Dear Story Nurse,
I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.
The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.
The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.
The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.
Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.
Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.
The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.
I use the word envious there because I think it’s worth distinguishing between “I would like to have the thing you have” and “I would like to take away the thing you have.” You wanting career success in addition to your friends’ career success is envy. You wanting to be hugely successful while they crash and burn—to take away their success and keep it all for yourself—is jealousy. From what you say above, it sounds like you’re feeling envious. You don’t want to destroy anyone’s career; you just want to have a career of your own. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that ambition, nor with being sad when you press your nose to the shop window and see everyone buying sweets while you don’t even have a penny in your pocket.
The problem is that your feelings of envy are harming you. They’re making it hard for you to maintain professional connections with people in your field. They’re making it hard for you to be friends with your friends. They’re making it hard for you to write, and to believe in what you’ve written. In other words, they’re making it hard for you to achieve a degree of self-defined success that might lead to you feeling less envious.
I often think of damaging thought patterns as parasites that are desperate to stay alive. To that end, they will steer you in the opposite direction of anything that might make you feel better. The envy-parasite really doesn’t care about your writing career or anyone else’s. All it knows is that if you stop feeling envious, the world ends. So it will do anything to keep you feeling bad. Every goalpost will be moved. Every perception will be skewed. Every argument will be met with a clever counterargument. Fighting directly against it is very hard, because the parasite is fighting for its life.
Here are some other things to try instead. As always, you can take what works for you and leave the rest.
- Keep treating your other mental health issues. If you’re seeing a therapist, make sure to mention your problems with professional envy so they can help you address that.
- Take care of your physical health too. Sleep, eat, drink water, take your meds, treat your pain, go out in the sun—do whatever helps your body feel good.
- Keep doing the work. Put one word in front of another. If you need a break, take a break, but then come back to it. Doing the work is the only way to achieve success with the work. Keep doing the work.
- Take a moment to list the things in your life that make writing challenging for you: health issues, work commitments, family commitments, whatever takes your time and energy. When you compare yourself to someone else, you’re really comparing yourself to some mythical alternate-universe ideal you, someone you feel you should be. This list is the list of the reasons you aren’t that idealized person who writes 24 hours a day without needing anything or being needed by anyone. You’re a real person with a real life outside of writing. Practice considering your achievements and your goals in the context of that real life.
- Remember that the future exists. Append yet to any itemizations of your perceived failings. “They’ve sold a book but I’m not there yet.” “I have this goal but I haven’t met it yet.” Look back on how much you’ve achieved—so many words! so many drafts! so much research and planning and outlining! so much revision!—and remember how impossible that seemed a few years ago. A few years from now you will have done so much more.
- Transmute some of your envy into competitiveness. In larger doses this can be toxic, so handle with care, but a little bit of “I’ll prove that I’m as good as they are! Maybe even better!” can help to counteract the elements of envy that discourage you and hold you back.
- Every time you make a goal, celebrate it in some way. For making your daily wordcount or time goal, give yourself a little token so you can later redeem some number of tokens for a bigger prize. For sending your book out to an agent or publisher, take the night off from housework or eat something delicious. Get in the habit of feeling good about what you accomplish, especially in the context of everything that makes writing hard for you.
- Put together some self-contained definitions of success that have nothing to do with professional achievement: Did you have fun? Did you learn something? Did you keep going even when it was hard? Did you start something? Did you complete something? Did you surprise yourself? Celebrate every success.
- Reaffirm your commitment to writing. Remember why you do it, what makes it satisfying. Renew your love affair with your work in progress. Find the parts of writing that feel good and wallow in them for a bit. You write for an audience, but you also write for yourself, and it’s important to keep that connection.
- You say you struggle with enthusiasm or self-belief, so remember that you don’t need those things to do the work. You can do great work while thinking your work is terrible; your perspective is skewed by your anxiety and has no bearing on how good your writing actually is. You can grind out words even when your heart isn’t in it, because there’s no such thing as the muse. When you don’t have eagerness and inspiration, you can fall back on habit and discipline. Give yourself permission to write while not inspired. Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. Let go of the mystical aspects of writing if they’re holding you back more than helping you.
