When You Have a Nemesis: Actors and Envy
Something terrible happened to me the other day, followed by something wonderful, and I am ashamed to tell you about both things. I debated before writing this blog post because I wasn’t sure I wanted you to know this about me, but ultimately I found that one of the bizarre urges that motivated me as an actor (namely, to reveal unsavory personal truths) also motivates me as a writer and advocate for actors. Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in my pettiness, and perhaps you’ll tell me so, and we’ll both come out of it feeling less petty, less alone, and with a better understanding of human nature that will inform our work. That’s my intention, anyway, and the actor’s life is nothing if not a constant attempt to balance intention and uncertainty. So, with that in mind, gird your loins: this ain’t gonna be pretty.
So, I assume that I’m like most actors in that I prefer to imagine my artistic life as a kind of freewheeling promenade down a sweeping boulevard of experience and expression, where no topic is too taboo is discuss, no emotion is too ugly to air, and (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) no human experience is too alien to understand. In reality, however, that boulevard isn’t always as wide or as straight as I would like to believe. In the blink of an eye, it can narrow and swerve, and suddenly I find myself deep down the twist of a dark alley, trying to remember having taken a turn.
Just this past weekend, for example, I set out on what seemed like the most benign of strolls and immediately blundered into a sordid little street side of the soul. Here’s how it happened: I sat down to binge a series on a streaming service, happy to have something new to watch, as bingeing is among my favorite vices and I frequently run out of new things to view (and one can only re-watch Community so many times). The terrible thing didn’t happen until about halfway through the first episode, which made it more terrible: I was already invested in the show and enjoying it…
…and then someone I know personally and can’t stand showed up in it.
If you are a working actor (or you are working actor-adjacent) and you watch a lot of television (which you should: don’t get me started on actors who want to be on television but don’t watch it), you probably see people you know on your screen fairly frequently. Often it’s fun: I remember watching Judge Judy on an elliptical trainer at a resort in Sisters, Oregon and shouting, “Oh, my God, it’s Adam!” when an insurance ad came on (I had earbuds in). I’m generally delighted to see old pals from school or former students turn up on my screen: it feels like a win for the team. As I am no longer an actor, I have the luxury of feeling genuine, unalloyed happiness for people when they book work; there’s none of that unpleasant aftertaste of envy or FOMO that used to taint my pleasure in the success of even a good friend.
I work with actors to facilitate spiritual well-being—I help them create space and curiosity around the thoughts that cause them suffering, and to question the ego-based beliefs that wreak havoc on their peace of mind. One of my paramount goals is to be mindful and open, and I get tremendous satisfaction from my work; I gave up acting voluntarily, and honestly I don’t really miss it at all. But if pursuing art teaches us anything, it’s that to have a goal is to consistently fall short of it. I was an actor for a long time, and a competitive, ambitious one. My actor’s ego is far from dead—it’s just napping, and nothing wakes it quicker than a sudden encounter with Li’l Missy.
Based on extensive anecdotal experience, I am betting that if you’re an actor you have your own personal Li’l Missy (or Li’l Mister): that secret nemesis, often from your training days or (if you’re like me) an early professional job, who gets way more attention and praise and work than they deserve. Li’l Missy has had it too easy for too long. Li’l Missy is overdue for a comeuppance. Li’l Missy is vastly overestimated: it often feels as if you are the only one who sees Li’l Missy’s bullshit for what it is. If you are like I am, just a mention of Li’l Missy is enough to send your brain into an Agony Spiral. If Li’l Missy appears on your TV screen, you change the channel. Your best friend and significant other know not to bring up Li’l Missy in front of you; if someone else does, they change the subject, quickly. When Li’l Missy’s latest project was being promoted, you avoided looking at the sides of buses and the tops of cabs for six weeks. Just the thought of Li’l Missy on a bad day can deflate your heart, grind your momentum to a halt, and suck all the satisfaction out of your recent successes.
Sometimes months, or even years, will go by and I won’t hear a word about Li’l Missy. I won’t even think of her. Then she’ll appear in a memory or a nightmare or a Facebook tag, and I’ll wonder what she’s up to. I’ll check her IMDb profile for thesame reason I check under a newspaper after I smash a roach—to make certain it’s dead, or sicken myself when I find it still wriggling away. Inevitably I’ll discover she’s been up to much more than I thought. She did a play I missed, or a movie I didn’t hear about, or was nominated for some award. I am over the old boyfriend who shouted “I’m not in love with you!” in broad daylight on West 57t Street, I have (pretty much) forgiven the hosebeast who tormented me high school, I even successfully completed a Lovingkindness Meditation that included Dick Cheney, but I will never completely stop hating Li’l Missy.
Actually, this isn’t accurate. It’s not that I hate Li’l Missy, per se. She has never been personally unkind to me, and I don’t wish her actual harm. I don’t want her to be poor, or sick, or sad, or even be publicly humiliated. The smallest, meanest, most egotistical part of me just wants her to fail once as an actor, and I want to watch her fail. I want to witness her self-doubt. I want to see the self-confidence fade out of her eyes. I want to watch her second-guess herself, and worry, and struggle, and lose her footing and stumble and fall gracelessly and hard and in slow-motion. I want her to feel the way I feel when I see her succeed. I want this because the most childish, irrational part of me is somehow certain that she has never felt rejected, even though I know that this can’t possibly be true. I spend a great deal of time telling actors that this business is not a zero-sum game, but when it comes to Li’l Missy I suddenly feel as if I’m not just holding losing cards: somehow I was never even dealt a hand.
