Has this ever happened to you? You’re going about your life, and things are pretty rad. You’re mostly contented with how things are going. Who’s got their shit together? YOU DO!
But then! A friend or family member or colleague has a big announcement. They’re getting married, or they’re expecting an offspring. Maybe they bought a magnificent old house they’re going to fix up, or maybe they’re taking a six-week trip to Japan. Perhaps they landed an amazing book deal, or got a huge promotion at work, or a new job altogether in a different city.
And you think, THAT’S GREAT, YOU DID SOMETHING SO GREAT, AND I AM SO HAPPY FOR YOU! And you tell that person. You congratulate them. You might hug them, if you are a hugging sort of person. And you really, sincerely do mean it.
But somewhere, deep inside, spreading through your innards like a thick dark poison from a silent needle stuck somewhere soft and tender, you’re thinking, “Why haven’t I done this great thing? What is wrong with me? Why do I suck so much?”
Gore Vidal famously captured this sensation when he said “Whenever a friend of mine succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Morrissey would later pay tribute to the feeling in a whole song, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” opining, “You see, it should’ve been me / It could’ve been me / Everybody knows / Everybody says so.”
And in a 2005 essay in The Times, novelist and comedian David Baddiel attempted to codify the idea in a corollary to the popular concept of Schadenfreude -- the enjoyment one gets from seeing someone else fail -- by coining another German compound word for it, because if French is the language of love, it seems German is the language of despair, or at least of mild self-loathing.
The term he gave it was Erfolgtraurigkeit, literally “success-sadness,” evoking that sensation of feeling somewhat bereft by someone else’s accomplisments. Baddiel explains:
It’s actually a much more common feeling than Schadenfreude — even though we do of course feast like jackals on the fallen. In order to provide the ingredients for the banquet, modern culture requires an almost constant stream of new successes. It is also, I would contend, a somewhat less malignant one. Schadenfreude seems to me to be the coldest of emotions, an expression of nothing but bitterness, whereas Erfolgtraurigkeit has at least the virtue of sadness, the others’ success having thrown the desolation of your life into bad relief.
I am not a stranger to this sensation, as a person with high expectations for myself who is also waging a constant war against my own often destructive perfectionism. Pretty much anytime someone I know lands a new book deal, after my initial feelings of being incredibly happy for them have abated, I think, “LESLEY WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU LESLEY WHY HAVEN’T YOU SOLD A SECOND BOOK YET LESLEY.” When friends take off on life-changing adventures abroad, I think “LESLEY WHY HAVEN’T YOU PRIORITIZED TRAVELING MORE LESLEY WHY HAVEN’T YOU BEEN TO MORE THAN TWO CONTINENTS LESLEY.” And so on.
In psychological circles this is known as social comparison, and it happens to all of us. I occasionally even do it with people I don’t actually know. Sometimes I find myself obsessively checking the Wikipedia’d ages of people whose work I admire: what was this person doing at my age? What had she accomplished by 36? Where should I be by now, if I’m going to try to do as well? How badly should I feel about myself? How far behind am I?
Or worse: OH GOD NO, SHE’S YOUNGER THAN ME. DESPAIR. (“I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar.”)
This isn’t a competitive thing. Although I can be an embarrasingly competitive person, this feeling isn’t so much about trying to keep up with or surpass the most awesome and most accomplished people I know; it's more a matter of feeling pointlessly crappy about myself.
Competitiveness is, at least, motivating -- to compete, you have to keep moving, keep striving, keep pushing yourself.
This Erfolgtraurigkeit is different -- this feeling is stagnifying. It’s debilitating. It’s shaming. It’s self-pitying. And apparently it’s pretty common, and getting more common all the time. While some degree of negative social comparison is inevitable, our social media use can feed it into a great lumbering monster that has significant effects on our self esteem, even contributing to the rise of so-called "Facebook depression.” And that’s no good at all.
I started thinking about this feeling -- and how self-defeating it can be -- when I found myself having to write a bio blurb for a local reading event I’m doing later this month (details here, for the Boston-area folks) and I realized wow, both of the other readers who will be there (both of whom I adore and admire immensely, and who deserve all the success they’ve ever had, and more) have written WAY MORE BOOKS than I have.
Writing a bio is difficult enough without the added mess of feeling like I have fewer awesome things to list than my colleagues. Why haven’t I written more books? Lesley? Why haven’t you written more books? Clearly you are a GIANT FAILURE. A GIANT LAZY NON-BOOK-WRITING FAILURE.
Intellectually I know this is absurd. But emotionally it happens. And when it does I try to remind myself of a three things.
1. I have done lots of cool stuff. I’ve actually written this stuff down to reference in times of difficulty, because often when I am feeling badly about myself professionally, I either block out good stuff I’ve done, or I minimize its quality, i.e. “How good could this possibly be, if *I* did it?” So having a chronicle of pride-inducing things helps.
Forcing myself to add to it when I’m feeling like crap helps too. They’re not all big-deal professional landmarks either, like publishing my book or getting hired at xoJane. Sometimes they’re “Got through that rough patch in my relationship,” or “Made a really excellent dinner the other night,” or “DIYed a fix for that broken drawer,” or “Planted stuff in my garden.” Refocusing my attention on things I HAVE done, even small things, brings my perspective back to a healthier place.
2. Not everyone takes the same path. Just because my friend X has published four YA novels before she was 40 doesn’t mean I will never publish one. Just because your colleague Y has shot up through the ranks at work faster than you have doesn’t mean you will never go anywhere. Or even if virtually all of the friends you grew up with are married and bechildrened by 35 doesn’t mean you’ll never find love before you die.
Also? You not having done even things everyone else has accomplished doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Or me. Everyone’s journey is different. Their experiences are not your experiences. You only get to have your experiences, and you can’t always predict when success will happen. While I don’t counsel anyone to trust in fatalism, sometimes you just need to trust that with thoughtful effort on your part, your life will unfold in wonderful ways that surprise you.
3. Everyone feels like this sometimes. Literally everyone. Everyone occasionally feels like they aren’t doing as much as they could, or as well as they ought to. The most successful and accomplished person you know has days when she feels like she has screwed everything up and her whole life is one big tragic exercise in mediocrity. Trust me.
The mom with beautiful kids and gorgeous house sometimes wonders if she’s ruined her children for life by failing to be a perfect parent. The writer with the brilliant books and coveted awards and legions of fans occasionally thinks most of what she’s done is awful. And everyone you know, even the happiest, most well-adjusted and down-to-earth individuals, has moments of darkness where they look at what the people around them have done -- maybe, even, what you have done -- with their lives and feel a pang of self-recrimination.
Are you familiar with this sensation of Erfolgtraurigkeit? Have you felt it recently? How do you manage it? While this experience is somewhat inevitable, we can refuse to allow it to overwhelm us. Let’s all be a little easier on ourselves -- and let’s come clean about our insecurities, because bringing those worries out of the dark into the light where other people can see them often means finding out that we’re not such miserable isolated weirdos after all. In sharing them we often see that our most closely guarded insecurities are not such big earth-shattering embarrassments after all.
If only there was a German word for that, we’d have something here.