It was a fine Tuesday morning when I mustered enough motivation to start working on an article about workout motivation. I started reading other writers’ work as part of my research and the more time went by, the worse I felt about my own writing abilities. “They communicate their ideas so succinctly! I wish I was as creative as them,” I thought.
If you too have ever looked at somebody else’s work and wondered, “I wish I would have thought of that,” or “I wish I could come up with brilliant ideas like them,” that’s creative envy. And it’s not a bad thing, it’s actually very natural.
“It is part of the human condition to see something we like and wish we could have done it ourselves,” Alice Brown said. She’s a 25-year-old writer who reminded me I’m not alone in the way I feel.
Jack Worthy, a New York City-based therapist agreed. “Comparison and competition are part of human nature and an unavoidable part of human life,” he said. “We want to feel intuitively that we’re doing well — professionally, romantically and socially … and to do ever so slightly better than our closest peers and competition? There may be no stronger signal nature can send us that we’re meeting our potential in the world.”
So when you see your friends, colleagues or family members achieving something beyond what you have attained so far, it is normal to feel that sting of envy. “It is just your nervous system pushing you to compete harder,” Worthy added.
But when it comes to creative achievements, why does it sting a little differently?
Worthy said it’s because our creative work is close to our heart and often an expression of our self and identity. “When the community, whether local or global, values our work, they are affirming the value we bring to the world. So when we see someone else earn some of the community’s affirmation, that can feel threatening.”
That is where insecurity and low self-esteem come in. You wonder: Am I now less valuable because this new person earned more respect and admiration in the eyes of society?
While these feelings are natural, it doesn’t make them any less bothersome. But we owe it to ourselves as creatives to have strategies to manage them. So here are some ways to help you navigate envy in a healthy, and potentially, beneficial way.
Know and accept these feelings
You are not narcissistic or vain or petty for feeling jealous, you are human, Worthy noted. The more you deny, push away or hate these thoughts, the harder it becomes to deal with them.
So watch them, name them and try to accept them for what they are: Natural urges to be a better version of yourself. You can do this with the help of journaling, talking to close friends or simply saying it out loud in front of a mirror.
Turn jealousy into advice and inspiration
If you are comparing yourself to or competing with someone you love, find ways to turn your jealousy into inspiration. One way to do this is to be honest about your feelings and ask for help.
“Express to your friend your admiration for [their] achievement, your feeling humbled by it, and ask how [they] moved from where [they were] to where [they are],” Worthy said. This will help you strike a friendly, helpful conversation where your friend feels appreciated and you receive guidance to achieve similar goals.
Be mindful of who you are competing with
Competition is not inherently bad. But who you compare yourself to can make a huge difference to how you feel about your outcome. For instance, writer Alice Brown said, “The designers I work with have a totally different skillset, so I’m not too worried about [competing with them]. I’m glad we have them on the team to produce amazing things together.”
Trying to be better than people who excel at different things can trap you in a cycle of insecurity and disappointment. Worthy offered a helpful perspective to help you stay mindful of such comparisons:
“Notice that you likely admire different artists for different reasons, and your experiences of art evolve and shift over time. You do not approach art as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. You admire various filmmakers, authors, painters, etc., for varied and sometimes unexplainable reasons. Allow your art to be a part of that mosaic of expression, rather than [forcing your way into a] ranking.”
Get a reality check
When you look at someone’s work, remind yourself that you don’t know what it took for them to get there. You don’t know the hard work, the stress or the setbacks they faced to create this finished product. In the same way, they don’t know yours.
You are not the only person who feels a little uncreative sometimes. The person you admire and who you think is the most creative human you have ever met? They probably have bad days too. We’re all human, after all.