Comparison is, more than any other topic, probably the number one thing that writers (and women of all stripes) struggle with outside of the work itself (although comparison often rears its ugly head when we sit down to write too). My battle with comparison has led me to have some serious social media fasts, deep dives into meditation and spirituality, and a fair percentage of my income spent on self-help books. These are all really good things. You should go do them.
End of blog post.
Okay, fine, I have more to say on the subject. 🙂
Navigating the life of a professional artist is motherfucking hard. But we all knew it would be. I mean, none of us grew up having people telling us that being an artist was a good career move, financially secure, or respected by all of society. We knew from the outset that it would be a tough road and that we were – and always will be – outliers. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to just lie down and take it. We can be active participants in our careers and writing lives who find a healthy balance between art and publishing, between what truly matters and what really doesn’t matter at all.
We can stop letting comparison be the thieves of our joy.
Accept that you aren’t her. And that’s okay.
It can be so easy to fall into the shame spiral of comparison. Amanda Palmer, who I compare myself to in a healthy way, (as in, I want to be brave like her) wrote a badass vulnerable post on how she struggles with comparing herself to other musicians, such as Lorde. It made me feel better. And seen. And not alone. We all compare. We all fall prey to the Green Monster. But we don’t have to.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, so I won’t belabor the point. What I will do is give you a few strategies for curbing envy, beyond the four other strategies I’m outlining in this post.
Practice Loving-Kindness For Yourself
This is a style of meditation where you repeat any phrases you wish that are hopes for yourself (this practice ultimately extends to all beings everywhere, but let’s just focus on you for now). You can use the ones I personally use below or make up your own. Go somewhere quiet, sit comfortably, close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, then silently repeat these phrases for as long as you wish. Five to ten minutes is a great start. Make this a daily practice and use as a go-to when the Green Monster rears its ugly head.
May I be happy.
May I be safe.
May I be at peace.
May I be free of suffering and the root of all suffering.
May I be inspired and awake.
Investigate what is is that’s bringing up these hot feelings of jealousy.
If it’s rooted in the It’s Not Fair, girl, I hear you, but that is the highway to hell. Don’t go there. Middle fingers up to that.
If it’s because she’s a better writer then you, then get thee to a class. Stop bitching and feeling sorry for yourself. Get your craft on. But, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t try to be another author. I love Jandy Nelson but I could never write like her. I could be better than I am, I can learn from her gorgeous use of metaphor and elegant construction, but my books will never read like hers. There’s only one Jandy. But guess what? There’s also only one Heather Demetrios. And I’ve got that market cornered.
If there’s something you can learn from this person, then approach her as a willing student. If she’s badass at social media and you feel like you could use a few pointers, see if she’s doing anything beside being pretty or wildly popular that works. If it’s a skill you can honestly grow in and think you could rock, then try to learn. If it’s outside your wheelhouse, don’t bother. I have a writer friend who’s baller on Twitter: clever and warm and super retweetable. That’s not me, so I don’t even try. I admire her. Sometimes I feel jealous because her followers are double mine, but I recognize that I’d be playing at a game I couldn’t win if I tried to compare myself to her.
Figure out what makes you you, then amplify that.
You’ll be so busy focusing on your own stuff that you won’t have time to compare.
- Stay in your own lane.
- Focus on getting better at your craft.
- Create a clear author platform.
- Consider branding issues (like, posting pictures of your broken ankle isn’t the sexiest author move for social media unless your’e famous and everyone will care).
- Get sorted on what you do best, then try to do that better.
Release Your Death Grip On Your Expectations
The lack of control over anything, and constantly being kept in the dark, is where the rubber meets the road in the life of an artist. In other fields, as long as you keep doing a good job, you’ll keep getting paid. Yes, each industry has its own pressures and there are lay-offs and all of that, but, for the most part, if you keep delivering the goods in terms of your work, you’ll have a job. Not so for art. There are so many variables, it’s unreal. You will never, ever have financial security or any little bit of certainty. Not at all. And you have to be okay with that, or at least make your peace with it. You have to be able to not lose your everloving mind when you see other authors getting this or that and seeing how those things give them job security that you feel like you should be equally entitled to.
So this is how you release your death grip on your expectations, whether they be to win the National Book Award or get one decent review: don’t have any.
I know this sounds passive and is totally against our hustle-idolizing culture, but the fact is that – and I’m going to get a bit Buddhist on you here – expectations create suffering.
