Story Hospital

#73: Counteracting Envy of Other People’s Success

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.

The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.

The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.

The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.

Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.

—Hopeful (she/her)

Dear Hopeful,

Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.

The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.

I use the word envious there because I think it’s worth distinguishing between “I would like to have the thing you have” and “I would like to take away the thing you have.” You wanting career success in addition to your friends’ career success is envy. You wanting to be hugely successful while they crash and burn—to take away their success and keep it all for yourself—is jealousy. From what you say above, it sounds like you’re feeling envious. You don’t want to destroy anyone’s career; you just want to have a career of your own. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that ambition, nor with being sad when you press your nose to the shop window and see everyone buying sweets while you don’t even have a penny in your pocket.

The problem is that your feelings of envy are harming you. They’re making it hard for you to maintain professional connections with people in your field. They’re making it hard for you to be friends with your friends. They’re making it hard for you to write, and to believe in what you’ve written. In other words, they’re making it hard for you to achieve a degree of self-defined success that might lead to you feeling less envious.

I often think of damaging thought patterns as parasites that are desperate to stay alive. To that end, they will steer you in the opposite direction of anything that might make you feel better. The envy-parasite really doesn’t care about your writing career or anyone else’s. All it knows is that if you stop feeling envious, the world ends. So it will do anything to keep you feeling bad. Every goalpost will be moved. Every perception will be skewed. Every argument will be met with a clever counterargument. Fighting directly against it is very hard, because the parasite is fighting for its life.

Here are some other things to try instead. As always, you can take what works for you and leave the rest.

Basic self-care

Perspective adjustment

Community

Goals and habits

I strongly encourage you to write down as much of this as possible. Write down your goals; write down all your reasons for being a writer; write down the list of things that make writing hard; write down your recommitment to seeing this project through to completion, whatever completion looks like; write down your definition of “professional success” (this is so important, because it makes it much harder to arbitrarily label other people as successful and yourself as unsuccessful); write down your schedule. Write it down on paper by hand, or print it out. It may feel a little silly at first, but it really does make a difference to have something you can point to when you need it. Words you keep in your head, and even digital words, are too easily altered in response to a shift in your mental state. You want something that will stay solid when you’re wavering, something you can lean on.

As you get more used to valuing yourself and your achievements, you can start practicing things like congratulating other people on theirs, or viewing every book sold by a colleague as a possible entry point into the genre for new readers who will, in the future, love your book too. But right now, given the other things you have going on, I think it’s important to stay focused on doing your work and building good habits and healthy thought patterns.

You will keep having thoughts and feelings about other people’s work and accomplishments. That’s human nature. When those thoughts and feelings cause you pain, don’t just turn away from them; pick one of your goals and turn toward it. You can even make a specific plan for that: “The next time I think/feel envious of another writer, I will counteract it by [writing 100 words, writing for ten minutes, checking in on someone I mentor, rereading positive comments from a beta reader, rereading my list of reasons I love my WIP, etc.].”

It may not feel like it, but you’ve already achieved so much. Take a moment to feel good about that—really good. Then start drawing up the goals and plans that will take you into your glorious future. You’re doing great. Keep going!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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