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

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