Having spent over fifteen years as a psychiatrist helping thousands of women understand their life stories and, now, having taped 180 hour-long episodes of my talk show, I'm certain there's one emotion that every person experiences and nearly every person denies. It's the single unspeakable emotion that people think they need to hide.
It's not anger; anyone will admit feeling angry, even enraged, at times. It's not embarrassment; people laugh with one another about lots of things that have embarrassed them. It's not shame; anyone with a conscience has experienced that and says so. It certainly isn't sadness; thankfully, many women will open up to one another about low mood, even the despondency of major depression and the grief of lost loved ones. (Though I only wish men would do so more often.)
Not sure what it could be? Here's another hint: It can erode the closest friendship or even sibling bonds without any warning that it's doing damage-no yelling, no blushing, no tears.
Still not sure? Wish you had the answer? Do you think other readers probably already guessed it? Does imagining them remind you a little of those annoying college classmates of yours who seemed to get all A's without studying, or that friend of yours who seems to know which stock to buy, every single time?
Then you're getting warmer. It's jealousy.
Wanting something another person has - whether the great sex life he or she talks about or her beautiful home or the college acceptance letter his or her child received (when your child just got placed on the wait list or, worse, rejected )- is a universal, entirely normal, completely forgivable experience. But it doesn't feel that way. It feels like something a person needs to hide.
That's because jealousy is rooted in primal survival instincts like the drive to eat enough and to reproduce successfully and to compete for a dry corner of limited shelter to raise offspring. And such appetites - especially sexual ones and ones related to food - are hardwired to feelings of shame. Think Oliver in Oliver Twist: "Please, Sir, may I have some more?"
Add to this the fact that such survival instincts and drives (and, therefore, jealousy itself) compete with our "better" impulses, like altruism and generosity and love, and you have all the ingredients necessary for jealousy to lead directly to intense feelings of guilt.
Just about every person has been jealous of another at one time or another and has felt really bad about it.
The shame and guilt associated with jealousy mean it isn't something people are likely to share, either, which means it also leads to feelings of isolation.
Think about it. How often have you heard lines like these, delivered in any kind of serious way?
"Hey, just so you know, I'm really feeling very jealous of Mary going away for a whole month with her husband. I wish it were me."
"When you bought the car I've fantasized about owning, it made me really jealous."
"To be honest, when your son made varsity football and mine didn't, the jealousy just ate me up alive."
"I can barely stand to see you in that dress. I'm so jealous you lost weight."
Just about never, right? If you did hear some of these lines, you might even decide you weren't with a real friend. There's a myth that true friends aren't jealous of one another. But they are. Sometimes more than of anyone else. They just love one another enough to get over it.
Sometimes we don't even know it ourselves when we're jealous. Because jealousy is, in fact, the true gateway emotion: Once kindled, it leads not only to shame and guilt and isolation, but also to a whole smokescreen of emotions, including sadness, feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem and angst.
That's because instinctively coveting whatever good fortune your friend or sibling or neighbor is enjoying focuses you even more on the fact that you don't have it. And that can spark a string of damaging unconscious questions: Why not? Am I not beautiful enough? Not smart enough? Not diligent enough? Just plain not lucky enough?
It can be hard to recognize and even harder to admit that jealousy is really the root of all those troubling feelings and questions.
A woman I treated who I'll call Joyce, age 51, brings the point to life. She visited with me because she was struggling with low mood, tearfulness and feelings of worthlessness after her marriage of twenty-odd years ended. What made matters worse, she said, was how alone she felt.
Joyce was describing symptoms of major depression, but that was her diagnosis, not her story.
"No woman can understand what it's like to go through a divorce unless she has," she told me. "Even my sister Carol has no idea. It's not even worth talking to her, anymore. I just had to stop talking to her for a while."
"You aren't speaking?" She shook her head.
"How long has it been?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. She shrugged. "Six weeks, maybe."
"Were the two of you close?"
"Too close. She lives a mile away. I used to talk to her at least twice a day, and we'd drop by each other's house all the time. But we just argue now because she asks maddening questions, so it's better like this for now."
"What does she ask?
"Everything about how Tim and I are dividing our assets, to custody stuff, to whether I'm going to start dating. It's endless."
"Those questions aren't relevant?"
Joyce leaned forward slightly in her seat. "Not when you're sitting home with your husband and kids trying to decide whether to buy a vacation home in Turks and Cacaos, they're not." She seemed to notice she was getting angry and settled back. "It's not like I'm jealous of her," she said.
"I'm just saying . . ."
"Why wouldn't you be?" I asked.
"Jealous? Of Carol? I love her."
"Sibling rivalry is just another name for jealousy," I said. "It's inborn. It's natural. And it doesn't go away when you turn fifteen, or fifty."
Joyce thought about that for several seconds. "How do I deal with it, if I do feel it?"
That question is one I've had to answer for lots of people. So I've come up with a three step strategy:
1. Be aware that feeling jealous at a particular moment in time ignores the fact that circumstances change, for all of us. That means you could be temporarily jealous of someone you'll need to console in a week, a month or a year.
2. Remember that being jealous is normal, but the energy is always either misplaced or misdirected. Whatever you're jealous of, consider whether you really want that particular thing in your life. Many times, we feel jealous of a friend's wealth, but would never actually trade our free time or the pleasure we take in less-lucrative work. Or we might wish our own child were admitted to a prestigious school, when that school might not be the one that would end up enhancing his or her self-esteem and potential for success.
3. If you really do want what your friend or your sibling or your co-worker has, think of one positive step toward attaining it and take that step right away. It can be something small-registering for a course to learn about a new career, giving on-line dating a shot, getting plans done for an addition to your home (even if you won't start construction for a year or two).
I gave Joyce all these hints, and then I told her what a colleague of mine had said when he heard I was coming out with a new book. "You've got a good life," he said. He smiled. "At least it seems that way. But only you really know."
"What if she asked you to look at plans for that house? Or photos of the island? It could be very difficult. So you're keeping your distance."
She looked down. "Which makes me a terrible sister," she said. "Add that to the list."
"No," I said. "It doesn't mean you're a bad sister. It just means you're human."
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.