6 Steps to Get Past Envy
Envy isn’t exclusive to writers, but it’s a frequent occupational hazard in a field where success is measured by external approval. It can cripple you all at once, or it can be subtly corrosive over time. Envy is one of the most fundamental human emotions — it gets mentioned in three out of Ten Commandments–even God admits to being jealous. It’s also one of the least discussed and most taboo.
Hey, guess what happens to feelings you can’t identify or admit to having?
Bad things. Harmful things. Raw, unprocessed envy seeps underground, where it ferments and produces a fragrant, simmering stew of toxic by-products: shame and resentment. That stuff will mess you up, friends.
So let’s deal with it as it arises. Here are 6 steps to get past envy:
- Recognize it. I spent thirty-five years not knowing what envy was. I don’t mean I didn’t feel it. I mean it was so impermissible, such an admission of weakness and neediness–so not nice–that I couldn’t recognize what that acid, gnawing sensation was when someone else had something I was hungry for. Sometimes it still takes me a while. One reliable flag is deriving any measure of secret satisfaction from someone’s misfortune. So-and-so’s marriage is crumbling just as her book is soaring up the bestseller list? Poor dear. The book’s a commercial hit, but all the critics say it’s tripe? So sad. Anytime I feel the urge to explore or expose the flip side of someone’s success, it’s probably coming from envy.
- Admit it to someone safe. It’s true that confession is good for the soul. But not indiscriminate confession. Envy comes from a place that is vulnerable and volatile. Don’t expose it to just anyone. Confide in someone you can trust to keep it between you, who will neither judge you nor nurse the bad feeling. Someone who can raise you back up without putting anyone else down. I hope you have a friend like this already, and can be that friend for someone else. If not, maybe journaling a dialogue with your highest and best self can substitute. Sometimes, sharing the feeling aloud is all it takes to banish envy.
- Contain the hazard. As much as possible, keep the envy from spilling onto yourself, others and especially, your work. This is hard, I know. I know. But it’s not as hard as cleaning up the mess after. Envy corrodes friendships, corrupts work, and marks you as an unsafe person. Creative people get very good at covering their soft underbellies. If you indulge in envy-driven behavior, you are painting a warning sign on your own back. I’ve seen jealous people immolate themselves on their blogs or on twitter. A whole bunch of people may come out to fan the flames and watch it burn, but they aren’t the people who can help you achieve your dreams. Those people walked swiftly away at the first whiff of gasoline.
- “Fake it till you make it.” Long before New Agers and neuroscience discovered the brain’s ability to chemically “rewire” itself according to adopted behaviors, 12-steppers in church basements everywhere were practicing the principle of acting one’s way into right thinking. And it works really, really well with envy. Don’t think of it as dishonest. Think of it as aspirational. When you are the also-ran to someone else’s triumph, operate from the place of graciousness and spaciousness you wish you could afford. Entrust a safe person or place with your real feelings (step 2). Then smile–Smile!–though your heart is breaking. Especially if the lucky, lucky so-and-so is a friend. It’s soul-crushing to know your happiness is a source of unhappiness for a loved one. It’s hard for a friendship to come back from that. I don’t know if it can.
- Delight the people who have already shown up. This is a paraphrasing of a concept that I first heard articulated by someone like Seth Godin or Dan Pink (probably both) and now I see it everywhere I see creative success. It’s so tempting to keep one’s horizon line “out there,” and ignore what is already within reach. I was watching a documentary on Tom Petty a few weeks ago, in which he recalled the point at which the band decided to quit opening for bigger, more famous bands, and “just play for the people who had come to see us.” Stop straining. Play your best stuff for the people who are already coming to see you. Reach from your knees. That’s where momentum happens.
- Let envy show you what you deeply need and want. Envy happens. It can consume you, or it can be a refining fire. If you can snatch your heart from it in time, you can read what is written there. Your dreams, your fears, your desires, your hunger, your purpose. It’s all there, legible in the black light of envy. Bring it into consciousness. Name it. Own it. Declare it. Then release it. Success rarely happens on our exact terms. That doesn’t mean we’re not succeeding.
All of these steps have been big stretches for me at one time or another. This is not easy yoga. We get to practice it again and again and again. No matter who you are, how celebrated you are, there is always a bell you’re not ringing. That craving to reach people–to win them–is a natural engine of creative drive. We can’t control where that engine drives the work, but we can decide where it drives us.
If you have other strategies that have helped you work through envy, I would love you to share them in the comments. Or just share your struggles. That can help someone, too.