Bad Habits: Envy and Isolation

celtic graphic of knots and dragonsIn the United States, we are trained to be competitive. Whatever marks of success we value—money, prestige, fame, reputation, position, philanthropy, love—whatever success is for us, we chase. Perhaps not all of us, but we do live in a culture that sets great store by the quest for independence and acquisition.
This environment makes it easy to perceive any competitor, especially one who achieves that which we desire, as a rival or an enemy, and it promotes both envy and isolation as common bad habits among creative people.

Envy

Even as we are encouraged to join the rat race and run our legs off, most of us are also taught that envy is a negative emotion, even shameful. Certainly it can be, but it is also inevitable. What person has not asked themselves, “Why her?” or “How can he win when I keep falling short?” What artist has never had a thought like the following?

  • “I’ll never write like …”
  • “I don’t have enough talent to sing like …”
  • “I’m too dull/shallow/lazy to ever paint like …”

Because coveting is a universal experience, but it’s wrong, creative people are set up to feel a certain amount of self-loathing no matter what. And too many thoughts like those above prepare fertile ground for this one:

  • “Why bother?”

And that can stop an artist in her tracks.

Exodus 20:17

An artist mired in envy to the point of blockage likely will never mention it to anyone. Such jealousy feels selfish. Petty. And no one wants to be seen as ungenerous, especially when it costs nothing at all in material terms to celebrate a colleague’s success.

As an artist, coach, and advocate, I want to wholeheartedly cheer my fellow writers’ and editors’ ascent toward my own goals, without that acid taste of loss in the back of my throat. I feel damn small that I can’t. The successful person has taken nothing away from me, however, and I have taken nothing from him either. I’m hurting only myself.

Success isn’t like a pot of soup. There’s plenty to go around. Envy isn’t about limited resources; it’s about self-criticism.

Fear

Again, as in the bad habits post on procrastination, fear lies at the root of the “habit” of envy. Fear that we cannot get, do, or be what we desire. And these feelings of inferiority can be easier to bear than the risk of challenging ourselves to grow into the best artists we can be.

And again, we can use fear as information, as a sign that we need to acknowledge, examine, and act.

  • Acknowledge the envy. Usually we don’t, but like the other “negative” emotions, it is part of life and we should accept that and learn from it. Artists especially should see everything they experience as grist for the mill.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.”
–C.G. Jung

  • Examine yourself compassionately. Your envy is a message only you can decipher. No matter how tempting it is to stop before you take this step, your only real competitor in life is yourself. No one but Cary Grant can be Cary Grant, but everyone can be a better artist.

According to George Carlin, when Pablo Casals was 93 years old, he was asked why he still practiced the cello for hours every day. And Casals replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

  • Answer the discomfort. Spurn denial, shame, and despair; turn to action. What’s happening with your own work, your motivation, your search for meaning? What can you do to enhance your own search for success?In other words, use the emotional energy of envy to your own advantage.

The questions are within you. The only way to find answers is to ask them. And only you can create from your authentic self.

“The universe is not going to see someone like you again in the entire history of creation.” –Vartan Gregorian

Isolation: Solitude or Aloneness?

You cannot be an artist without spending time alone. I would argue that you cannot be at your most creative unless you spend lots of hours by yourself, but that’s another article. Suffice it to say that if you hate or fear solitude, you might find you have trouble connecting with your creative work.

In solitude, you can come out from behind any and all masks you wear in society with others. You are safe to be yourself and to “play” to your heart’s content without worry about being judged on your performance. Solitude supports vital communication with your deepest self.

On the other hand, spending too much or too long a time alone courts stagnation, depression, and estrangement. As Eric Maisel puts it in Creativity for Life, “in isolation [unhealthy] obsessions build; rejections, rivalries, and grievances are rehashed; and wounds fester.” One can become “alienated, lonely, and strange.”

The Western myth of the slightly mad artistic genius living in poverty on the fringes of normal society can distort your self-image and lead to even less social interaction. Confronting existential questions as a matter of course, as creative artists often do, can also color your moods, and the loss of meaning when you run low on motivation, relationships, or new experiences can plunge you into despair.

Artists must find balance between the necessity of time alone and the terrible risk of losing touch with the world.

Creating Balance

If you don’t spend enough time alone with your work, ask yourself why. Make yourself a place, if you don’t have one already, and set aside the time. As much time as you like–it’s OK to start with short intervals. Spend that time alone, even if you don’t feel inspired to create.

Anxiety often drives us from our studios. Many frustrated artists have other pressing obligations in their lives, which offer easy alternatives to facing and struggling with our creative challenges. But we are allowed to value our creative work along with our jobs and families, and we can learn to handle creative anxiety, if we’re willing.

If, on the other hand, you spend too much time in solitude, take steps to foster a life outside your studio.

  • Count time socializing, volunteering, and even goofing off as time well spent. You are enriching yourself, growing, and refueling.
  • Take brief time-outs from working, especially when you notice yourself brooding. A brisk walk, some music, a few yoga poses, meditation, whatever will distract and refresh you (as long as you don’t overindulge in any of the 7 bad habits!).
  • Make contact. Call a friend and ask about her day, talk to a child or a neighbor, or go out to a coffee shop. Leave your solitude behind and engage with the world.
  • Cultivate a comrade. Find another creative soul—one who works in a different medium if competition is a challenge for you—and develop an informal, mutual coaching relationship. Stay in regular touch by whatever means you can.

Human beings are creative and social animals, and creativity is just another part of a normal life. The artist is rarely the tormented neurotic toiling away in a cold garret that we sometimes picture, and creative talent sets no one apart from humanity, no matter how much solitude it takes to write a novel, learn a concerto, or study a composition.

We need to maintain conscious contact with the world to be whole. Seek the balance that’s right for you, and check in with yourself now and then to make sure your approach is still working. Be wary of leaning too far one way or the other–neither 100% nor 0% solitude serves you as an artist or a person.

Create every day!

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