Monday, February 22, 2010

Dealing With Jealousy: Learn, Don't Burn

As a child, I once asked my grandmother what the difference between jealousy and envy was. She defined it as follows: Jealousy is when you wish you had what someone else has; envy is when you wish they didn't have it.

It made sense to me, but I note not everyone defines those terms the same way. A lot of us use the words jealousy and envy interchangeably.

Psychologists define things roughly the way my grandmother did, but they use different terms entirely. They define "benign envy" to be coveting what someone else has, and "malicious envy" to be wishing to deprive the other person of the thing that you covet.

Benign envy feels like sadness, self-pity. It's associated with the urge to mope. The person feeling benign envy is focused on themselves.

Malicious envy feels like anger, rage. It's associated with the urge to do harm. The person feeling malicious envy is focused on the other person. They are often willing to destroy their own chances of getting the thing they want as long as their actions also deprive the other person of having it.

When Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote about Surviving Someone Else's (Professional) Jealousy, she provoked a goodly amount of discussion and argument. Some people said jealousy could be useful, that it could spur a writer to greater heights, whereas Ms. Rusch argued firmly that jealousy was damaging to everyone involved.

I think part of the disagreement stemmed from the various parties not making a distinction between benign envy and malicious envy. They were arguing about the merits of different concepts.

In Eileen Cook's SiWC 2009 presentation, Psych 101 for Fiction, which I covered in this blog post, she noted that success is more strongly correlated with optimism than it is with talent or IQ.

Optimists don't give up, and that's why they succeed. (And the nice thing about optimism is that even if you're not naturally optimistic, you can fake it by being bloody-minded stubborn.)

I think the people arguing in favour of jealousy as a useful driving force for writers were thinking in terms of how an optimist deals with benign envy.

The optimist feels icky, temporarily, to see someone else enjoying the success they want. But then, being an optimist at heart, they get over the moping and try even harder. They begin to see the fact that someone who (in their eyes) is less deserving of success has it as a kind of encouragement, i.e. "If Fred Hack over there can do it, I definitely can!"

I think Ms. Rusch was arguing so hard against jealousy because she was focused mainly on the kinds of malicious envy she had seen and suffered in her professional career.

My own take on this is that Ms. Rusch is correct in saying that jealousy is never helpful. Benign envy doesn't get you anything, and malicious envy is a symptom of psychological issues you really should see a therapist about because they're probably poisoning your life in ways you don't even realize.

I also fervently agree with her tactic for dealing with jealousy. She tells writers to nip your anger or mopiness in the bud and ask yourself a hugely useful question: "What is that person doing that I’m not doing?"

And don't fall into the trap of answering via insult, i.e. "They write populist drivel" or "They're a schmoozing suck-up." That's just you enabling your malicious envy. Really try hard to understand what that person is doing right.

Jealousy doesn't ever help get what you want, but understanding how to become a success will. Learn, don't burn.

That said, I don't think benign envy is much to worry about provided you counsel yourself to get over it in a timely fashion, say 24 hours (faster is better, but some situations will hit you harder than others.) Everyone feels disgruntled by another person's (seemingly unfair) success at some point.

It's how fast you recognize that unhelpful emotion for what it is, and what you choose to do about it afterward, that matters.


What do you think? Does benign envy have its place in provoking a healthy competitiveness, or is competitiveness always a counter-productive emotion in a field where your talents (no one else's) determine your ability to succeed?

Do you ever feel benign envy? Malicious envy? Have you ever been the victim of malicious envy? What did you learn from those experiences? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis


writtenwyrdd said...

Good points, but for my own self I've always thought envy more benign than jealousy--which proves your point about definitions.

I think a bit of envy/jealousy is normal, short of wishing bad things on the other person, or labeling them negatively to make yourself feel better. It is sort of sad, done right, or perhaps more bittersweet when you realize that you could be there if you tried harder, or whatever.

maybe genius said...

Great post!

I definitely think jealousy/envy are very normal emotions that most people feel at some point or another - we all have dreams for ourselves we want to see realized, and when someone else gets there before us, we feel that pang.

