When I was in school studying creative writing, the director of my MFA program started off each of the residencies with a mini speech about the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers. The main danger is that you can render yourself not only artistically paralyzed, but also emotionally frozen by focusing on how much better you think everyone else is compared to you. Envy and comparing were dangerous emotional paths to take during workshops with other writers because it took away from both your own experience as well as the experience of enjoying another student’s writing. Not to mention, as our director would often say, there is room for all successes, and one person’s success doesn’t detract from your own. In the nurturing environment of the MFA program, coupled with the inspirational speech from our director at the twice-a-year residencies, I can honestly say, I never experienced more than small flickers of envy and comparing during those two and a half years.
Then, I graduated, thrust out of the cocoon of warm and fuzzies that was The Solstice MFA Program and into the Real World where I encountered a serious problem with envy and comparing, encounters that got increasingly more emotionally upsetting over the subsequent four years post graduation.
Looking back, thanks to my newest pursuit of becoming a psychotherapist, I know from my studies of psychology that comparing yourself to others is a normal and even healthy way to measure your own successes and failures and that envy also is a normal response to such comparisons. However, there is an insidious cognitive experience that occurs when we start comparing ourselves to others, and it’s called Social Comparison Bias.
Social Comparison Bias, which stems from Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory that states humans have an internal drive for “accurate self evaluations” (basically we want to know how well or poorly we are doing), and the way that we humans get those self evaluations is by comparing ourselves to others, across the many domains of our lives (looks, economic status, education, etc). Festinger’s theory was expanded upon by a guy named Willis, who talked about upward and downward comparisons. This is where it all can get tricky and exceptionally bad for us artist-types because we are pretty sensitive and emotional creatures. Willis’ idea is that in order to measure our own success, we look up (for motivation to be better) and we look down (to feel better). This is all well and good if you can, in fact, compare yourself to an Olympian, or the Olympian of YA fiction, Judy Blume, and become inspired. Or, if you can compare yourself to an out-of-shape slob and feel good about the three miles you jogged. And, in my case, if you can compare yourself to someone who isn’t as far along in the world of publishing as I am—someone who hasn’t had anything published yet—and feel like you are progressing towards the goal of published author.
The problem lies in this: as we are looking up or down, if our self-esteem isn’t in a healthy place—instead of being inspired by Judy Blume, I actually started to resent her (as if I even knew her personally!)—this psychological shit hits the fan.
And, friends, my shit (emotional, spiritual, psychological) hit that fan, hard, splatteringly hard upon graduation of that MFA program.
On the surface, I was a model post-MFA student—within a year I was launching a YA anthology, landed in Publisher’s Weekly, and was receiving an offer from an agent. Deep inside, something terrible was happening.
These successes were trumped by the failures that came along with them. The YA anthology, while widely recognized and submitted to, didn’t “take off” as I hoped. Signing with an agent I loved and who believed in me didn’t guarantee we’d sell my work. Within a few short years post MFA, I was sobbing in a therapist’s office, declaring myself a complete and utter failure and sham of a writer. I took this even further, by the way, attaching guilt to the fact that I’d spent over a decade of my time and money to this to turn up with nothing and sacrificing time away from my family. I took my failure to launch as an author to be a failure as a mother, wife, friend, daughter, teacher, etc.
How did this happen?
As soon as I graduated from Solstice and began my YA anthology, I spent a lot of time on social media, building up interest and excitement over my new endeavor. Unfortunately, I also started to compare myself to other writers/authors, who I perceived as being better than me, and neither comparing up nor down served me well. Not to mention, my comparisons were 24-7, thanks to Twitter and Facebook.
All of us are continually bombarded with Facebook posts and Tweets that espouse successes, triumphs, and achievements, as if life is truly always endless bowls of cherries and constant dancing unicorns. This is such a problem that in recent psychology studies, researchers have been able to link Facebook with depression, making this social comparison bias phenomenon a possible cause to mental illness! This makes perfect sense! When we continually see statuses about job promotions, new relationships, and expensive purchases or, in my case, new book deals, we start to compare ourselves to those statuses in unrealistic ways. The bias (tendencies to think in certain ways that stray from what is rational) part is the worst because this is the part where now we actually start seeking out information that supports this cognitive distortion that I suck and everyone else doesn’t. Thus, when I see the status that so-and-so got a “nice” book deal, I start to seek out more information about the book deal to either confirm that, in fact, I suck or, the opposite, that they suck. Everyone who has a Facebook or Twitter has committed the social media “crime” of stalking that ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/friend’s page to find out more about his or life…in search of some information to reassure yourself that somewhere in his or her life things are not perfect. Aha, Suzie may have just married a hot guy in Fiji but scroll down a few years we find out that she got divorced from an overweight, former, high school sweetheart. Or, in my case, aha! Suzie may have signed a book deal, but it was with XYZ publisher and “nice” means that she could have gotten no advance. Woo-hoo! Boy do I feel good now because she isn’t such hot shit.
There were times, for a few of those post-MFA years, Suzie’s new book deal simply drove me to work harder on my craft and on my research of publishers to send my work out to. Unfortunately, more times than not, it made me feel like total shit. My “illness” took over for a period of time and rendered me depressed. By comparing myself to others, it didn’t inspire me as it could have had I been in a better mental state.
And, as I discovered in therapy, this constant comparing, over time, changed the way I thought about myself not just as a writer but as a mother, wife, friend, teacher, etc…What rendered me so depressed was the major change in my thinking and my perception of myself. The comparing myself to others I perceived as more successful, reinforced the thought, I am a failure…at everything and that thought became the lens through which I looked at myself and my world.
Eventually, the healing came in the form a serious commitment to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. By both challenging these thoughts about failure and gathering up concrete factual evidence to both support and refute that statement, I was able to start seeing myself more clearly. I started to examine failure and discovered that I was equating my failures as crimes rather than what they were, simply failures and that failure doesn’t make me a bad a person. A bad person is many things but not someone who simply fails to get a book deal.
I also discovered that I was putting my worth into something that is kind of equivalent to winning the lottery: saying “I suck because I don’t have a book deal” is like playing the lottery and saying “I suck each time I don’t win.” Not only is equating suckage with whether or not you achieve a certain goal or dream ridiculously illogical, but also you can’t control winning the lottery any more than you can control if someone wants to publish your book. All you can do is play the game.