How to Not Strangle People Who Are More Successful than You

Poet and blogger Trish Hopkinson recently reposted an article I wrote about rejection and the value of hope. That article was a sort of precursor to this blog, and it made me feel very warm and fuzzy to see it popping up again. I got some really lovely responses to it the first time, and even more this time around.

One of the responses that was most significant for me was from a writer of fiction who experienced a great deal of rejection before getting published. As I’ve pointed out before, I have a complicated relationship with most success stories, but I found this one to be inspiring, because her path to publication seemed to look a heck of a lot like mine: lined with frustration, disappointment, repeated failure, and worst of all, the infuriating “almosts.” Her dream coming true did not happen like a bolt of lightening; it was like a rose bud opening slowly, petal after petal. It just rang very true for me.

A few days earlier, however, I had sort of the opposite experience. I learned that a friend of a friend of mine got an agent. And yes, even with all my “the only opinion that really matters is your own” “find your own definition of success” feel-good self-compassion stuff, I was overcome by an intense, ugly, toddler-esque jealousy. Why her and not me? Why her and not me?

You know what I’m talking about, right? Anne Lamott has a whole chapter on it in her book Bird by Bird: “Some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know–people who are, in other words, not you.” “Those writers will get the place on the best-seller list, the movie sales, the huge advances, and the nice big glossy pictures in the national magazines where the photo editors have airbrushed out the excessively long eyeteeth, the wrinkles, and the horns. The writer you most admire in the world will give them rave reviews in the Times or blurbs for the paperback edition. They will buy fancy houses, big houses, or second houses that are actually as nice, or nicer, than the first ones. And you are going to want to throw yourself down the back stairs, especially if that person is a friend.”

Anne (I can call you Anne, right? We’re friends. In my head) goes on to describe her own struggles with jealousy and some coping mechanisms she’s worked out for herself. I highly recommend reading that chapter–and the book in general, especially if you’re a writer.

The thing is, it’s not just jealousy that happens. It’s jealousy, and then it’s the shame you throw on top of the jealousy: “How can I feel such an ugly feeling? I should be happy for her!” One of the things Anne found most helpful was to stop telling herself that. You do not need to be happy for people who are doing better than you. You just have to not be a jerk about it. It’s okay to feel jealous. It happens to all of us, and it’s a natural response to the situation. The question is what you do with it.

Here’s the thing–we all have different paths to walk. And they can look radically different from each other. Some people have really easy paths. Some people have really hard paths. I don’t know why. It doesn’t have anything to do with their virtue or their skill. Being very talented and skilled helps, but without the right circumstances lining up for you, you won’t move an inch.

When your eyes stray to other people’s paths you might go out of your mind. “How come she gets roses and all I get is thorns?!” “Who gave him a golf cart while I have to walk?!” “WHY THEM AND NOT ME?” And you might even look at the paths of people who’ve done worse than you and brush off your shoulders in self-congratulation: “Yes, well, clearly I am more capable/talented/otherwise superior.”

Nope. That’s not how this works. In an insanely competitive market like the arts, skills and talent are not enough. It’s either Divine providence or dumb luck, depending who you ask. We have to accept this.

plans-modifiedAs a religious woman, accepting that some higher Being has a plan for me comes naturally. If you believe everything is random and has no purpose, you probably won’t find this idea very comforting. But if you believe that there is some order to the universe and that things happen for a reason, you must believe that the path you’ve been given is not because you are better or worse than anyone else, but because that is the path that is right for you.

And the main thing is to keep walking. Even when it looks like it’s leading you nowhere. It’s leading somewhere. It may not be where you think you want to be. But I sincerely believe that it’s where you need to be.

So if you’re going insane from jealousy, remember this:

  • It is totally normal and legitimate to feel jealous. What is not legitimate is to lash out or be cruel to someone because you are jealous. Be kind to others as well as yourself!
  • Jealousy is made of hurt, anger, and fear. Ask yourself: what hurts about this? What is making me angry? What am I afraid of? Write it down, or tell a friend. Break the jealousy down to its components and examine it thoroughly. Don’t shove it under the rug. Remember our affirmation from the Creative Resilience Manifesto? “I allow myself to feel everything”? Jealousy is one of the uglier feelings we must allow ourselves to feel. But this is part of the deal; everything means everything!
  • Once you have unpacked your jealousy and given it the attention it deserves, think about something concrete that you can do right now that will help you feel that you are moving forward, even the tiniest bit, on your own path. Create something new. Brainstorm a title for that untitled piece. Submit something. Send that e-mail asking about a promotion opportunity. Taking action will help you own your path and turn your frustration into hope.

Has there been a time you felt consumed by this kind of jealousy? How do you cope? Tell me about it in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “How to Not Strangle People Who Are More Successful than You

  1. Thanks, Daniella (and Trish)! I am very happy to have contributed to this dialogue. I love Anne Lamott — and thank you for reminding me of that chapter. There are days when I definitely need a refresher. Much that you said resonated with me and I like the idea of “unpacking” those knee-jerk jealous feelings. I also liked the suggestion about getting into action. That is, for me, one of the most constructive responses. It also works with rejection — so I try to send out a story that has been declined as soon as I receive the “no”. That way it goes quickly back onto my mental “maybe” list. One of the most remarkable essays on this subject was written by Kathryn Chetkovich. It is brave, unsparing and titled “Envy”. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/22/extract

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