Envy and Your Creative Life
Envy is an insult to oneself.
Envy is human nature.
In this famous shot of Sophia Loren (left) and Jayne Mansfield at a Beverly Hills restaurant in 1957, Loren may or may not be feeling envy – but I like the photo.
Reportedly, Mansfield’s extravagant cleavage was a publicity stunt intended to deflect attention from Sophia Loren during a dinner party in Loren’s honor.
Envy can be an insidious feeling, with a collection of attitudes and beliefs that impact our creative energy and motivation.
In his book Creativity for Life: Practical Advice on the Artist’s Personality, and Career, creativity coach and writer Eric Maisel, PhD gives a concrete example:
“An artist’s envy may manifest itself in any number of ways. In the past she may have loved to read; now she avoids contemporary fiction completely. All living authors have become her rivals. Or she may avidly read contemporary fiction, but only to assure herself that it’s bad. Or she may read only the works of an author she knows is an alcoholic or or near death — a rival she can pity or feel superior to.”
Ambition and Envy
In her chapter “The Personalities of Creative Writers” of the book The Psychology of Creative Writing (by creativity researchers Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman), Jane Piirto notes, “Writers need ambition, as do other creative producers, but that ambition often produces horrible feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. The high rate of rejection that creative writers experience when they try to publish their work may also contribute to the intense feelings of envy paired with intense ambition.”
From my post The Creative Personality: Ambition and Envy.
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and mystery author, and in his Hollywood on the Couch post titled “Envy,” he writes more about the topic.
He thinks “one constant of life in Hollywood” is envy, and recalls, “I’m thinking about a patient of mine, a screenwriter, that I saw in my practice some years back. Despite the gains he’d made in therapy, he felt his work was continually undermined by his envy of other writers.
“He told me he had to stop reading Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild, as well as the various chat boards and writing websites, because seeing the deals being made by other writers angered and deflated him. He’d grown increasingly self-critical about his work habits—normally a source of pride and satisfaction—since hearing about an A-list screenwriter’s penchant for ‘knocking out a new million-dollar spec’ every six months. It had reached a point where learning of a friend’s having lunch with a potential new agent could trigger a depression.”
Palumbo adds, “For some, of course, hearing of another’s success can be a spur to greater efforts. For others, the result can be a crippling paralysis.
“It took me a long time to understand, and to accept, that envy is a natural by-product of the achieving life. Throughout our childhood experiences in our families, and then our schools, and ultimately in the adult world, we strive to achieve in a matrix of others who strive to achieve — such that comparison is not only inevitable, but often the only standard by which to measure that achievement.”
The positive side of envy
In her article Envy Can Be Good For You, Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D. notes that envy “can motivate action…If you are capable of sensing what emotions you are feeling, you can ask yourself, ‘What am I jealous of, really?’ and ‘What does that person have that I don’t that makes me feel envious?’ If you can find a quiet place to answer these question truthfully, you may be able to use the emotions as information to help you make choices.”
She asked a coaching client about professional envy: “What is it you are saying to yourself when you envy someone else’s success?” – and the client “answered with the same questions my brain often screams at me:” “I should be the one recognized for that. How did they get the breaks and I didn’t?” AND “I have been saying those things for years. How come I’m not the one who is famous for those ideas?”
Reynolds says, “If you have similar thoughts, these are great questions to ask yourself. It is possible that life is unfair and the person was given an advantage you didn’t have access to. However, instead of focusing on what isn’t in your control, can you shift to focusing on what is in your control to change for yourself?”
[Image: The New York Times Best Sellers list from Amazon.com.]
Envy can help you focus
A news magazine summarizes a research study on this subject: “Feeling envious helps you focus. Psychologists found that when they asked volunteers to recall a time when they’d coveted something belonging to a friend, they proved to be much better than others at remembering details of a text.
“And volunteers paid much closer attention to stories about people they envied than to ones about people they didn’t. ‘We can’t get our minds off people who have advantages we want for ourselves,’ says Texas Christian University psychologist Sarah E. Hill.
“Envying our successful peers heightens our powers of memory and observation, and may also help us learn how to win or steal some of that success for ourselves.” [The Week mag. theweek.com December 21, 2011.]
[Her related academic paper: The Cognitive Consequences of Envy: Attention, Memory, and Self-Regulatory Depletion, by Sarah E. Hill, PhD, et. al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, Vol. 101, No. 4, 653–666. See link on her site: the Hill Evolutionary Social Psychology Lab at TCU.]
Mastering anxiety and envy
In an interview (for the publisher) about his book Mastering Creative Anxiety, Eric Maisel comments indirectly about envy, noting “A creative person’s main challenge is therefore existential: we easily lose the sense that what we are doing matters, given how many novels or paintings there are in the world, how hard it is to do the work well, how difficult the marketplace feels, and all the rest.
“Two kinds of anxiety arise with respect to this profound existential issue: the anxiety that arises when we begin to sense that our work doesn’t matter to us and the anxiety that arises when we realize that our work matters very much to us (and what a burden all that mattering puts on our shoulders!).”
He also thinks “The most important anxiety management tool is probably cognitive work, where you change the things you say to yourself, turning anxious thoughts into calmer, more productive thoughts.”
What conversation can you have with yourself when you are feeling envious about someone else’s level of success or acclaim?
Is your creative work satisfying to you even without the degree of recognition some other people have?
These and other questions can help you more fully use your creative talents without being sidetracked by the destructive sides of envy, or other feelings.
Eby, D. (2011). Envy and Your Creative Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 1, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2011/12/envy-and-your-creative-life/