Artistic and Peer Envy (As Seen in “Don’t Think Twice”)

Although the main theme of Mike Birbiglia‘s excellent indie film Don’t Think Twice, in theaters now, has often been described as artistic jealousy, I’m thinking it would more appropriately be called peer envy.

Watch the movie trailer below, and you may notice a smidgen of this peer envy. Don’t Think Twice, by the way, is about a comedy improv group in which most members are pining for their big career break:

So, what’s the difference between jealousy and envy? Robert Leahy, PhD, Psychology Today:

In jealousy you are concerned that your partner is attracted to someone else. Jealousy is about a threat to your personal relationship: ‘She’s flirting with him.’ Envy is about a threat to your status and your perception of success: ‘He’s more successful than I am. That makes me feel like a failure.’

Peer envy is more likely to be a problem than peer-to-non-peer envy because it’s less easily rationalized than our perceptions of people outside our networks.

This won’t be big news: In any peer group that shares a common interest or goal, there’s likely to be competition and envy. However, as Leahy points out, “envy often carries the added burden of embarrassment or shame. We don’t want to admit to envy. We see it as a petty, selfish, sour-grapes emotion. So we hide it, we harbor it, we disguise it with claims of unfairness or character assassination. And we may avoid the people about whom we feel envious…And we may want to undermine them.”

According to Leahy there are three different types of envy: hostile, depressed, and benign. Whereas the latter is about “positive admiration” and can actually motivate you towards better things, the first two are more concerning.

Depressed envy occurs when someone else’s success makes you feel worse about yourself or worse about your life. You feel diminished, lost, defeated, even humiliated. You take their success personally—it reflects on you. Hostile envy occurs when you feel angry and want the other person to fail in some way. You might criticize their success or their personal qualities, claim their success was undeserving, or claim that they manipulated their way into their position. Hostile envy is filled with resentment, the desire to get back at the person, and often the desire to undermine the person. Of course, this is known as Schadenfreude. And everyone can identify with this feeling at times.

Author Anne Lamott, despite being highly prolific and successful by writerly types of standards, suffers from this common envy-often-called-jealousy issue. A key difference between her and many others, though, is that she’s been freely admitting it for years, including in her decades-old and most popular nonfiction book Bird By Bird:

Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.

And the following witty admission is from Lamott’s 2007 Grace (Eventually):

…I know that when someone gets a big slice of pie, it doesn’t mean there’s less for me. In fact, I know that there isn’t even a pie, that there’s plenty to go around, enough food and love and air.

But I don’t believe it for a second.

I secretly believe there’s a pie. I will go to my grave brandishing my fork.

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