Jealousy seems to have become an epidemic.
It’s what drives social media, celebrity, the fashion and cosmetics industries, and the economy.
The insecurity over lack of possessions, or status, or rivalry is often what motivates people to get to the gym, and to strive for promotions in the workplace.
Jealousy often pops up in many of the conversations that I have with other people, who seem to spend a lot of time and energy comparing themselves to others, and feeling less than, then trying to prove their worth, before questioning their choices, experiencing FOMO, and expressing why they’re so “envious” of other people’s lives, bodies, clothes, relationships, holidays, and employment opportunities.
Some studies say that the autistic understand and express jealousy differently from how most people do, while autistic friends of mine have said that we don’t feel it at all, which seems a bit convenient. Dr Michelle Garnett, clinic director and clinical psychologist at Minds and Hearts in Brisbane, explains that autistic girls and women may not talk about jealousy, or label it that way, because of the difficulties that we face putting our thoughts and feelings into words. “Also,” she adds, “autistic girls and women are usually trying to be good, and well liked, and they don’t want to hurt anyone, or make a mistake. So they wouldn’t want to ‘own’ jealousy. It’s not an emotion one aspires to, I guess.”
I’m certainly a very aspirational autistic woman. I've always had a strong desire to do everything "well" even the ways in which I express difficult feelings like anger, sadness, disappointment and, now, jealousy."
Jealousy is all around us, all of the time. There’s no escaping it.
Growing up, I carefully studied the people in our culture that were considered to be powerful, and desirable, for cues as to how to behave socially, and how to dress, and how to express myself. I was singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend by the age of six, lining my bedroom with piles of American and French fashion magazines which I couldn’t understand by the age of 11, wearing lipsticks with names like “disco moon” and “dragon girl” as soon as I could get my hands on some, trying to read Simone de Beauvoir’s novels as a teenager, and analysing the relationships in TV shows and movies before I’d even kissed anyone, or held their hand.
I rarely ever copied or mimicked my peers, because I wanted to be the best. I didn’t want to be like them: I wanted to be like the people that they admired. However, according to Dr Garnett, it’s quite common for girls and women on the spectrum to become “intensely jealous” of those around them who appear to be having it easier socially. “The jealousy toward the well-liked girl or the assertive boy can turn into wanting to be that girl, or that boy,” she says.
Most of the studies and articles online about jealousy don’t really look at these kinds of inclinations. Instead, they focus on issues of self-esteem, and co-dependency, and the fear of losing something or someone of value. Which is interesting. Yet no amount of self-confidence, self-assurance, or self-reflection, can prepare us for what we don’t expect, or for what we haven’t encountered before in ourselves, or others.
Accepting jealousy means getting real about what we’re feeling, and what’s going on, and why.
I discovered this when I’ve seen friends flirt with my partner. I freeze and I don’t understand exactly what’s happening, or how I feel about it. I don’t know what to do when they’re trying to sit in his lap, or hug him outside of the parameters of a greeting or a farewell, or corner him physically in rooms that I’m not in, or pinch his arse, or blush when he’s talking about sport, or change their demeanour when he enters the space, or eye him intensely across the dinner table, or ask me what it’s like to “be with him”?
No matter how much thinking, feeling, meditating, reading and introspecting I do, I still haven’t known what to say, or where to look in these moments. I haven’t known whether or not their behaviour is “ok” and I haven’t known how to articulate what I’m feeling about it. I’ve then spent weeks questioning their actions, and my own sanity, and the nature of my partner’s reactions. I’ve read books like Taming Toxic People, and I’ve talked to my therapist, and to my mum, I’ve laughed, and I’ve cried, and on one occasion I awkwardly attempted to confront one of the women about her behaviour, via email. While she acknowledged “some truth” to my observations, she went on to say that she felt hurt, and angry, and that I must be “threatened” by her.
So maybe I was. Yet it's difficult for me to trust her diagnosis when people have often called me things like “overly sensitive” and “paranoid” and “crazy” and “melodramatic” and “obsessive”, when they’d rather not take responsibility for themselves, and for their actions. Calling me threatened doesn’t make me threatened.
So I’m torn. And it’s possible that when I’m feeling low, or down on myself, I might become more possessive, or wary. I’m not sure. Dr Garnett notes the ways in which autistic girls can “carefully guard” those that they connect with, because making connections with others can be so difficult.
Either way, a huge part of dealing with the confusion and frustration that I experienced in those moments was in realising that they might happen. I still might not know what to do, or where to look, or how to express what I’m feeling, yet I’m better prepared just for having been through them.
Jealousy is all around us, all of the time. There’s no escaping it. Social media is fuelled by it, businesses make money out of it, the fashion and cosmetics industries would be nothing without it, and the economy stays afloat because of it. So accepting jealousy means getting real about what we’re feeling, and what’s going on, and why. Then, hopefully, we’re better able to focus on what truly matters to us.
Madeleine Ryan is a freelance writer.