Imagine, then, the icky shock I got when I settled into my bed last Saturday—the whole house to myself, work accomplished so I felt deserving, cats on one side, organic Cheetohs on the other, all ready to binge a whole show—one I’d been told to watch for over a year and had somehow forgotten about. (Only a fellow bingeaholic can appreciate this kind of delight—thinking you’ve run out of new things to watch and then suddenly remembering an entire series you’d forgotten about. It’s like finding leftover pizza in the fridge, or a twenty in your coat pocket.) There I was, about to give myself over to eight hours of someone else’s world, only to have Li’l Missy turn up halfway through the first episode. Not as a guest star. As a series regular.
Imagine the even ickier delight I felt five minutes later, having Googled “series title + review,” to find that Li’l Missy’s show had been absolutely savaged by critics. Excoriated. A 19% rating on Metacritic. Obliterated by the New York Times. The only positive review said that the cast’s talents were wasted, and Li’l Missy wasn’t even mentioned in that review. It was the best possible outcome for my green-eyed monster, even better than Li’l Missy not having booked the show at all. It was the best news I’d had in weeks. I was elated. It was the most intense schadenfreude I have ever experienced, and for a solid half-hour, it was glorious. Then I remembered that I educate actors in self-awareness and self-care for a living, and I realized I’d better sit down and grapple with my envy of Li’l Missy.
The word envy comes from the Latin invidia, meaning “lack of sight.” When we consider that envy is, at its core, a failure of perspective, this literal definition begins to take figurative shape. What is so painful about Li’l Missy’s success is not that she has succeeded per se, but rather what I fear her success means about me. Surprisingly, I am not actually afraid that Li’l Missy is more talented, more deserving, or more worthy of acclaim than I am. I am afraid—terrified, actually—that everyone else, including she herself, believes that she is. When I am gripped by envy, I am truly blind: I fail to see that, in fact, I am the only one comparing myself to Li’l Missy. I fail to see the tremendous advantages and blessings I do have. I fail to see the myriad ways in which others are likely envying me. I fail to see that Li’l Missy’s life and career have, in truth, precisely nothing to do with me— absolutely nothing. When I am blinded by envy I fail to see the most joyous truth of all, in the words of Byron Katie:
Everything is perfect if we don’t compare.
Stop, I can hear you. You’re saying, “Wouldn’t that be nice, not to compare myself to others. Didn’t you say a few blogs back that social comparison is hardwired into the brain?” I did. And not comparing yourself to others isn’t as easy as flipping a switch; it’s a process. For me, it’s a process of isolating the envious beliefs and thoughts that cause me suffering when I think about Li’l Missy, and questioning them. For example:
Painful Belief: Li’l Missy always gets what she wants. I never get what I want.
Truth: Of course Li’l Missy has failed many times. Imagine where she wants to be right now, compared to where she is. I’m sure she looks to actresses her age and younger who have won awards and had long runs on respected shows, and feels as envious of them as I do of her. Another Truth: I get many, many things that I want. We all do. And it’s very likely that I have some of the things (a loving husband, a clear sense of purpose) that Li’l Missy would like to have.
Painful Belief: Li’l Missy doesn’t have to worry about everyday things, but I do.
Truth: I have no idea what Li’l Missy worries about (in fact, it’s not my business). But I know for a fact she worries. She is an American actress in her forties. She is a divorced mother of young children. She has aging parents. She is a human being. There is no way she is free from worry. She may not worry about paying the mortgage every month, but here is Another Truth: I don’t have to worry about that, either. I choose to.
When I start to question my beliefs around of Li’l Missy, something amazing happens. The little clenched fist in my heart that is holding tight to my envy begins to relax. I start to feel some space and openness flood in as the hard shell assumption cracks open, and suddenly there is air to breathe. There is space to look
around and stretch out into curiosity. There is light flooding into that dark space of non-sight, and in the warmth of that light I begin to feel empathy for Li’l Missy. I see her for what she is: the hero in the story of her own life, not the villain in the story of mine. I see that the same Divinity that inspires me inspires her. That same Divine impulse to create that inspired her (very good) performance in the critically reviled TV series is the Divine impulse that instigated this blog, and suddenly I am indignant. I am angry on Li’l Missy’s behalf: putting her artistic heart and soul into work that can just be dismissed out-of-hand by critics. I imagine her disappointment and her sadness; I see her at Thanksgiving, shrugging and changing the subject when her relatives ask her about the cancelled series, and I see myself as an actor ten years ago, dreading having to answer questions about my acting life at family functions, and I’m filled not with glee, but with compassion.
When I have the power of perspective, when I can step back from comparison and observe my beliefs with curiosity, Li’l Missy ceases to be my nemesis and becomes my teacher. When she appears on my TV screen, I have a choice between giving into invidia and being blinded by envy or embracing the clarity that getting curious about my own reactions always brings. When I get curious, I have no choice but to let some light in—it’s the only way I can see to investigate. And when I investigate my knee-jerk reactions to Li’l Missy and question the beliefs behind them, I can see her for what she actually is in relation to me: a fellow traveler, a fellow artist, a fellow person—nothing more or less. She reminds me not of what I’ve missed out on or lost, but of what we all have been given in common: the ability to come to understand ourselves and each other, and even, for a moment, to experience peace.
Molly Goforth is a positive psychology and spiritual wellness practitioner for actors and other artists. For more information visit https://www.anactorrepairs.com/workshops Insta: AnActorRepairs