Do you ever feel jealous of other people's success? Do you get frustrated and feel inadequate in a world seemingly bubbling with talent? It's only natural that we'll sometimes feel envious, put ourselves down and suffer negative thoughts, no matter how well our careers are going.
It's a theme familiar to Camille DeAngelis too. She's the author of several novels – The Boy From Tomorrow and Bones & All, which won an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2016. She's also written Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People – a book that will give you strategies for escaping the negative feedback loop you get stuck in whenever you compare yourself to your fellow artists or designers.
Through her wise words, she promises that you'll even begin to resolve your hunger for recognition, shifting your mindset from "proving yourself" to making a contribution and becoming part of a supportive, creative community. We chatted to Camille about how to live a life without envy and how to keep our egos in check.
As creatives, it’s easy to compare ourselves to others
We’re trained for it from the very beginning – for example, even when my sister and I were little, my dad described me as the one who tested well and my sister as the hard worker. And when we start school we’re continually being measured against arbitrary standards, always being described in relation to someone else.
These labels and categorisations lead to most of us feeling inadequate and inferior even as small children, so of course, we’re going to carry these feelings into adulthood. They tend to linger even when we’ve consciously worked on improving our self-esteem.
Looking at your book, Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People, what sparked it?
My second novel had gone of print, so I’d effectively lost my publisher, and I was broke and living back at home with my mom. I felt anger at the corporate bean counters, anger at "fate", anger at myself, and eventually, it occurred to me that I needed to focus on growing into a wiser, calmer, less entitled version of myself – developing my emotional intelligence, in other words.
A new friend recommended The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and that book turned everything around for me: I developed the awareness that it was my thoughts making me unhappy, not the circumstances.
When I tried to share what I’d learned with other artists, though, most of them weren’t receptive because they don’t read "self-help". So Life Without Envy became a book for frustrated artists who don’t read self-help books!
The Internet has made the creative playing field global, so we're comparing ourselves to everyone. That's a lot of pressure for anyone to cope with.
Yes, but if we focus on substance – how can I add value to a few strangers’ lives today? – Social media can be a tool for connection and insight rather than yet another method by which we assess ourselves and come up lacking. Whenever you feel dispirited by other artists’ tweets and Instagram posts, log off. Hide your phone and make something.
Our egos can often hinder progress. Why do we allow this negativity to creep in?
The ego’s favourite pastime is to hook itself to The One Perfect Outcome. Then it spends a great deal of energy weeping and whining when something depressingly realistic happens instead.
We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re no good without that One Perfect Outcome. We keep working for it without pausing to consider that fulfilment might lie in a different direction entirely.
Pay attention to how the creative people around you react to disappointment – I guarantee that the folks who aren’t stewing in negativity are the ones who recover quickly and pivot whenever it makes sense to.
Do you think anxiety is more prevalent too?
I believe anxiety is a name for the subliminal fear that we are unlovable (and I use that word even when we’re talking about managing difficult emotions in a professional setting).
Instead of medicating our anxiety (or in addition to, depending on what you feel is right for yourself), we can find simple ways to reaffirm our "right" to be here – in Life Without Envy; I call it "being your own mama". Look for specific (and possibly even measurable) ways to respond to anxiety.
For me, it means acknowledging and being present with sadness instead of berating myself for feeling it, and yoga as a way to honour and respect my physical body and tend to my mental wellbeing.
Some say social media has sparked an "age of perfectionism". Do you think we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves?
Women do, especially. Again, we’re trained from childhood to please and accommodate, and perfectionism is the logical consequence of that. It’s also a matter of control. The world is in a bad state, and we’re pretty much helpless to do much beyond donating to international relief organisations and voting for the least shady politicians on the ballot. Still, at least we can strive for order and constancy in our own lives…right?
Only to a point. Self-determination is a powerful thing, but a commitment to sanity often requires flexibility in responding to what, in reality, is not at all within your control.
How can we break out of these negative mindsets?
I learnt this from Eckhart Tolle: it’s a matter of training yourself to notice when you’re stuck in a negative thought spiral – becoming an observer of your thoughts, thereby gaining some objectivity – and gently leading yourself out of the loop (again and again, as many times as is necessary).
Most of the time declaring the need to reroute my mental energy is enough to achieve it, but now and again when I get on a particularly nasty jag (this happens maybe once a year), I will stand on my head for at least ten breaths. That always helps.
I also highly recommend reading up on the concept of Nonviolent Communication. On the topic of self-care (which has become such a cliche now, I know), I’ve heard several people point out that if someone else talked to us the way we tend to speak to ourselves, it would be considered an abusive relationship!
Listen to what you’re saying to yourself and commit to using gentler, more loving language. (Again, "be your own mama" – which is even more important if your parents weren’t the warm and fuzzy type.)
Is it also as simple as ignoring the competition, as so many advise?
"Stay in your own lane," indeed, but I do think it’s essential to keep up with developments in your field if you want to keep producing work that is fresh and relevant.
My grad-school fiction professor (Mike McCormack, author most recently of Solar Bones) gave me some advice I still think about all the time: "Make a space for yourself on the shelf," and by that he meant telling stories no one else is telling (or seemingly-familiar stories in ways they haven’t been told before).
If you focus on developing your unique sensibility, you won’t have to worry too much about the value of your work.
Have you suffered yourself? If yes, how did you overcome it?
I’m glad we’re doing this Q&A two years after the publication of Life Without Envy because it gives me a chance to reflect publicly on the extent to which I’ve been putting my advice into practice. And it is a practice – I can’t emphasise that enough.
I don’t have sour feelings towards other writers, but I do feel frustrated that my career still hasn’t "taken off". I say, "I’ve been working hard at this for almost half my life now, I’ve published seven books, why isn’t it getting any easier? What if no matter how long I work at this I won’t ever be able to make a sustainable income?"
But that, my friends, is the risk I signed up for – and I signed up gladly. I notice the sense of entitlement underwriting my frustration, I remember just how cushy these "problems" genuinely are, and I get on with my work.
What steps can we take today to lead a more positive, less envious life?
I have a favourite exercise that has helped me tremendously: take a blank sheet of paper, divide it into two columns, and title the left column "Success" and the right column "Satisfaction".
In the success column, write down every ego-driven fantasy you have ever cherished about your future career (my favourite is "see a stranger reading my book on the train.") Take a few minutes to mull over each item, letting it sink in just how little control you have over any of these successes ever coming to pass. All you can do is keep on producing the best quality work you are capable of.
Moving on to the satisfaction column, write down those creative achievements you long for that you do have complete control over. You may not get a fancy book deal, but you can finish the manuscript. (On my list: "Self-publish my children’s novel if it doesn’t sell by the end of 2016” and “Make a quilt and don’t give it away!")
Your desire for those items in your success column certainly won’t disappear, but you’ve allowed yourself to place those ambitions within a healthier mental framework. Now focus on achieving those items in your "satisfaction" column!