How to Fight Envy & Jealousy and Get Back to Creating
Sometimes it’s reasonable, but it’s never helpful.
This is part of a series on indie studio management, written by the Captain of Kitfox Games, Tanya X. Short. Follow the Kitfox Medium publication to read all the entries so far.
Envy and jealousy are a real problem for creators. They can not only make you feel horrible, sapping any creative energy you might have had… they can also destroy relationships.
You might pull back from or even antagonize people who you used to be friends with or admire, preventing future collaborations you can’t even dream of yet. You start to protect your own resources and keep them from others!
None of this makes you a bad person! It’s natural, especially for people who are ambitious or competitive. Think of it as a bad habit, like biting your fingernails — something to gently improve, as a daily effort, and something that might need special attention when you’re under heavy stress.
After all, you don’t want resentment to consume you and every relationship you care about, right?
So here’s how to deal with it and move past it, in my experience as a creator, not a mental health professional.
Step 1: Identify It
Put simply, envy is when you want what someone else has; jealousy is a when you worry someone else is taking what’s yours. Although they are technically different,
You can tell you’re envious and/or jealous when seeing another creator or their creation succeed makes you feel bad. Usually it’s in your field — for me, that’d be an indie game creator, or their game. Maybe you feel angry, helpless, ashamed, or just discouraged.
We all know we should be happy for others when they succeed. I hope you try. I am, most of the time. Hooray. But it can be hard! Especially when I feel it towards friends.
There are three observable effects:
1 — we doubt ourselves (lowered self-esteem) or/and
2 — we decide we are more ‘deserving’ than others (bitterness)
3 — we become more selfish, guarding our territories
None are healthy. None lead to happiness.
Envy can be caused by a competing creation or company, but for me, often boils down to envy of a particular person. Maybe you wish you had their:
— success (sales, reviews, followers),
— abilities (design, art, code, public speaking, etc), or
— circumstance (network, community, privilege, lifestyle)
Sometimes the green-eyed monster pounces out of nowhere, and sometimes it’s totally reasonable. You might actually be more deserving than someone who succeeded, in every possible way, and yet get only a fraction of their success. And I’m sorry you’re going through that, especially if they are benefiting from privilege. Bad luck sucks. Unfairness sucks even more.
But envy is still not a helpful reaction to that reality, and can completely destroy creative problem-solving energy. It’s OK to feel envy— you’re still not a bad person, and this won’t be the last time. But defusing it ASAP is best.
AFTER you’ve worked through your personal envy, and have restored your creative juices, maybe you can also find energy for fixing injustices, distributing resources fairly, or otherwise helping change systems & culture. But envy is a shortcut to burnout.
So how do we actually engage with this feeling, once we’ve identified it?
Step 2: Disengage
Pull away. Log out. Don’t look at the materials hurting you. This is first aid, but doesn’t treat the actual problem. Wait and heal — drink tea or watch a movie or whatever. If you can take your mind off it and just work without distractions, great. Do it.
Take time, maybe a few days or weeks, until the thought of your envy target doesn’t hurt (as much) anymore.
But don’t just forget about it.
Come back, when you’re ready, with a magnifying glass.
Step 3: Probe the Bruise
Think about the details. Identify what about their success, exactly, is making you feel bad. This is the source of your insecurity. You dislike some aspect of either yourself or the way the world reacts to you — or both!
It’s worth keeping that self-knowledge in mind when choosing goals for your projects, by the way. You know how some creators win awards and sell tons of copies but then get hit by depression? It’s because what makes them happy was misaligned with what they thought would make them happy, and it can be tough to admit to yourself what you really want, but this envy is a clue!
If you REALLY CARE about how some aspect of your game is received, for example (sales, reviews, Tweets, whatever), admit that to yourself, and then I recommend it becomes an explicit priority in how you create. Otherwise, no matter how you succeed, you’re likely to always create things that leave you feeling envious of others, without feeling like you’re making progress towards your deepest goals.
You usually can’t even see your own successes very well, they’re so familiar and assumed.
Of course, if literally ANY shortfall compared to other creators makes you feel insecure, that can be a bigger, harder problem, but the root of it is that little word, ‘compared’.
Step 4: Stop Comparing!!
This is the key. Habits are hard to break, but you gotta try. The habit to target, the bad reflex, is “comparing to others”. At all. Stop.
Understand that as you succeed more and more, you’re likely to get closer to people who have had bigger and bigger successes, leading to more and more envy. You don’t know all of the failures they went through to get there, or how they might feel the same way about you!
