Rejecting Jealousy

Posted on 31 January 2013

Several years ago, before much of anything was happening in my writing career, I learned that a writer I’d been loosely connected to years ago had landed a book deal.

As this news sank in, so did a feeling of dread. At first I wasn’t even conscious of how terrible I felt, maybe because I thought it was normal to feel like a miserable failure in the face of another writer’s good news. I sat there feeling deeply uneasy and unhappy until I forced myself to take stock of my reaction.

I was jealous, that much was clear. I was also anxious about my own writing career, which so far hadn’t gone the way I’d hoped. But it wasn’t right to connect my own disappointments and insecurities with another writer’s good news. Especially considering that, with all I knew about this writer, this book deal was more than deserved. I already knew the book would be beautifully written and complex and smart. (In some ways, I have to admit, that might have made it worse.) Logically, I understood that someone else’s success should have nothing to do with me or my writing. I knew that. I also knew I didn’t want to feel anxious and jealous over this.

So you know what I did? I told myself to stop feeling jealous and to be happy for this writer instead.

Maybe that sounds easier said than done, but once I identified what I was feeling and why, changing my response was surprisingly easy. I also decided to do the one thing I might have never dreamed of doing in the first moments after reading about the book deal: I wrote a congratulatory email to the writer. By the time I hit “send” I not only felt much better, but I meant every word I wrote.

I thought of this situation when I read Cheryl Strayed’s new interview in Creative Nonfiction, where her old advice is brought to light again: “You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous.”

You guys, this actually works. Isn’t that sort of amazing?

Jealousy is natural, and maybe we can’t avoid it entirely, but just being aware of what’s going on in our heads can do wonders. And if the person with good news happens to be a friend, it’s better for everyone involved if you truly mean it when you say “Congratulations.” Yesterday, for example, I heard from a friend that her debut book is likely going to be published next year. She’s a fabulous writer and I couldn’t be more thrilled for her. Trust me when I say it’s so much better to have this reaction than what I felt a few years ago.

Here’s a final note from Strayed on jealousy, when a young writer asks her, “What would you say if I said I feel jealous of you?”

STRAYED: I would say you shouldn’t waste your energy on jealousy. Ever, ever! But especially on people like me. I’ve been writing a lot longer than you have. When I was in my twenties, it never occurred to me to be jealous of writers who were in their forties, writers like Mary Gaitskill and Anne Lamott and Mary Karr, who are all about fifteen years older than I am—the same age difference as between us. They weren’t my competition because I wasn’t in their league. With all Sugary affection, Elissa, you haven’t yet earned the right to be jealous of me.

….But really: jealousy is destructive. It won’t make you a better writer. It won’t make you a better person. And when you focus on silly things like comparing yourself to people who’ve been at this years longer than you have, it will only lead to self-pity and a loss of perspective.

How do you face jealousy?

Photo: Kikishua

19 responses to Rejecting Jealousy

  • Teri says:

    Such a great subject, Laura.

    My mother’s theory was that the primary cause of feeling “bad energy” towards another person was jealousy. From as early as I can remember, if I got angry at someone she would say, “Are you jealous? What are you jealous of?” And it seemed that no matter what other reasons I tried to come up with, it usually came back to jealousy. The same if someone was mad at me: “He’s just jealous,” my mom would say. With this kind of training, it is usually the first question I ask myself when something negative pops up.

    Surely she was wrong about this some of the time, but I can’t recall any.

    And the funny thing is that when I ask myself why I’m feeling so damned jealous of X or Y or Z, I usually discover it’s because I’m lacking somewhere myself —- like maybe I’m not published yet because I’m not working hard enough. It’s a tough lens.

    • The major exception I can think of is certain women who have no female friends and claim it’s because all other women are jealous of them. Please. But otherwise yes, I think you’re right; jealousy is often at the heart of a lot of the dark stuff inside us. And yes, “jealousy” definitely manifests in me now in ways that tell me *I* need to get to work…it has little to nothing to do with how I feel about other writers.

  • Averil says:

    I don’t feel jealous of other writers. (Well, except for the ones who’ve hit success like a lottery ticket, a la E.L. James.) I’m still at the stage Cheryl describes, not having earned the right to feel jealous of anyone else.

    I’ve felt jealousy from the other side, though. Modest though my successes have been, other writers have expressed dismay and even bitterness around them. And it hurts because I know they’re right, it isn’t fair, there are better writers everywhere and it happened to be me who got picked up this time. I don’t know what to say about that or how to apologize for the unfairness of the system, or the nerve of me to go out there with my smutty fiction and muck up the marketplace. I don’t know what to say, so I just carry on and try to keep the faith that we’ll all find acceptable levels of success in our own work eventually.

  • Josey says:

    the only jealousy i can remembering having toward another writer was a woman who used to be my writing partner. after too many comments that rubbed me the wrong way and too much feeling like i was the one giving encouragement…while she was the one telling me what i didn’t know, I stopped our writing connection and slowed down all other relationship ties.

    once, when i tried to convince her to start pitching agents, she told me that i hadn’t, “…done my homework,” regarding self-publishing. that was the last time we met up to talk about our writing.

    i would get so annoyed with her constant status updates and tweets about whatever she had self published that day/week/month.

    i don’t want her writing career, and i definitely would never choose her life over my own in a million years, but for a long while, i was deeply jealous of her complete and utter devotion to writing. i still may be. just writing this comment has me giving her the stink eye.

  • MacDougalStreetBaby says:

    I used to experience a lot of jealousy when I was younger. It came from a place of deep insecurity, where I thought most everyone was better off than me. I’m not sure when or how things changed but I rarely experience that emotion any more. If anything, I look at others’ successes as motivators. I think, if they can do it, so can I.

  • Downith says:

    Good advice from you and Cheryl Strayed.

    • I admit I loved when she (nicely) smacked down the young writer by saying she hasn’t earned the right to be jealous of older/experienced writers. That’s something to keep in mind — sometimes jealousy is a form of entitlement.

  • Lisa Golden says:

    This IS a great subject because it’s such a common feeling, but we experience it so personally.

    For me it’s a combination of awe and anger turned inward as in “What is wrong with me that I decide before anyone else can that I don’t have what it takes.”

    • That’s a good message to send to yourself. See my fortune cookie post for an additional pep talk. As much as I like to think those fortunes were directed to me personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that anyone who orders a noodle dish and cracks open a cookie gets the same thing…

  • Catherine says:

    I agree with Teri that jealousy makes bad energy kick in and sets you on the wrong path. Hell I’ve been jealous. Of people who through privilege get leverage for their art, people who don’t touch the struggle but sail on. But what’s the point? It doesn’t take you anywhere, enrich you, limber you up for better writing. So I’m with you Laura. A good word where it’s deserved, otherwise reroute and get back to solid work. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled when a deserving mate goes forward in a big way, it’s just that I’ve seen dishonesty and art play together on other occasions.

  • This is a really timely topic for me, too, Laura. I’d love to believe I’m not jealous of anyone’s success (especially a friend’s), but when one’s happiness for somebody’s success is also accompanied by a dull pain in the stomach, you have to know something else is at play.

    I’ve found that, for me, the best reaction is holding onto the belief that if it can happen for others, it can happen for me, too. Positive thinking can always help replace bitterness with hope.

    • Yes, that dull pit in the stomach! And I agree. Especially in this publishing climate, if a friend or acquaintance has some success, I take it as an indication that it’s possible. That’s a great way of looking at it.

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