that we’re finally reaching a place where people sort of understand that depression isn’t a character flaw…but I’m not sure that where we’re headed is any better.

Although it’s important to recognize that depression can be rooted in physical causes, vitamin deficiencies or hormonal imbalances, it’s equally important to recognize that it isn’t always rooted in physical causes. Sometimes it is entirely emotional or situational.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

What’s not okay is to diminish the impact of a person’s emotional process or environment, which is exactly what this “life-threatening disease” model does.

A while back, I talked about reaching the point of no return when I was in the cult. It was the moment that I realized that I would rather die than continue to live the life I was in—that wasn’t an overstatement. I was suicidal for almost two years before I finally left, and one of the things that gave me the courage to break away from the toxicity of the IFB was my suicidality. When I look back on my life, I don’t see that struggle as “dangerous” or as part of a “disease.”

It was a crisis, to be sure—but it was a good crisis. When death was more appealing than my life, I had nothing to lose in trying to make my life worth living. My depression was the signal to me that things couldn’t just go on the way they were. Something had to change.

Had I been taken to a doctor during that time, I could have easily been dismissed as “mentally ill,” given some pills, and sent back into abuse. I might have spent years more, maybe even the rest of my lifetime, trying to battle “depression” (the symptom) rather than the true “disease” (abuse).

I get that the “illness” proponents are trying desperately to end the stigma around depression, but as someone who was depressed for non-medical reasons (still good reasons), I don’t see a true end to stigma.

We might have shifted slightly in our opinion of depressed people, but only because we’ve shifted from thinking of them as emotionally unstable to medically unable to be happy…so technically, the stigma is still there. Sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, desperation—they’re all still “bad.” We’re just more willing to say, “It’s not your fault.”

But I don’t want my emotional state to be acceptable only if it’s caused by an imbalance somewhere. I don’t want to live in a society where being sad is demonized to the point that I either keep it hidden or I go get a pill to make it go away.

I want my emotions to be okay, no matter what. I want to live in a society where having an emotional struggle is as acceptable as having a medical problem. I want to live in a society where depression can be a valid indication that something is off in my environment rather than just an indication of something being off in my body.

The disease model is convenient in a society where minorities and oppressed groups are far more likely to experience depression. It allows us to shake our heads over a “diseased brain” rather than considering what societal factors may be creating an environment in which depression can thrive. It allows us to ignore problems like abuse, discrimination, bullying, economic distress, and prejudice as we scurry around trying to find the magic bullet that will force everyone to be happy with the way things are.

Yes, I struggle with depression. I struggled a lot in high school and college. I struggle less now, but I still struggle (usually when I’m not embracing my emotional work and end up stagnating in the emotion I don’t want to work through).

But NO, I do not have a mental illness or a disease. I don’t have a chemical imbalance. I’m not helpless or in danger because of it. I’ve learned to embrace my downward cycles as an indication that it’s time to make changes in my life or focus on healing old wounds that have been ignored. I’ve found hope. I found my own way of working through it, with the assistance of some amazing people who had the guts to tell me that my emotions weren’t bad or dangerous on their own. It was fucking hard, but it was worth it in the end because I understand my moods better than anyone now, and I know I can sit through the dark times…and grow through them too.

I’m not saying there is never a medical reason for depression. I’m not saying that medication can’t be helpful. I’m not saying that offering assistance isn’t necessary.

But I am saying that the rhetoric that paints depression as nothing more than a physical illness is as damaging, in my opinion, as the rhetoric that paints depression as a character flaw.

What would happen if we stopped talking about depression as if it were the boogyman hiding in the corners of our minds? What would happen if we didn’t assume that emotions were an illness or teach people to be afraid or ashamed of what they are going through?

Maybe, just maybe, we could actually begin to address depression intelligently, allowing each person to figure out what physical, social, and mental components are at play for them. Maybe we’d actually see people capable of working through their depression rather than succumbing to it.

 

Finding the Silver Lining in the Black Cloud of Fear

Of all the “negative” emotions that I’ve reclaimed, I think I’ve been mulling over fear the most. At one point, I would have almost said that it was the only emotion that was truly negative, but I cringed to hold such a double standard for myself.

Usually when I try to reclaim a “negative emotion,” I try to brain my way to finding constructive uses for that emotion. Perhaps I’ve done that to some extent with fear, .e.g. telling myself that it’s healthy to be afraid of jumping off of a ledge; however, I think this particular reclamation has been far more unconscious than conscious.

Still, I want to try to at least trace the outlines of the process even if I can’t fill in the details of how or when I moved from a negative association to a more neutral place.

In beginning my new job, I’ve faced some downright terrifying challenges. (By terrifying, I mean anything out of my element, from having to speak my mind to my supervisor to potentially having to call the police on a violent person. My brain hasn’t exactly done a stellar job of determining which fears are legitimate and which are ‘just discomfort’.) I’ve found myself having to think and act quickly without nearly as much training, knowledge, or confidence as I felt I needed in those moments.

It’s exhausting to encounter so much fear, and there were days I wondered if I was really cut out for human services.

However, I’ve discovered that it’s also incredibly empowering.

In moments when I’ve been faced with my fears and I had no other choice but to respond to them, I figured out how I wanted to deal with them pretty damn quickly. I wasn’t conscious of any sort of reclamation though; I didn’t have time to think through the implications of diving head first into the things that scared me.

A large part of the reclamation must be attributed to Clarissa Pinkola Estes. In her analysis of the Bluebeard tale in Women Who Run With the Wolves, she talks about each person having an inner predator, a part of themselves that seeks to destroy or sabotage the self.

Rather than the typical self-help advice cajoling an individual to destroy or eradicate destructive parts of the psyche, Estes talks about recycling the inner predator into more positive expressions.

A few weeks after reading that chapter, I was preparing a ritual based on TWLOHA’s poignant Fears vs. Dreams campaign as a kind of ice-breaker for a group of women with whom I was planning on meeting. I wanted it to be more than just stating a fear and a dream with our names (boring!), so I had arranged to have us plant seeds in a flower pot to represent our dreams.

Initially, I also intended to have us all burn a paper with our fears written on them, a standard method for releasing; however, something in me rebelled against the idea of just getting rid of my fears, as if my vulnerabilities and sensitivities were some sort of refuse.

I noticed that my fear and dream for this project almost seemed connected to each other, like one was the shadow side of the other.

I remembered the Bluebeard story and was inspired with an alternative version for my ritual–burying. The act of putting (biodegradable) paper into a flower pot to break down and feed the seeds seemed like such a beautiful way to tie fears into dreams. By breaking down the fear, its power is taken away as a predator, allowing its nutritive qualities to be absorbed and transformed into something empowering rather than debilitating.

As much as fear can be (has been) the root of so much pain and intolerance and negativity, it’s also the root of courage. (No really, the idea of courage simply doesn’t work without fear’s presence.)

Granted, some fears are a little silly and need only be named to lose their power. But others are more legitimate, notifying me of when I might be in danger or when something valuable to me is at stake. Unfortunately, fear, as an emotion, doesn’t differentiate between silly and legitimate.

So long as I treat all fear as something that needs to be erased from my life, I remove its power to inform my decisions in positive ways, sabotaging my own ability to live courageously.

However, when I take the time to face my fear, name it, dismantle it, and recycle it, I create a way for fear to be a positive force in my life, not motivating my actions and decisions, but nurturing the places of hope and courage that do motivate my actions and decisions.