When you expect to get a starred review or a great blurb or be chosen for a list or have lots of fanfare around your book, you will often be disappointed. And burned-out from all the work you did to make those expectations realized.
Your job is to write a kickass book. That is the only thing you can control. Hand to God, there is nothing else in your sphere of influence that you can depend on.
Get Clear On Your Intentions & Goals
Know your intention for writing. You might think you know why you write. Maybe you did know at one point, but now it’s pretty murky when you really think about it, isn’t it? What is your intention? What is the “why” behind it? Why do you write?
Fill in the blank here: I write because____________________. FYI, this might change over time, so it’s important to always know what your intention is. This is your North Star and releasing your death grip on your expectations is sometimes a daily exercise and so you always, always need to keep your eyes on this North Star.
Make sure the goals you have will not shake this intention if they don’t get realized. Goals are different from intentions – a goal is something you’d like to achieve, but accomplishing it is not going to have any bearing on your intention which, in our case, is why you write. Journal through this, using your own goals. This is a sample:
Intention: I write because it is the only way I make sense of the world.
Goal: I want to get on the bestseller list because_____________________________. (I want to be famous, I want respect, I want approval from my publisher and the public, I want my book to be made into a movie, I want more money and security, I want to be in the room where it happens)
- Is this goal in line with my intention? How will getting on the list help me to better understand the world? (Answer: it doesn’t. This is a good goal because not achieving it will have no bearing on why you write).
- What will change if I get on the list?
- What won’t change?
- Why do I care?
- What do I hope attaining this goal will give me?
- How will I feel about my writing if I don’t achieve this goal?
Have A Healthy Relationship To Social Media
I cannot stress enough how important this is. One thing I’m beginning to work on with my clients is their relationship to social media, both for pleasure and work. Social media, in my opinion, is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to the world, and to artists in particular. Most of the suffering I’ve experienced and that the authors I know are dealing with can often be traced back to something we saw or dealt with on social media.
A few quick examples:
- It’s your pub day and only three people retweeted your tweet about your book being out. You’re pretty sure it will go out of print tomorrow.
- You notice that your publisher is doing a super cool giveaway for a book that’s not yours.
- You see that a bunch of authors in your genre – some of them your friends – made a list that you didn’t know existed, but now are desperately sad you weren’t included on.
- You accidentally get into a politically-charged argument with another author over bookish controversies and now you’ve lost your writing day and three years off your life by engaging in it.
- You feel a mania you didn’t know you were capable of as you try to promote your book online, trying not to feel too gross about it and harboring the sinking feeling that none of this is doing anything.
- You see photos of a conference or festival you weren’t invited to, panels you didn’t get to be on, author signings you didn’t have a chance at and now you’re listening to Elliot Smith on repeat.
- You feel like an asshat because you just aren’t clever or cool and no one cares about your posts and fuck this life.
It’s a necessary evil, but ‘necessary’ is not synonymous with social media being central to your life. Here are some ways you can asses your relationship to social media and a few strategies for dealing with it as an author.
- For the next week, track how much time you’re on social media. A simple way is to use the timer on your phone and let it keep a running time.
- Be mindful of how you feel before and after you’re on social media.
- Take note of your intention: why did you jump on Twitter? What are the impulses behind your use of social media.
- Notice how often you’re using it to post your own things versus looking at other people’s posts. Note why you look at their posts and how you feel about it afterwards.
- If possible, assess what reach your activities had in terms of author promotion.
- At the end of the week, take some time to journal about how you feel using social media, what it brings up in you (fear, insecurity, a burst of adrenaline), and try to weigh your use of it against its effect on your well-being.
- Have a social media fast. For at least a week, but ideally a month. Note how this creates space inside you. Are you happier? More relaxed? Do you have a lot more perspective and contentment? What did you do with the time you would have spent on social media? After you got used to it not being in your life, did you stop caring about it?
- Schedule your social media use. Choose a specific time in your day (as in, note it in your planner) when you will mindfully sit down to use social media. Set a time limit and do not exceed it. Literally set a timer. No more falling down the rabbit hole. You’re an artist – you don’t have time for this plebeian bullshit.
- Be clear about your intention for using social media. Consider how the posts you make are in line with your author platform and the intention you set earlier about why you write. If what you’re about to post isn’t in line with that, consider if the post is worth it. If you’re only posting something because you need approval from others – people thinking you’re super cool because you did x, then consider whether or not you should actually post. Who are you trying to communicate to? What is the purpose of your words and images. Think high vibe communication. The world has enough stupid chitchat.
