On Literary Envy
“Comparison is the thief of joy”
You wake up one morning. You check in with Facebook. Skim the latest updates. And there it is: another writer announcing their latest prize-winning success, followed by several hundred ‘likes’ and congratulatory comments. You add your own, with a smiley or two. (I should also add that this person is someone you feel to be a peer, on about the same rung of the literary ladder or writing hierarchy as yourself. This makes a big difference.) You go back to your cup of tea.
What are you thinking or feeling at that moment? Is it:
- An overflow of joy for that person – he SO deserves success and has worked really hard for it, and this just shows that if he can do it, so can I! You are genuinely happy for him and picture how great you’ll be feeling when it’s your turn.
- A sinking feeling. The sudden sensation of being cold to your bones. Something feels wrong about the day but you can’t put your finger on it. Until you remember. My writing is crap. I’m basically a crap writer, because if this person is winning things and I’m not then there’s no hope and I may as well give up now.
Perhaps it’s neither of those, but just pick the one that’s nearest to what you’re thinking, OK? Be truthful – no-one’s going to see your answer. If you ticked (a) and genuinely, absolutely have NO IDEA what (b) is all about, then I envy you. Except of course I can’t admit it, because envy is the emotion that no-one dares speak of.
In reality, for most people it’s a mix of the two extremes – it’s perfectly possible to be pleased for a person and experience crushing disappointment at the same time. It’s just hard to know how to express that without losing face.
“Every time a friend of mine succeeds,
a small part of me dies”
Who wants to be seen as envious? Isn’t that just sour grapes, whingeing? Isn’t that ungenerous, bad form, an emotion to be avoided, hidden or denied? An admission of inadequacy? Why can’t we just get over our egos, stop complaining and start achieving?
I don’t know about you, but although I can play that game there are times when it feels dishonest, it doesn’t feel good. It feels like a negative charge that I’ve buried rather than let go.
“We can never achieve goals that envy sets for us.”
– Marcus Buckingham
So what (for those of us who suffer from it) are we to do with envy? I wish I had the answer. All I know is that a few things have helped me, personally, to ‘get over myself’, and I’m happy to share them:
– Recognise and acknowledge envy, and allow yourself to feel it. That doesn’t mean allow it to eat you up or rain on someone’s parade.
– Envy arises from a lack of confidence. The person who never feels envy is someone who never doubts their own capabilities/skills/talent. It’s therefore natural for anyone who is the slightest bit aspirational to feel envy.
– Envy – even the horrible, black, sick-to-your-stomach kind, in fact especially that kind – can affect anyone, regardless of skill, talent, where they are in the literary solar system, whether they’re nice people or how happy they are with life generally.
– Remember that someone, somewhere envies YOU. Probably a lot of people. The envious are also the envied.
– The feeling of envy is in yourself, it’s not something external, there’s nothing the person you are envious of can do to stop you feeling that way. Even though the bragging (or humblebragging!) may twist the knife in the wound, the wound is self-inflicted.
– If your envy is directed at a specific person, or even a type of person, remind yourself that no-one can really know another person’s circumstances. You may see a string of successes and feel that life is unfair, but you can never know what adversity lies behind it, nor how long it has taken or what sacrifices have been made.
The self-help answer is to turn feelings of envy around, to use them as motivation, inspiration even – something akin to answer (a) above. Exactly how you do this is something only you can work out. A few things that might help:
- Stay off of social media for a while. It could be a day, or more. Let the world turn and the hot news blow over.
- Write, or revise something that’s been languishing.
- Read (or re-read) something very fine by a writer you admire.
- Re-read something you’ve written that you’re proud of, and remind yourself why.
- Start a new project, set a new goal or find a way to inspire others, on your own terms. Don’t just use your talent, give it away at every opportunity. To share it is to feed it.
- Visit http://www.literaryrejections.com/ to see what all the great writers have endured.
- Go for a walk, a run or a cycle to a non man-made place. Remind yourself of what’s real. Grass. Sky. Birds.
- Meet up with a writer buddy for a private rant and slagging off of everyone you know.
- Get drunk.
- All of the above.
Good luck – and remember, we’re all in it together.
Robin Houghton is an author, poet and blogger who has worked in online communications since the 20thcentury. She’s had her fair share of success, failure and everything in between. Her poetry pamphlet ‘The Great Vowel Shift’ was published in 2014 by Telltale Press, a poets’ publishing collective she helped establish, and she has written three commissioned books on blogging. She envies all kinds of people, especially those who are better than her at golf.
Robin Houghton Poetry Blog (Poetgal): http://www.poetgal.co.uk