How do I break jealous thought patterns?
December 16, 2011 6:22 PM   Subscribe

Ex-girlfriend jealousy, my-own-brain-originating-type. How do I break jealous thought patterns?

I get jealous of my boyfriend's past relationships and experiences, and I don't know why this happens, or how to stop. One small thought triggered by something completely random can give me a sinking feeling in my stomach, a strong all-over feeling of dread, and other "brain spiral" sort of feelings (cf. my depressive/ideation tendencies). Examples include: a) he mentioned that he fell crazy in love with a girl he was very into and made it sound like he never got over her. So I occasionally have this urge to dig and find out more about this, her, what went wrong, etc. b) he is close friends with an ex he broke up with over 5 years ago (they had a ~7 year relationship in college/their twenties). I never met her, but based on little things he's mentioned and my own poking around, I know things about her. I see one phrase related to, say, her profession or travels, then compare myself to her and think of reasons why she's better and I suck. c) He's dated several girls from countries outside where we are (US.) The country comes up in a news broadcast and I go from watching the news to thinking that I'm not special/not worthy because I don't speak foreign languages, haven't traveled extensively, etc.
Like I said -- really random triggers. This isn't even limited to girlfriends - certain times, mentions of his (fancy, elite, smart-person) college alma mater make me feel jealous. Or something comes up tangentially related to the fact that he lived in NYC for many years, and I feel like small potatoes, inexperienced, or "uncool" in comparison because I haven't had that experience.

Any thoughts regarding what's going on here are appreciated. I have brought this up in therapy, and with friends, and the responses are along the lines of: a) "But you're awesome for [XYZ]", b) "Why are you comparing?" c) "He's with YOU, isn't he?" d) pointing the nice things he does for me. All of these are valid, but they are not sticking or preventing my thoughts from popping up. And, honestly, it's embarrassing and strange, and I feel like it has the potential to hurt this relationship which, I think, overall, is a good thing I have going. (We have been dating a little less than a year, by the way.)

I'm 99% percent sure this comes from something deeper, because I do have a bad habit of comparing myself to other people as well, for instance, feeling jealous of other people's careers, which turns into thinking that I'm not as good a person, then into the depression and self-hatred, etc. I just don't know how to break out of it.

Any thoughts or resources are appreciated. Thank you in advance.
posted by ArgyleMarionette to Human Relations (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
When you start feeling those things, try watching Steve Jobs' Stanford speech:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life"

Watch the speech and remember all the things that are important to you personally. Would YOU really want to live in NYC? Would YOU really want to devote your time to learning a foreign language or traveling to random places (remember, your time is finite). Would YOU really want to work at your boyfriend's ex's profession?

If the answer is yes to any of those, then start working on getting them in your life. That's the other half of this, that sometimes this jealousy is a wakeup call to things we want for ourselves but haven't put the effort into making happen yet
posted by cairdeas at 6:42 PM on December 16, 2011 [15 favorites]

Your thought patterns sound exactly like mine - I realized that it was because I was unfulfilled in MY life. I wanted to travel, learn a new language, have adventures, etc. Also, I was suffering from depression which made it more, well, more depressing for me that I wasn't doing these cool things. For me I was just overwhelmed that I wanted to do SO MUCH that I ended up doing nothing at all (also lack of money for some things *shakes fist*). I would bet that those exes weren't adventurous or whatever back then but they are doing stuff NOW - years later. Yeah, stop looking at the exes profiles - it accomplishes nothing.

Me-mail me if you would like to talk - it sounds like you are going though similar things as me (down to the boyfriend who went to a fancy-pants smart school).
posted by littlesq at 7:04 PM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Aside from what you can and do bring to the table, remember that he has to do his part in the relationship too. Maybe remembering that will take some of the pressure off? Also, whenever I start comparing myself to others I let myself be sad, recognize it, and then just think about the people who love me and why they love me. Sometimes it's hard to value yourself, but I do think it's very important to not be so hard on ourselves. We are inundated with images that are mostly false, that tell us who and what to be when really, all we are doing right now is most likely great the way it is.

I'm also going to second cairdeas' statement about self-improvement. If the thoughts are reminders to get off our lazy bums to do something we really want to do, then go for it!

Good luck and it's great that you are at least recognizing these destructive thoughts. Just continue to be loving and kind to the world and more importantly, yourself. You only have one life and there's only one you. Try to remind yourself what a waste of time thoughts like that are! :)
posted by carpediem at 7:45 PM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think more or less you think this guy is "too good" for you, and so your brain is obsessively trying to identify and possible neutralize threats to the relationship because you like him so much.

You basically need to find a way to unthink this, so that would be your jumping off point.
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 7:54 PM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

The first thing you have to realize is that you do have control over your thoughts.

