Are You Sick With Envy?

I’ve seen a bit of this going around creative streams lately, so today, I want to expose a painful, closeted emotion that we can all relate to: Envy. The envy I write about here is sometimes spurred by others’ success or sometimes spurred by engaging in “just a little healthy competition”. Yet, regardless of whether you’re an artist or a construction worker, there is nothing about envy that ever feels healthy – and in fact, it usually feels downright sick.

My first personal experience with envy and it’s twisted sister, competitive jealousy got rooted at the age of five. At that time, my older brother began competing with me in everything, especially board games. When he started winning every game, he’d make such a big, loud production out of it that though my little toddler brain couldn’t quite understand my unease with his glorious boasting, inside I felt crushed, without knowing why.

My tiny comeback at the age of five years-old, as I was later told, was to respond to his gloat by proclaiming, “Hooray! I’m the loser!”… Yes, I can hear your chuckles. We’ll come back to this silly comeback at the end of this post….

Envy affects us all and envy and jealousy are everywhere, but how many of us admit to feeling it?

As defined by Webster:

Envy is a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.

The word, “longing” is interesting because it connotes a different kind of attachment to a desire for something we think we can’t have. Because we cannot have the thing that we long for and because others seem to have it, we are filled with a kind of clandestine emotion that’s difficult to admit.

When we don’t “out” the envy or rectify the conflict internally in some honest way, that emotion ends up bloated with shame, anger and discomfort.

In years past, every artist online showing off their work became a target for me – not the ones who are well-known, but my peers. I’d become jealous of their art, their “success”, their really awesome website, the hundreds of comments on their blog or likes on Facebook, their recent exhibits, their published coffee table book and their hundreds of followers on Twitter.

I knew deep down that these artists deserve their success.  They worked hard to get to their growth and though they seemed to be inching past me in the race, I knew in my heart that envying their speed was not only wrong, but counterproductive. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling like I was behind and continously seeing the work of my peers filled me with urgency to compete.

I began looking honestly at this thing called, envy a few years ago. While it still creeps up occasionally, my treatment of envy has taken a different form because I learned how to deal with it in an honest, straight-forward way.

The Artist’s Way To The Rescue

After working with envy, jealous and the topic of self-confidence for about two years, I finally rounded it out by re-reading, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She addresses envy and jealousy this way:

 Jealousy is always a mask for fear: fear that we aren’t able to get what we want; frustration that somebody else seems to be getting what is rightfully ours even if we are too frightened to reach for it.  At its root, jealousy is a stingy emotion.  It doesn’t allow for the abundance and multiplicity of the universe.  Jealousy tells us there is room for only one — one poet, on painter, one whatever you dream of being.

She goes on to say,

The truth, revealed by action in the direction of our dreams, is that there is room for ALL of us. But jealousy produces tunnel vision…. The biggest lie that jealousy tells us is that we have no choice but to be jealous.  Perversely, jealousy strips us of our will to act when action is the key to our freedom.

There is room for all of us in the spotlight. What a novel thought! This radically changed my thinking and it put the onus back on me for taking responsibility for my own success instead of procrastinating and bemoaning the success of others.

The Antidote to Envy in Action

Cameron says when jealousy bites, like a snakebite it requires an immediate antidote. When I used the jealousy activity in her book, I learned that antidote. This can be used when you are in the middle of a green monster fit:

  1.  Write down who you’re envious of, why, along with a counter-envy action step. So you can identify that “longing”, it works to write down the details that caused the envy. Once you see it on paper, it might feel icky; “When Johnny made 5k in art sales, I felt like crap about myself because I’ve been trying for 3 years and I’m not selling enough.” The next step though, alleviates the “ick”:
  2. Carve out an immediate action for yourself for how you could move toward your own creative risk. By creating an immediate action, i.e. “reach out to mentor to ask for advice” or “investigate by end of week where I want to sell more art“, you are taking responsibility for your own success.
  3. Find room to honor the object of your envy who is succeeding (this one is not in the book, but I use it as a third step). When I started doing this this work,  I learned that at the end of the day, it wasn’t about any of my peers’ success, but it was about me not living up to my own expectations and constantly chasing a dream that felt out of my reach. It was also about my fears of having “wasted” so much of my time by not starting sooner and getting distracted by other themes in my life that were non-productive. It was only then that I was able to consider being open to feeling happiness for others’ success. Make a strong enough effort to recognize others’ work and point out what you love about it. If you are sincere about it, it feels really good!

Envy During Competitions and Critiques

To me, it’s very simple. First of all, ask yourself honestly, why you are involved in a critique or competition. Are you using it as a way to improve or are you just wanting validation? Can you get that validation in other ways? Find the real reason you crave the feedback.

Then, if you choose to involve yourself anyway, just pay attention to what’s going on physically during a critique. There’s a spirit in which competition thrives in a healthy way and there is a tainted, anxiety with which competition goes into darkness. We all know intuitively whether we are participating in a healthy way or an anxious way because we can feel the difference. If your brain goes into overdrive, or if shame, defensiveness, or self-deprecation is in the pilot seat taking over in a frenzied, obsessive or angry way, you are most likely going into the dark rabbit hole of envy or ego. On the other hand, if you can let go of the outcome for the most part with minor hesitation, and you feel mostly cheery about the interaction, then you are engaged in healthy competition because you KNOW confidently that no matter what, you are still a wonderfully, talented human being!

It’s only now at this later age that I have begun considering true competition and critique. No way I could have considered it before! My ego was too fragile.

Overall Steps To Dealing With Envy

  1. Recognize that underneath the hood of jealousy and envy is nothing but fear idling. 
    The first step to moving way from envy in your life is to see immediately that you are experiencing fear. This fear has nothing to do with the triumphs of others and everything to do with the failures or lacking you see in yourself. Any envy I may feel toward others is nothing but my own fear of what I think I cannot achieve for myself (and the fear that only one person can win).
  2.  Take responsibility for your own path.
    My mantra is, “may I accept responsibility for where I was, where I am, and how I got here.” Comparing myself to others is an old pattern and when it creeps up from time to time, I keep this mantra handy. I want to keep my relationships with my peers healthy and flourishing, without the bitterness of jealousy, so I do this now by pointing the mirror inward. I have my own distinct talents and passionate goals and I’m still learning. It’s ok if I’m not exactly where I think I should be because something else is actually creating this whole life along with me!
  3. Change judgment into to sincere praise. 
    Judgment punishes the soul, no matter how you try to justify it to yourself. I had created a life-long habit of judging myself for feeling stuck, unable to get to the next level of success. By the same token, I had also created a life-long habit of judging my peers for their success. Success is a relative term. Once I stopped judging myself, I was able to accept where I was, but I still wasn’t able to honor the success of others. I finally began opening up to the notion that I was taking out my fear on others and that they deserved a pat on the back – who better than from me? Now, I try to find ways to support my peers. It’s not always easy. Some of them can get stuck in the highly competitive or self-absorbed that they can’t see the forest through the trees, but we’re all finding our way and we’re not perfect. So, I still believe in offering a pat on the back to honor their achievements.
  4.  Always find a way to celebrate who and where you are. 
    Back to my five-year-old statement of self-induced, internal compensation: “Hooray, I’m the loser”. I think that was my own little way at that time of dismissing labels such as, “winners” and “losers”, knowing somehow that they were just labels. I think it was my way of “poo-pooing” harsh competitive egos, saying no to them. And I think it was my way of wanting to celebrate something about myself too, not matter who was the “winner”. Yes, what else could a five-year-old be thinking?….You see, it must all come full circle!

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