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Envy. Let’s talk about it!

This is from Giotto's "The Seven Vices." Envy is hideous!

We all feel it at one point or another, right? You have to be some kind of saint or robot or saintly robot to not feel envious some of the time. Occasionally, at least. I’m not here to judge you, but if you’re going to sit there and claim that you’ve never felt envious, then maybe I’m judging you a little bit. How dare you.

All right, LISTEN. If you’re not the envious sort, I’m just going to–well, be envious of that. Share with me your secrets!

I have a long, storied history with envy. There are different kinds of envy: there’s the financial envy, in which I am purely wishing I had that income or means to have the fancy vacation/home/wife (not really wife) (maybe sometimes wife). There’s the superficial, I-wish-I-had-that-pretty envy; then there’s the creative envy, which is what I want to address here–wherein I hear of someone else’s fabulous success in their latest artistic endeavor, and I think, when will it be MY TURN?

These feelings can pop up when I’m feeling vulnerable, like when I glance at my bank account, say, or wonder what happened to my butt. (THINGS. Things happened. That’s all I’m going to say.) Then I read or hear about a peer who is doing fabulously and ALSO has an ass you could AND SHOULD bounce quarters off of, and there it is: that tightness in the chest, the sudden desire to curl up in a corner. Hello, envy.

The worst part about envy, for me, is that in addition to the gritchy miserly I-want-I-want feeling, I also feel guilty. Guilty because I shouldn’t want good things to NOT happen for other people. I shouldn’t hog all the goodness for myself. What kind of a jerk feels like that? Martha Beck calls this “dirty pain.” “Clean pain” is when you fall and scrape your knee; “dirty pain” is when you beat yourself up for wearing those dumb heels when everyone knows you’re totally uncoordinated. Dirty pain is the critical thoughts we heap on ourselves when we’re already hurting.

Not that envy is “clean,” per se, but it’s certainly a great deal cleaner. We can’t really help the feelings that well up. Feelings are kind of dumb. They come and go, sometimes with no logic whatsoever. It’s when you hold onto them and think you’re stupid for having them in the first place that problems crop up.

The guilt, for me, is the worst is when I’ve felt envious of my good friends. The last thing I want to think when celebrating my friend’s success is “why is this not me?” That sucks. And yet, every now and then, one of my friends has hit it big, and I’ve been genuinely, truly happy for them, and also a little miserable.

But here’s the important part. I’M GETTING TO IT!

I don’t ALWAYS just automatically feel sorry for myself whenever other people shine. That would be odd. Whenever I’ve felt that pang of envy, it’s because the other person accomplished something that I want for myself. I mean, if my friend Jeff becomes Executive Vice President of United Business Corp. (I’m really not clear on business and the kinds of names businesses have) I’m not going to eat myself alive wishing I had that too. Because eeccch. I can’t business. I’m a terrible businesser. Please don’t make me business!

Back when I suffered from crippling envy on a regular basis, I was also a frustrated writer who never wrote. I had given up.  Meanwhile the dreams I had buried for years–because I thought editing was a more realistic occupation and I just didn’t have the discipline to write–were being lived by other people. People around me were making it work, and I still hadn’t and was pretty sure I never would.

It took me forever, but once I stopped gnawing on my knuckles and glaring at the latest copy of the New York Times Book Review, I realized that envy was telling me something. It was telling me to fucking get my priorities straight and do the stuff that I wanted to do. It was showing me what direction I needed to head in.

And it still does. A few months ago I was practically cringing in the fiction aisle of my local bookstore; there were all these novels all around me and WHY WASN’T ONE OF THEM MINE. Not that I’ve even tried to get a novel published, mind you. Or actually, say, written one. I felt like an idiot for a while, but eventually I realized that again, that feeling was telling me what I wanted to do next. It wasn’t telling me that I could do it well, or at all, really. But I’ll tell you, just the effort has made that gnawing, awful feeling subside quite a bit.

Now comes the part where you tell me you deal with envy. Or that I’m all alone in this you and you’re pretty sure that I am a terrible person. Either way!

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