I read something that surprised me, recently. It was this: that people who are jealous of another person (which, let’s face it, is something we regrettably see quite a lot, among the artist community) are actually expressing their insecurities, because they are angry at themselves for admiring the other person so much. This is the dark side of admiration – resentful admiration.
This might have happened to you. You’ve spent a veritable lifetime getting better at what you do and you find yourself among people that, while they may have tried very hard, have not quite reached the point in the journey that you have. You’re innocently going about doing what you do, putting out your best work, with integrity and trying to learn and improve, every day. Suddenly, out of the blue and without forewarning, you encounter professional jealousy. Some other artists, who previously fancied themselves as pretty darn good (and maybe with full justification), suddenly feel that whatever you’re doing is somehow “better” than what they can do, or else that you are luckier, less-deserving, facile or whatever fabricated criticism they can concoct, by way of self-justification. Overnight, you find yourself bearing the brunt of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – again.
I say again, because it’s usually the very few extraordinarily different artists that cop the most flack, repeatedly. They’re the tall poppies that everyone wants to cut back down to size. Because they are outstanding, they’re the obvious targets. All of this would be of little consequence if it were no more than a childish, playground spat, but it’s more harmful and insidious than that. All the target of the jealousy can do is bear it and keep doing the work that they do, as well as they can, but you know they’re hurting. It’s heartbreaking to be ostracised and isolated, rejected and reviled by your peers. To be disrespected and abused in this way and made to feel a pariah, for doing nothing more than practising your art as well as you are able, stings.
This kind of jealousy damages promising careers. It can cause actual material loss and leave the victim feeling traumatised, stressed and burnt out. Health can be impacted, in unrecoverable ways. Opportunities evaporate. Confidence takes a nose dive. All that snarky back-biting and sabotage undermines the victim in every way imaginable, poisoning the atmosphere for them and destroying any joy they might have derived from working among colleagues. It’s miserable. It’s lonely. You just want to escape to somewhere that the people are nice. Instead, you have to withstand vengeful acts of self-importance and self-aggrandisement, as if you had done something wrong. But you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re being punished not because your work is bad, but because your work is good.
If the jealous person is in a position of power in a hierarchy, micromanagement can often be the manifestation. Small details are suddenly crucially important to them and they take any opportunity they can to demonstrate, mostly to themselves, that you, the victim, are somehow lacking or missing the quality bar. The harder you try, the more they try to trip you up on tiny, insignificant details. It’s a nasty tactic and a pure power play.
Here’s the ugly truth, though: Whether you admire somebody and derive inspiration from them, or alternatively envy them, becoming bitter and resentful at their accomplishments and talents, is completely up to you. It’s a choice that you make. Which choice you make comes down to respect. Do you respect people that work hard to be who they are and do the work that they do, with authenticity? Do you respect yourself enough to rise above your insecurities and find some gratitude and appreciation for being in the presence of a colleague like that?
Anybody reputed to be competent knows that competence can be a curse. The fact that you can do what others feel they cannot, disturbs their equilibrium and self-image. It shakes their self-belief and the foundations of their identity. This grotesque distortion of admiration, when it rolls over into professional jealousy, is the origin of the vicious rat-race we all like to imagine we are observing, at a distance, rather than caught up in inexorably.
All those hard-won lessons, which you learnt in the depths of despair, having failed at something you tried, seem like a stone around your neck. Far from making others see you as a better person (which those tough lessons actually made you); you are despised for having survived the scars and wreckage and emerged as a better artist. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair to the attacker. They see the shining abilities, but they never notice the pain, sacrifice and suffering that was paid, to obtain them. They don’t perceive that the difference between the outstanding and them is simply that they haven’t done as much learning, yet.
Being on the receiving end of professional jealousy, especially if this happens to you repeatedly, can leave you feeling that the problem must be with you, but very often it is not. It really is them, not you. Being in any way outstanding, especially in your art, singles you out as a target for resentful admiration, which is delivered in the most begrudging, nasty and conniving way, as pure, unalloyed envy.
This kind of pathological rivalry can be thought of as being fuelled by a defensive tendency to self-protect. It’s a social strategy, but not a very positive one. Its antagonistic nature leads to social conflict, accompanied with ego threats. I’ve seen it written that:
Jealousy = Admiration + (Insecurity + Contempt)/2.
I don’t know how true that is, or how mathematically rigorous, but there is an element of wry wisdom to it.
Jealousy is a negative emotion, consisting or thoughts and feelings of insecurity, fear and anxiety over an anticipated (and largely imaginary) loss of something of great personal value (esteem, position, privilege, respect, admiration, for example). Jealousy is expressed as a combination of emotions like anger, resentment, inadequacy, helplessness and disgust. In the main, jealousy (professional or other) is a disempowering emotional state and quite distracting. You can’t do your best work, while you are jealous of somebody else doing theirs, to a high degree of competence.
Admiration, on the other hand, is a social emotion elicited by people of competence, accomplishment, talent or skill, exceeding the usual norms. The thing about admiration is that it facilitates learning in groups and motivates self-improvement, through learning from role models and mentors. In contrast to jealousy, it is empowering and engaging. Why would you choose jealousy over admiration?
Those that feel jealous imagine that the very presence of the person they despise for their qualities causes a painful assault on their self-esteem. But who is assaulting whom in reality? Being in the presence of an excellent artist can be particularly painful to those with narcissistic tendencies. There can be few things more painful to a narcissist than to discover somebody they admire more than they admire themselves. People with low self esteem are also prone to feeling jealous, when they encounter somebody that, innocently and inadvertently, threatens their own self image.
The art world tends to exacerbate and amplify professional jealousies. There are relatively few opportunities for major success, in the arts, as it tends to be a winner-takes-all business. You’re either a star, or one of the starving. There is very little in between. When somebody in the arts perceives themselves to be the “top dog” in their field, then they encounter somebody they feel to be, somehow, self-evidently and obviously better, that can be the catalyst that starts the jealousy. Unhappiness ensues.
If you are one of those artists seemingly constantly on the receiving end of unwanted, unwarranted, unprovoked and unjustified professional jealousy, just for being who you are and doing what you do, why should you have to put up with other people’s bullshit? Why should their insecurities be your problem? Of course, the outstanding artists tend to be the most understanding, empathic and supportive of colleagues that feel inadequate, but it’s dangerous. They can get injured, at least psychologically. In truth, you don’t have to subject yourself to such disrespectful, bad behaviour. You can and should excise it from your life and the sooner the better.
If you can arrange circumstances to allow, you really shouldn’t stay too long anywhere you’re not appreciated. That’s a rule that applies universally, whether or not you are in any way special, gifted or practised.
For those that might be jealous of another artist, why not take the opportunity to watch and learn from your colleague? It takes less energy and it feels much better. Be grateful for being privileged to bear witness to somebody extraordinary, doing their extraordinary things. Their powers are ephemeral and nobody lives forever. Admire and appreciate, instead of envying, disadvantaging, damaging and destroying those you secretly love the most.
You’re not bleedin’ Salieri!
“The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.” – William Penn.