- From your work during the week, you should have an idea of which kinds of posts and people bring up really “hot” or intense emotions in you. Guess what? You’re not going to look at their stuff anymore. At all. One thing I did was on Facebook, I made it so that I could still stay friends with people, but not have anyone in my feed. This way, I wouldn’t accidentally see that so-and-so got a book deal on a day my editor rejected my book. If I want to see anyone’s page, I have to make a point to go there. This is a game changer.
- Stop browsing. When you sit down to use social media, have clear parameters for yourself. Maybe you’re going to post on each of your sites and respond to anyone who has reached out to you and that’s it. Maybe you’re only going to look up posts related to a specific hashtag.
- Take social media apps off your phone. Or put them in a folder that is not on your home screen. Disable notifications. Otherwise, the temptation to take a quick peek will likely get the better of you.
- Only use the social media that you enjoy. Don’t use Instagram if it’s not your thing. Don’t post all the time on Twitter if it stresses you out. I would recommend having a Twitter account because a lot of publishing news is on there and readers reach out to authors a lot via Twitter, but if it stresses you out, don’t bother. Readers can email you if they really want to.
Invest In A Spiritual Technology
I love this phrase spiritual technology. I first heard it on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast which, if you’re not listening to, you should drop everything and start now. A spiritual technology could be meditation (my personal fave), prayer, yoga, certain kinds of therapy, altruistic service to others, chanting, gratitude practices, rituals, tarot reading, mindfulness, or any number of things. It could be easy to say that anything could be a spiritual technology if it feels nice, like making soup or playing with your kids, so I’ve tried to create my own boundaries for what constitutes a true spiritual technology.
I don’t care if you’re an atheist or a tree-hugging pagan or a devout Catholic. Whoever you are, whatever you feel about spirituality, you need something in your life that does three things:
- Gives you a cosmic perspective which results in internal expansiveness
- Provides stress reduction and space for grounding and centering yourself through ritual or a specific activity, resulting in greater emotional intelligence
- Allows you to access your Higher Purpose
Here’s the deal: when you go to sleep tonight, that is one less day of your life.
Shit, right? A Zen priest told a class I was taking that on Monday and that was pretty much an arrow to the heart. And something I need to hear pretty much everyday because I’m a thick-brained human who thinks shit like Amazon rankings and not getting invited to the Cool Author Party matters.
Cosmic perspective changes everything. I’m not talking Heaven and Hell. I’m talking black holes and the space-time continuum and how dinosaurs once roamed the Earth. I’m talking that you are one thread in a vast weaving that was being created long before you arrived and will exist long after you depart this Earth. One of my favorite depictions of death and the cosmic perspective was written by atheist author Phillip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass, the third installment in ’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I used this scene to illustrate “ecstatic moments” in my MFA thesis. In this scene, Roger, Lyra’s deceased friend, is finally leaving the limbo of the underworld and entering the very fabric of the cosmos:
The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air…and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne. (Pullman 364)
You are made of stars. You matter. And you also don’t matter. This is the true paradox of life, and of Zen. A cosmic perspective gives you the courage and grace to truly make the most of each day. To understand what matters and what doesn’t. And it is this perspective you must bring to the table when comparison and fears about your career threaten to overwhelm you like a tsunami.
Getting Your Emotional Intelligence On
I don’t have time to get into all the statistics, but there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the enormous effect ritual and certain grounding activities have on the brain and our entire nervous system. The key here is stress reduction and greater self-awareness. This is what opens you up and allows for that cosmic perspective to take root inside you. It’s the core of your practice of doing human well.
I am a huge believer in meditation. It has changed my life and I can pretty much guarantee that if you really give it a shot, it’ll change yours too. I believe in it so much that I’m going through an intense meditation teacher training in order to help other writers and artists. You can meditate in a non-religious way–you don’t have to be a Buddhist to sit. The Calm and Headspace Apps are a great way to start–easy, free, fully guided. You can also do a video course though the studio I go to here in NYC. (Just plugging because I love – I don’t get any kickback for hyping MNDFL, or any of the other things I mention here). The easiest meditation is mantra-based Vedic meditation, the so-called “lazy man’s meditation.” It can be pricey for the 4-day course, but is worth every cent. And after the 4 days you have a practice you can keep up for life. It’s really that magical and simple. I recommend the place I did it, Ziva Meditation (make sure if you do the online course you get a mantra), or you can go to your local TM center (note: I haven’t trained in TM, but from what I know, it’s Vedic based, which is the kind of mantra meditation I’m talking about). I also highly recommend MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) which was started by scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn and is completely secular. It’s an eight-week course you can go to anywhere in the world and many people taking the course are referred to it by their doctors for stress or pain management.
