A reader named Matt wrote to me about invading his partner’s privacy, his immense regret, and confusing the past with the present moment.

Congratulations on the site, it’s so nice to find a whole website dedicated to this stuff. I think I read somewhere on it that you answer questions about retroactive jealousy, and i saw some reader emails turned into blogs so could I ask a quick question?

Like an idiot i went through my girlfriend’s facebook the other day and looked up guys I know she was f**k buddies with and read these dirty messages between them. not a good idea I know but for some reason I couldn’t help myself. And now I feel 100000000x worse than I did before. I am literally in hell!

Let’s all hope for Matt’s sake that that last sentence isn’t true.

In all seriousness, I do know what that kind of pain and regret is like. Matt went on to ask:

Have you ever done anything this stupid before, and if so can you give me ANY reasons why reading stuff that happened a year ago should feel so present now? Thanks

I haven’t done anything quite like that, though the thought certainly crossed my mind in certain moments. However, the internet is riddled with stories of men and women who have done the exact same thing as you, and told a similar tale of regret. Facebook can be tricky terrain to navigate in long term relationships, and even moreso for sufferers of retroactive jealousy.

What you need to do now is forgive yourself. Gushing about your mistake to your partner, letting her access your Facebook in an attempt to play tit-for-tat, or anything else like that won’t help. You did what you did, you regret it, you (hopefully) learned from it, and you won’t do it again. So let’s move on.

Can you give me ANY reasons why reading stuff that happened a year ago should feel so present now?

Confusing past with present is a hallmark of retroactive jealousy. When we are in the midst of an acute experience of jealousy, what happened a year ago feels indistinguishable from the now. It doesn’t matter that our rational brain understands that the past is gone, and that this moment can be anything we make of it. We decide to succumb to the delusion that the past has direct bearing on our experience of the present, or that we are incapable of happiness and fulfillment in the present because of what happened in the past. We may even feel that the past is the present — if we are imagining a vivid scene of our partner with another man, we may actually feel that we are witnessing reality, rather than a ridiculous movie playing in our head.

Please note that we decide to succumb to the delusion. We can, if we are brave, decide otherwise.

Practicing observation can be very helpful. Try to detach yourself from the jealous thought — observe it as you might observe a cloud in the sky, without judgment, without aversion, without attachment. Simply observe it, and see it for what it really is — fleeting, transitory, impermanent. Thoughts can only have power over you if you let them.

By “detaching yourself” from the thought, I mean don’t let your identity — what you consider “I” — get wrapped up in what you are thinking. Instead of thinking, “I have jealous thoughts,” say to yourself “There is jealousy.” Instead of saying “I am depressed” and identifying with it, say “There is depression.” Better yet, don’t label your emotions at all — instead of “I am angry,” simply say “There is emotion.”

When you are beginning this practice, you can also picture an enormous eyeball hovering above you, looking down. Consider this your “observing ego” — a part of you whose job it is to watch over your ego, and keep it in check. Think of this observing ego looking down on your jealous thoughts, keeping an eye on them, always remembering their transitory nature and therefore avoiding getting swept up in them. Remember: “There is emotion,” not “I hate my retroactive jealousy!”

Many people have never considered detaching themselves from what they think. In the Western tradition (if we can speak of such a thing), the ego — the self, the “I” — is located somewhere buried deep in the forehead. Thus, many Westerners feel that their soul, identity, personality, character, or individuality, emanates solely from the brain, and that the “I” they so often refer to is indistinguishable from what they think. This line of thinking leads to constant insecurity, stress, and a constant tension in the cerebral cortex.

We are so much more than what we think. When you begin to practice observation, and practice observing your ego, you may discover a funny thing happening to you — instead of asking “Who am I?”, you may instead begin to ask “Who is the thinker behind the thoughts? If I am not always in control of what’s going on up there, who is?” We may believe that all we are is what we think, but we in fact represent the universe in all its glory. You are not simply Matt, you are the Big Bang.

In conclusion, Matt, allow me to recommend that you begin the process of dissociating your identity from your thoughts, begin to practice observation, and go a little easier on yourself. Your retroactive jealousy may not disappear overnight, but as the ancient Chinese saying goes, “A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Furthermore, remember that retroactive jealousy isn’t rational, and trying to understand it entirely or “get to the bottom of it” at the intellectual level will only cause more frustration and confusion. This is one of the main reasons why my guidebook, and my online course and community is focused on providing solutions for managing and eventually overcoming RJ, rather than a comprehensive psychological account of the disorder.

Stay strong.

Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in BBC News, BBC Radio 4, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. I'm the founder of RetroactiveJealousy.com, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.