The reason it hurts to see someone succeed is because you’re comparing yourself to them. Which means you think you are able to be compared. You think you can match yourself against them as a measuring-stick.
But you aren’t, and you can’t.
You are not actually like this person; your experiences and abilities and qualities are completely different. Even if was literally your identical twin, you still have lived a different life. Same for your games (or other creations). They are fundamentally different*.
Sure, game sales and review scores and follower counts can be compared easily, but those aren’t the game, any more than the diameter of your elbow is you.
It’s hard to resist comparing yourself! Sales charts do it, media does it, everything is metrics now. But try to resist.
Easier said than done, I know. The main way I’ve re-programmed my brain from trying to compare me and my games uselessly is to focus on comparing to my past self instead. What do I know that I didn’t, two years ago? What can I do that I couldn’t? etc.
Another tactic is to humanize this person as much as possible. Even if they’re your friend, it can be tempting to focus on the outcomes instead — but refocus on their experience, their day-to-day. They struggle. They doubt. They hunger.
*And if you don’t believe me — if you really think you’re absolutely 100% comparable to this person in a meaningfully evaluative, “better than” kind of way… okay. What do you gain from this? Seems like your comparisons are making you unhappier. So maybe try it my way, even if you have to tell yourself you’re “pretending” people can’t be compared, and see if you’re more creative after a few weeks of trying.
Step 4.5: No Really, Stop Comparing
If someone said, “Wow, your thing is way better than (that other thing)!” would you thank them?
If someone ranked you or your game on a list, would you look further down the list and think, “Well, at least I’m not doing better than THEM!”
Knock it off!
These are more comparisons. They’re flattering, but still self-destructive, because it continues to reinforce this idea that two people are meaningfully comparable, which you’re not, remember?
Besides, as soon as you start buying into the idea that some people are more “valuable” than others, full stop, you’re going down a road towards all sorts of justified inequalities and oppression and eugenics. So, stop it.
Sure, you’re better at some things, and worse at others, but as a totality, everyone is an apple to everyone else’s orange. We’re people, not numbers, no matter what listicles and our various cognitive biases try to claim.
Step 5: Take Their Success Seriously
Resist dismissing your (hopefully unwitting) rival’s success as meaningless or “not actually that great” to make yourself feel better in the short-term.
In the long-term, diminishing others’ achievements doesn’t make you less envious, because you’re in denial. It’s about as effective as telling yourself, “Stop feeling that way!”
You felt unhappy about someone’s success because it was meaningful to you, for some reason; accept that.
Of course, people DO just get lucky! It’s healthy to acknowledge the role of (good or bad) fortune, and privilege, especially in your own success. But don’t let that be a bitter escape-hatch out of taking a look at yourself and what you can learn and how you can improve.
Some others have it easier. Some others have it harder. We each have challenges. We should still try to be happy for others when they succeed, especially friends, if only to avoid the psychological damage that results otherwise.
You are more than your work.
You are more than your ambition.
Step 6: Armor Up
When you can, emotionally prepare for any or all of your friends, mentees, and students (plus that random goofball you met the other day with way less experience than you) to succeed in a way that you have not, despite your best efforts.
It’s all easier said than done, but ideally, you should nurture a self-image that isn’t dependent on attaining certain goals. Allow yourself to be, and live, how you can.
You are a person, not a number.
You are worthy of love.
You are making something that brings you pleasure.
You are always going to be learning.
So keep going.
Step 7: Help Someone Else
Help others around you, not out of pity or guilt, but from any pockets of joy and care that you can find.
Share knowledge. Build tools. Give encouragement.
Re-build a habit of community and generosity, as sandbags against selfishness and arrogance and doubt. It’s much harder to get bitter over others’ success when you’re busy being part of making it happen.
If you’re extremely good friends with someone, a bit of light rivalry can add texture, without turning into envy! If both parties are very secure and emotionally sensitive, you can grow together and delight in each others’ successes.
But rivarly is a bit like playing with fire. I’d advise regular caring check-ins even in the best of cases. I’ve found that many of my friends who primarily engaged with me via “banter” turned out to secretly harbor some kernel of truth in their “jokes”, and we were both happier after turning to more sincere methods of communication.
I know I have many kinds of privilege, and my coping strategies are undoubtedly tainted by that, but please know that if you hurt, no matter who you are, I’m cheering for you.
I’m writing to you from a difficult time, for me and for the world, but I hope we will always find a way to return to creating joyfully.