Regardless of whether or not you go the meditation route, you need a spiritual technology that will be a daily practice. It’s not a wham-bam-thank-you-mam quick fix. It requires effort. Patience. Self-care. Time. This is pretty non-negotiable. Otherwise, you stay on the hamster wheel while these precious days of your life pass you by. When you invest in something like this, you’ll see that all your woes surrounding comparison and your career take their proper place in your life – which is nowhere near the top of your list of priorities.
We all need it in some fashion. This is what helps us work through the things that are holding us back in a very conscious way, and helps us learn how to gain emotional intelligence about ourselves. It doesn’t have to be a formal setting – perhaps you have a teacher or mentor or spiritual leader you meet with individually who fills this role for you. Self-help books are awesome, but you really need someone to help you work through stuff. Talk therapy doesn’t work for me, but I know people who find Cognitive-Based Therapy to be really helpful because there’s more of a dialogue and they give you homework. I know positive psychology practitioners who are kickass. I’m currently in love with the Paradox Process, which I believe is only in NYC right now. It’s basically emotional coaching and thought transformation. It is the shit.
Speaking of coaching: coaching is another great way to get the help you need, but just keep in mind that most coaches (myself included) are not therapists. Though you will wade into those waters with coaching and your coach can be an awesome support system, if you’re struggling with for-real depression and anxiety, you really need to get proper help for that. That being said, coaching can help you so much with dealing with envy, getting your shit together, and gaining perspective, as well as help you get closer to living in line with your intentions and setting goals. I’m happy to help with that. (Duh). 🙂
Your Higher Purpose
Dude, why are you here? What’s the point of you? Why should I give a shit that you’re taking up space on the same rock as I am?
This is very much connected to your intention for writing. But it also brings into play your ethics: good old right and wrong. The world is full of suffering – what are you going to do about it?
Most of the reading I do in the self-help section tends to agree that your purpose will only bring you satisfaction if it’s aligned toward serving others. I’m not saying you need to be Mother Theresa, but you will not be satisfied if all you care about is yourself: your finances, your career, your status. When you shift your higher purpose toward how you can participate in making the world a little bit better (through your writing, through your actions and choices), you will be happier. Like, I pretty much guarantee that. For more on your purpose and creating an Artist Statement that will help you clarify that, you can check out this post of mine.
What this looks like in action in terms of pesky old comparison:
I was recently on a panel at Books of Wonder featuring authors way more accomplished and popular than I, namely Ann Brashares. Before the panel, I knew I might feel a bit shit. There was no way I’d have a ton of people in my line, certainly not as many as her. And I also knew that bookstore events have notoriously low turn-out, and I didn’t want to get in the spiral of Why Am I Doing This Shit? So on the subway, I decided to think about my intention as a writer and my Artist Statement. And I got centered on this idea: there will be at least on girl at this event that needs to hear about Bad Romance (my new book on teen dating violence that I was promoting). She might not buy the book, but she’ll need to hear my story. My anxiety about the event lifted and I felt grounded in my purpose. It had nothing to do with me–my ego, my sales, my anything. And I felt confident and content. Hardly anyone showed up and only two people bought a book from me – both work or have worked for my publisher and already had free copies. But I honestly didn’t care. I was jazzed form the great conversation we had on the panel and satisfied that I’d done my job. I don’t which girl or woman who attended needed to hear my story, but since one out of three teens is affected by teen dating violence and one out of four women has been raped, I felt pretty confident someone there could benefit from my presence.
I don’t have anything else to say right now (mostly because I have to shut up or I can go on forever), except for this:
As usual, you can sign up for my newsletter for exclusive posts on the writing life and an update on all things bookish. If you’re a lady writer, please join us on the Pneuma Facebook Group for daily inspiration, motivation, and community. If you’re interested in working with me as a writing coach, don’t be shy: email me and I’ll get back to you ASAP. You can also check out the Pneuma Creative site for coaching, editorial, and class info. Happy writing!