‘I think that’s what envy is, often: just curdled embarrassment. It’s not that we resent someone having what we want so much as we’re humiliated by the reminder that we didn’t get it.’ Photograph: John William Waterhouse/Art Gallery of South Australia
I’m struggling with jealousy over an old friend’s (well-deserved!) success. We both work in a creative industry, and when we were starting out we spent a long time consoling each other over (very cheap) red wine about the long, unpredictable luck-driven road to success in our field. We’re both good at what we do, and after years of slogging away, her latest project has taken off in a big way, with a whole new set of opportunities opening up. I want to feel happy for her in an uncomplicated way, but the moments of envy and “why not me?” keep creeping in, and I’ve found myself turning down invitations to catch up because of it. How can I handle those feelings in a healthy way and get back to celebrating her achievement?
The comedian Billy Connolly tells a story about going back to his hometown and stopping at the pub to see his old mates. He dreads it because he knows that until the moment he opens the door everyone in that pub is perfectly happy with their lives. But then he walks in, and the lives that seemed full and warm just moments ago suddenly seem tinny and empty to the people who have to live them. He hates making his friends feel tinny.
This is a way of saying that your friend is going to be feeling just as weird about this transition as you are. She knows how much of her own story is luck and she knows that your talent is equal to hers, which means that when she goes to sleep in the hotels that look so glamorous from the outside I promise you, on the struggling-artist sacrament of cheap wine, that she feels like she shouldn’t be there. So the good news is you’re in this together. You both want a friendship that doesn’t embarrass you.
I think that’s what envy is, often: just curdled embarrassment. It’s not that we resent someone having what we want so much as we’re humiliated by the reminder that we didn’t get it. So your task might be speak candidly to yourself about why your friend’s success makes you squeamish and embarrassed. It could be that you think if you’d worked harder, you could be there too; it might be that deep down you aren’t proud of everything you’ve produced. Whatever uncomfortable thought is at the root of those feelings (and I’d lay good money it’s about yourself) you should pull it out by the roots of its hair and squeeze it until it dies.
Then you should go and do the best work you’ve ever done. Take your irritation and make it fuel. Write about it. Tear up what you’ve written and eat it. Do whatever you have to do to get the flywheel in your brain cranking until time goes stripy. Lose yourself in the work, splash in it, hate it, drink it, collapse in a heap at the end of the day knowing you did what Annie Dillard tells writers to do: “spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time”.
Who cares if it gets recognised? The creative world apportions its rewards with capriciousness at absolute best and mediocrity at worst. You don’t want that. You want the sweet earned exhaustion of having survived combat with a craft. When you’re proud of yourself for that, really proud in your marrow, the shiny things your friend has won’t look so good by comparison. In a few months’ time when she’s eyeballs deep in a press tour and her brain has rusted from going so long without that kind of work, she might very well start to envy you. And that’ll teach her.