I totally agree the stewing in our own green monster juices over it does us no good. We're not moving forward to our own goals if we're busy fuming over someone else. I think the idea that it can be used as a motivator is interesting, so long as it's positive motivation i.e. "I want that! How can I get that?" as opposed to "I DESERVE THAT MORE THAN JOE SCHMO! GIMME!"

Maureen said...

JJ, so many of your posts are wonderful tools for character development and the possibilities with this one are endless!

Insanely jealous lovers, sibling rivalry, MC's tormented by inner, fun, fun! Olympics for the brain!

Thank you!! :D

jjdebenedictis said...

Writtenwyrdd: I may have mixed up my grandmother's definition, now that I think about it. At 98, her memory's in great shape compared to mine!


Maureen: Hee! I've been thinking about it like that too--malicious envy has so much potential as motive for villains, because as far as they're concerned, their target deserves it.

Merry Monteleone said...

Now I need to look them up, because I've been using envy and jealousy interchangeably.

I've used the term, "Oh, I envy you!" but not in the evil way, in the, "That's so great, you're doing so well!" way. I try to be the kind of person who is happy to hear about other peoples' happiness, and the type of person who feels bad when I hear someone is having a hard time. Those are the kind of people I admire most.

Admittedly, I have on occasion gotten that little pang when someone say gets a publishing deal or agent or something I'm shooting for with little success. That pang doesn't last very long and I never really begrudge anyone so much as I get a little sad or disgruntled with myself. Also, when I get that little jealousy pang, I feel guilty about it. Even though the person with the good news would never know, I feel a little bad for thinking anything less than, "Yay!" for the person doing well.

I don't do malicious envy. I don't think anyone else will ever have anything or be anything worth trading my soul to hate. I have been the subject of malicious envy before. The only thing I learned was that their perspective was seriously skewed, and I pitied them more than a little. I think they'd prefer to think I hate them, but I just couldn't muster hate for it.

Always interesting, JJ. I can't tell you how many times I've stopped in lately and didn't comment because there was just too much to discuss and I didn't have the time right then - I love how much you make me think.

CKHB said...

I never said thanks for your Twitter tutorial... thanks! No time to respond properly just now, but this is some interesting stuff...

jjdebenedictis said...

I can't tell you how many times I've stopped in lately and didn't comment because there was just too much to discuss and I didn't have the time right then - I love how much you make me think.

*sniffle* Serious warm-fuzzies happening here, now. Thanks, Merry!

And the fact you feel guilty about even little pangs just shows again what a nice person you are. :)

CKHB: You're very welcome, and I hope it helped. Twitter was certainly confusing to me when I started squinty-eyeing it for the first time.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think that the term 'green eyed monster' is usually related to jealousy, but it is also hooked onto envy. now I'm going to be pondering which is really more negative.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Semantics. I'm still stuck on the word stubborn - cause I sure am that. Not so sure that I'm optimistic. So there's hope for me yet.

I've been around people who were the possessively jealous kind. Who spewed angry thoughts about how someone did not deserve what they got. And that someone was supposedly a friend. Scary.

I've had pangs when I entered a contest and someone else won. But not sure if that was a short burst of jealousy or just plain old disappointment.

I think people get to feeling that everything in life is a race and if someone gets there before you, you've lost that race. It somewhat explains road rage and these jealous/envious feelings you're dissecting.

jjdebenedictis said...

Sarah: I'm in the stubborn-rather-than-optimistic category, too...

Although I do feel enough confidence in my writing ability to believe I'll get published someday. That could be construed as a specific sort of optimism, one that doesn't really spill over into my otherwise anxiety-prone life. :)

Megs - Scattered Bits said...

And here I always thought the difference was that jealousy was of what someone has and envy of what someone is. :sighs: Back to the dictionary.

jjdebenedictis said...

Megs - Scattered Bits: See, that definition also totally works for me. I've heard people use those words like that also.

I think there's just no well-defined and widely accepted definition for them.

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