The easiest way to challenge a thought is to allow it. The next time a trigger shows up, try to step back from the thought and observe it. Allow yourself to feel the insecurity and jealousy as you take deep breaths. Bring yourself to observe the thought for what it is: a feeling. Feel it, and then decide to let it go. Don't try to rationalize it. Just say: oh that made me feel jealous, accept it, and move on. The more you repeat this exercise, the easier it will be to step away from obsessive thoughts/ feelings.
posted by Milau at 8:53 PM on December 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

I did this in every relationship I was in, judging myself against their exes and constantly charting my progress internally. What a waste of time, and the realization is so simple I ignored it for many years.

He is with you right now and if he thought you were boring, he wouldn't still be there. What someone does for a living or where they are from might be exotic or intriguing, but at the end of the day you don't stay in a relationship with them because of them.

Relax. Relax. Relax. Be humbled that out of all the girls in the world he's been with and all of the ups and downs attributed to those relationships, you are the focus now. I'm sure he's met some interesting characters along the way, some of whom were female, some of whom he had relations with. That's life, though, and you are learning his experiences through him without having to go through all that legwork. If it wasn't jealousy over their professions or locations, it would be over something else.

I love my boyfriend to death and he would never lie to me or even hesitate to answer, but I still have this nagging feeling to ask him if anything's ever happened between him and his best female friend. That's just how we are; always curious, always cautious. In our attempt to be one step ahead of ourselves, we trip and stumble down a flight of "what if" stairs instead.

Remember: you are what he wants at this time in his life. If he is happy, you should be too :)
posted by june made him a gemini at 9:13 PM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

*with them because of them that.
posted by june made him a gemini at 9:14 PM on December 16, 2011

Listen to your instincts. Something is telling you that he isn't in this all the way. Why does he keep bringing up ex girlfriends? Doesn't he know that you don't want to hear about them? Doesn't he know that what he is saying is, "I left her and I can leave you?"

It sounds like he is very immature. You will have to decide if you are strong enough to put up with this. If everything else in the relationship is good then I would try to get past it. I would, every time he mentions an ex, change the subject or tell him directly that I have no interest in his past girlfriends. Eventually he will come to understand that you are the only woman he should be talking about to you or, he will be discussing you with his next girlfriend. It is crass of any man to discuss past lovers with present lovers.

You are worth more than the life you are living.
posted by myselfasme at 9:29 PM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Gracious. Based on the knowledge that he once mentioned something important that happened in his life, has briefly acknowledged the existence of a close-friend, and once lived in New York do we truly understand the charachter of this man? Judgment is swift and merciless in the halls of AskMe.

Stories of places we once lived and people we once knew are important in defining who we are and freely expressing who we are to people we want to be with is foundational in any relationship. Would you feel better if he never opened up about his life or education or experiences but simply existed as a man with no past he cared to share with you? Of course not.

You clearly think this is one cool, cosmopolitan guy, and what's he doing right now? That's right, he's dating you. Obviously you've got something excellent going for you even if you don't seem to know what that is. Try to remember what makes you great and you'll be less worried about others. If you can't remember what it is, no biggie, it's not going to go away just because you have a lousy memory. Instead, decide on something else that is going to make you great and get to work on being whatever that is.

Nothing makes you feel like a million bucks quite like steady progress towards a goal and in the meantime you'll still be awesome from whatever the other thing was. Depression may be about thoughts, but the fastest way to change your thoughts is to change your actions.
posted by Winnemac at 12:47 AM on December 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've dated more than one man who created "mythology" about an ex - or multiple exes.

If he is doing this, he's not for you. If you are blowing things out of proportion - that's on you.

Which is it?

My husband operates from a place that states, "There was never anyone remotely important before you."

I know this is highly unusual. And likely untrue. But I really really appreciate it. He just kinda walked in knowing the right stance to take.

You have to parse if this is your problem, something your guy is exacerbating - or both.


Too much grey area. Only you know for certain!
posted by jbenben at 1:11 AM on December 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

Well, I dunno if this'll help, but there's a difference between amazing or awesome stuff and 'that's cool' kinda stuff. Being from NYC? Ehh, I'm from NYC, it's kinda pathetic, noisy and dirty and smells of pee. Being from a fancy school? Ehh, either you're a workaholic/obsessive studier or so smart you never valued anything or anyone because everything's so easy. Obsessive over ex-girlfriend? Ehhh, isn't that sort of fixation juvenile? A good and stable relationship is just what obsessive/overly-fixated people need to grow up and get a life, stop living in the past, realize that no one's that special, and so on. Stuff that's commonly seen as amazing or impressive is more often just 'cool', because in the end it's a pretty common experience. When every 'amazing' person did the Peace Corps after college, for example, just how impressive is that, anyway? Not to mention, unless there's something about you that redefines a common 'cool' experience, it tends to be pretty underwhelming when you gain a way of understanding what actually happened; most people in NYC, for instance, don't exactly burn up the night and simply make rent by working as a paralegal or grocery clerk or something, and most people in Ivy Leagues just write OK papers and jump through hoops to graduate, etc.

