Anne T. Donahue on Using Professional Jealousy to Figure Out What You *Really* Want

I’ve never been jealous in moments where I’m actually fine with the way my life looks. Instead, it's when I assume the thing somebody else has is the missing piece in my own life

A photo of someone at a computer wearing a paper bag on their head—inline

(Photograph: iStock)

I can be a petty, vengeful, and calculating person. Sometimes I’m cold and manipulative. And these traits I can acknowledge and own and accept as parts of who I am. I know our darker selves are necessary to balance out what we’re proud of and celebrate. But despite it being a trait we all tend to share, I still have problems accepting my jealousy.

I’m not talking about jealousy in relation to guys or dating. (At this point, if some guy is paying so much attention to somebody else that I’m left feeling terrible, he is dead to me.) It’s the professional jealousy that I can’t reconcile with; the type that sneaks up and begins telling you how shitty you are and how you will never be or get to have what someone else is or has. It’s the jealousy that descends on you slowly, usually shortly after hearing good news that isn’t yours, and then sits next to you silently until you go home and can’t figure out why you feel so unsatisfied with your own success. It’s a liar, and a good one.

Because professional jealousy thrives on projection. We see what a friend has accomplished or what milestone they’ve reached and we assume that those things arrived pain-free and without effort. We assume that because their news is good, they’re basking in happiness. And we buy into the ideology that nothing in that person’s life has gone wrong or will ever go wrong, or whatever great thing they’ve just accomplished may be happening in tandem with a horrible life event occurring just out of focus. Usually, the jealousy I come up against the most claims that I could’ve achieved what a friend had if I’d just worked harder or been better, smarter, a little more focused. And worse, the further down I push those feelings, the angrier and more irritated I get. So then, instead of acknowledging or working through my toxic thinking, I scroll through my new nemesis’s Instagram feed and look desperately for cracks. How dare they be so happy, so celebrated, so good. I stay up too late and comb through their tweets from 2015. I curse them for taking my dreams from me.

The thing is, jealousy happens. It, like all the other traits we may not love or advertise about ourselves, makes us human. We get jealous over promotions, attention, accolades, Instagram likes and Twitter followers. And we stoke that jealousy because it’s easier to fixate on a person (or what they represent to us) than it is to admit what we want or what we feel is lacking in our own lives. It’s easier to be jealous than to acknowledge what we think we want.

Every time I’ve been jealous (that loud and all-consuming brand of jealous), it’s never been over what I’m claiming to be salty about. I don’t actually want That Particular Writing Job or That RT By That Person or That Interview In That Magazine. I want things that are far more embarrassing: recognition for my work, someone whose work I respect to respect me too, proof that I’m not writing in circles. Or, usually more accurately, to be happier. I’ve never been jealous in moments where I’m actually fine with the way my life looks. Instead, it’s when I assume the thing somebody else has is the missing piece in my own life. (It isn’t. It never is.) But it’s painful to go down that road of self-evaluation. Nobody wants to be the person who isn’t living their best life.

But let’s be honest: no one is living their “best” life. Everyone believes that they’re still working towards it. And to make peace with where you’re at and what you want can take years—especially since it’s a process that hinges on realizations, life events and re-evaluation. Goals change, new dreams develop and what we prioritize shifts. And our relationships with ourselves and our careers are in a constant state of flux. Which can be painful, and can spur even more jealousy.

Until you just stop and accept that everyone’s professional paths look different. We don’t know what led so-and-so to That Cool Thing, and we don’t know what’s going on outside of it. We can’t control who will benefit the most from being interesting on the internet, or who will stumble across a great new opportunity in a totally random way. But we can control ourselves. We can control how hard we work and what we’re working for, and we can keep our eyes on our own papers and remind ourselves that what someone else is doing has nothing to do with us. We can also remind ourselves that okay, fine, maybe we’re jealous; that we’d like the cool things and the accolades and those free shoes or whatever. But also, that’s all jealousy gets—that brief acknowledgement that prevents it from manifesting via obsessive social media creeping or deciding to hate someone because they have what you’ve decided you also want. Instead of being a whispering liar, you can drag it into the daylight to exist amongst all the other traits you know aren’t great but exist because you’re a person.

And while nothing we do will ever make it go away, we can diffuse it. Because it’s important to tell yourself that someone’s professional achievement isn’t the reason you feel bad about something completely unrelated. That one’s on you.

More from Anne T. Donahue:
Dressing for How You’re Feeling—Even If How You’re Feeling Is Shit
You Can Go Home Again Whenever You Damn Well Please
Even Unf-ckwithable Women Need Help Sometimes