- Step back from those challenging friendships if you need to. You aren’t obligated to be anyone’s cheering section. If you’re close friends, they’ll understand you saying “Hey, I’m struggling with some mental health stuff that’s making it hard to be an active friend right now, so I may seem kind of distant, but I will come back and reconnect when I can”; if you’re not close friends, they have no claim on you.
- Find other people in your field to hang out with who are less far along than you are, and help them. Seeing someone else benefit from your advice can give you a tremendous boost of self-confidence. (Take it from the advice columnist!) If someone you’ve mentored lands a book deal before you do, or achieves something else you’d like to achieve, remember that their success reflects on you too.
- You say that you’ve been “writing privately without any kind of reassurance”; that degree of isolation is not good for many writers and I suspect it’s not good for you. Look for ways to write in community instead. Join a writing group, online or off—not a critique group, but a mutual cheerleading group. Find beta readers who will say gentle, kind, true things about your work.
Goals and habits
- Set goals that are only about you and don’t reflect or depend on anyone else. Instead of setting the goal of selling your book, decide how many times you’ll send it out on submission. (Some writers frame that as “I will collect 20 rejection notices!” to turn a source of stress into a mark of achievement.) If wordcount goals make you think too much about how many words a day your friend writes, decide you’ll spend a certain number of minutes or hours a day working on writing-related tasks (which could include research and revision and so on), or focus on increasing your average daily wordcount so you’re only competing against yourself. Challenge yourself gently; your goals should be achievable with only a slight increase in effort beyond what feels easy and natural. If nothing feels easy or natural, set very low goals at first.
- Regardless of how you set up your goals, your brain may try to make you feel bad by moving them every time it feels like you might achieve something you set out to do. If this seems likely, pledge to yourself that you are only allowed to change a goal you haven’t met by making it easier. Once you do meet a goal, you can make it harder or pick a new one. But you can’t make a goal harder before you achieve the easier version and celebrate that achievement.
- Focus on building consistent writing habits so you have them when you need them. You don’t have to do daily writing if that doesn’t work for you, but aim for something that you really can do week in and week out, in any life circumstances short of a crisis—you may not be able to do it if you have the flu or are wrangling a major day job project, but you should be able to do it when you have a minor head cold or are dealing with the stresses of a typical week at work. Start with something very small, like ten minutes a day for three days a week, and scale up slowly and gently to find that sweet spot of sustainability. Don’t rush to make it feel hard; this is a habit, not a goal, so it should feel easy, maybe even fun, and leave you looking forward to the next round rather than burning you out.
I strongly encourage you to write down as much of this as possible. Write down your goals; write down all your reasons for being a writer; write down the list of things that make writing hard; write down your recommitment to seeing this project through to completion, whatever completion looks like; write down your definition of “professional success” (this is so important, because it makes it much harder to arbitrarily label other people as successful and yourself as unsuccessful); write down your schedule. Write it down on paper by hand, or print it out. It may feel a little silly at first, but it really does make a difference to have something you can point to when you need it. Words you keep in your head, and even digital words, are too easily altered in response to a shift in your mental state. You want something that will stay solid when you’re wavering, something you can lean on.
As you get more used to valuing yourself and your achievements, you can start practicing things like congratulating other people on theirs, or viewing every book sold by a colleague as a possible entry point into the genre for new readers who will, in the future, love your book too. But right now, given the other things you have going on, I think it’s important to stay focused on doing your work and building good habits and healthy thought patterns.
You will keep having thoughts and feelings about other people’s work and accomplishments. That’s human nature. When those thoughts and feelings cause you pain, don’t just turn away from them; pick one of your goals and turn toward it. You can even make a specific plan for that: “The next time I think/feel envious of another writer, I will counteract it by [writing 100 words, writing for ten minutes, checking in on someone I mentor, rereading positive comments from a beta reader, rereading my list of reasons I love my WIP, etc.].”
It may not feel like it, but you’ve already achieved so much. Take a moment to feel good about that—really good. Then start drawing up the goals and plans that will take you into your glorious future. You’re doing great. Keep going!