Ok, so ennui isn't the answer to everything-- but you need some ennui anyway. There's no quick way to become world-weary and jaded-- or even just experienced-- except to gain experience, which you can use your stifled ambition (which is what jealousy is) to push you to accomplish. Non-ambitious people don't get jealous, and energetic ambitious people just get results: in the middle are the jealous people who stifle their ambitions and therefore suffer for their pangs of desire misdirected, if that makes sense. Just do it! Do it yourself. Therein lies the difference between run-of-the-mill 'cool' experiences and being amazing-- amazing is what you bring to it, who you are, what it means to you, and that's deeply individualistic and self-defined. Everyone's by definition their own kind of awesome, and everyone's awesome New York story is their New York story. It's hard to be jealous of someone's identity, because you have one of your own-- and it's who someone is that makes their experiences really meaningful and gives them context and depth. The way to break the cycle is to go beyond the label of the experience and see it in connection to that person's life, their associations with it, their struggles and needs and triumphs, all the embarrassing parts of it and the pathetic parts and the 'omg that time I nearly stepped my neighbor's cat/broke a professor's Tiffany lamp/failed three tests in a row' parts.

Re: the romantic jealousy thing, nthing jbenben.
posted by reenka at 1:33 AM on December 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm 99% percent sure this comes from something deeper

It sounds like low self-esteem to me. It also sounds like you're currently seeing a therapist, so that should be helpful.

Also, this book has some interesting things to say on the subject of comparison. If I remember correctly, they say that comparing yourself to others is like playing a slot machine - you lose almost every time, but you keep playing for the relief and minor boost that those once-in-a-blue-moon wins give you. When you come out looking like the better person - although it happens very rarely - you unconsciously reaffirm to yourself that this system works, even though it obviously does not.

Another aspect of what you described seems like intense self-criticism. A harsh inner critic can use anything and everything to make you feel small, so yes, you can even just hear a country mentioned in the news and end up feeling shitty about yourself. Learn to distinguish your own voice from that of your inner critic - they are not the same voice, although right now you are hearing them as such.

I also agree with the people above encouraging you to explore and try to find out what you're interested in, what you love to do, and not what worry about what sounds cool or impressive. Following your heart is the best way to build confidence because it requires you to respect and honor yourself for the unique person that you are. Comparing yourself to others will then seem even more illogical because you know it's not about measuring up to anyone else, or being better than anyone, it's simply about being you.

Best of luck!
posted by seriousmoonlight at 2:58 AM on December 17, 2011

Seconding self-esteem. It sounds like you're just really unsure as to your own self-worth and it's manifesting itself mostly in your relationship. I've done this before and it took me forever to realize that my "omg his exes are so much cooler why is he with me??" was just a more justifiable version of "I think I suck".
posted by buteo at 2:37 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The most important point about exes is that those relationships didn't work out and are in the past for very good reasons. For one thing, your boyfriend was a different person then. And now you love the person that those relationships helped to shape.

Getting over the details of his past just takes time. I know it feels like you're crazy obsessed and that you'll never be able to let this go, but you will. You have to start by recognizing your own value, and by seeing yourself as your boyfriend's equal and worthy of being his, or anyone's partner. Because you are.

p.s. I don't know how much of your fixation on his exes is from his stories or your assumptions/snooping. If it's the former, then it's okay to ask him not to talk about his past relationships anymore, at least for a while.
posted by swingbraid at 6:18 AM on December 18, 2011

Oh, you sound like me. Poor thing. I do this, I've always done it. I've been dumped for exes a couple times and of course that makes it worse.

Bring it back up in therapy.

Challenge the negative thoughts with positive ones. When you think "Oh, this or that ex did this or that," immediately think of a fun time you've had with your boyfriend or something you did that made him really happy.

Also, turn the tables in your mind for a second. Do you think your exes are cooler, better, more cosmopolitan than your boyfriend? Even if they admittedly went to an even fancier school or something, are you still with them? No! Why? What would you tell your boyfriend if he said he was always worried that he wasn't as good as your exes?
posted by motsque at 9:19 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first thing you have to realize is that you do have control over your thoughts.

And you should really try to wangle that "I suck" thought. Nothing in you post indicates that the BF has a problem with you (or that you are carefully glossing over problems.)

Just try to think about how NYC reeks of urine - it does.

I doubt your "gut" is telling you anything - this sounds like poisious self-doubt from who knows where (mom & dad? The patriarchy??? That super-nasty third grade teacher who tried to ruin you???)

Some kind of mindfulness is the ticket.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:12 PM on December 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice. Have definitely been thinking about and working on it. - N.
posted by ArgyleMarionette at 6:24 PM on January 8, 2012

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