My sister is a famous designer -- and I'm not!

I do good work but I fear I'm mediocre, and my heart is poisoned with jealousy.

Published October 5, 2007 10:16AM (EDT)


By many measures, I am a successful designer. I live in a beautiful home, take my daughters on wonderful vacations, have some money put away for retirement. This is colored by the fact that my sister is in the same business as me but has become rich at it. In fact, she is famous. In fact, you unquestionably know her work and probably make use of the products she has designed in your home. You may have been peripherally aware of mine, but you have not bought them or admired them. My daughters say nice things about my designs. They go wild over their aunt's. Just tonight I learned that she has made a hugely lucrative deal for a new line of brilliant designs.

None of this is the real problem. The real problem is that she is a great artist, and I am a smart gal who works hard, knows how to sell herself, and comes up with some good but ultimately forgettable stuff once in a while, and I can not look at this in any way that does not cause me pain. Maybe if I were rich, too, and could tell the business I am in to go to hell, I would feel differently. But I need to stay in the game. My husband and I are not set up for me to cash out yet. And at this point in my life I wouldn't be hireable doing anything else, and certainly nothing else that would keep me in the lifestyle that my family and I enjoy. Plus for all its frustrations it's a great life, being in this business. The problem is the constant sense that I'm just not good enough, not the artist I wanted to be, and not the artist my sister is. This has poisoned my life for many, many years. Cognitive therapy has helped a little but only temporarily. My sister and I are very close, and our relationship is not poisoned by my jealousy -- just my heart.

I'll go a step further here. If I took my sister out of the picture, I would still be disappointed with my work. Forgettable, minor, only OK. I would still be unhappy about it. Even as I work at it day after day.

My husband tells me again and again that we have a wonderful life and that I shouldn't suffer over this. I love that he says it, but I don't feel it.

Do you have any words of enlightenment that might help me get to where this is not such a big part of my thinking and my life? Where I do not feel an emptiness where pride and satisfaction in my work should be? Where reading about sister's latest triumph doesn't lay me out for a day?


The Younger and Less Talented Sister

Dear Younger and Less Talented Sister,

Stop beating yourself up! Jesus! Just fucking stop it.

Come on, now. You have to fight your way out of this. You have to fight this bitchy, killing voice. Get mad at it. Fight back. Tell it to go fuck itself. Banish it. Get it out of your head. It doesn't belong there.

Replace it with something good: You are a talented artist. You are a talented artist you are a talented artist you are a talented artist!

The minute you hear that voice in your head that says you've wasted your life doing mediocre design, stop it. Don't do it. When you start to do it, stop as soon as you realize what you're doing. Say out loud, I am a designer. I am an artist. I make honest work. I make a living at my work! I'm a good designer. I do good work!

Just like you, I fucking beat myself up night and day until I'm black and blue because I'm not the guy who wrote "The Corrections" even though I couldn't even read "The Corrections," and I couldn't even read "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" even though I'd like to be Dave Eggers, and why the fuck would I want to be Dave Eggers? Because I'm a sick fucker, that's why, because I hate myself. And I have to stop doing that. I have to love myself.

I have to love myself because loving myself is the only thing that stands between me and suicide.

I love myself because I have to. I love myself because suicide is not an option. I love myself because other people love me and I've got no right. So I love myself immoderately and without delay. I love myself without recompense, without reason, without state sponsorship or licensing, without writing a proposal first or getting a grant, without getting dressed up first and taking a shower, without calling ahead to find out what time I should love myself, without buying a bottle of wine and some flowers first, without shining my shoes and clipping my nails. I love myself because of you. I love myself because there are people like you and me all over the world beating ourselves up because our sisters made more money, because our sisters are more perfect, because everybody loves our sister better. Jesus, woman! Love yourself! Take the afternoon off. Pick up something you've made that you love and admire it. Spend all day admiring it. Don't criticize it. Don't pick it apart. You made it. You are a creative person. You don't control the market. You don't even control your creativity. It's a gift. Take care of it.

Love yourself because you've got no choice. It's that or end up in an institution where they hand you your meds in a little cup from a window.

I know I'm not Dostoevski or even Paddy Chayefski. I'm a guy with a mortgage and hungry dogs. So I love myself because I have to, because the alternative is not an option. I talk to God unabashedly and say what's up, you fucker, what fresh hell have you so graciously arranged for me today? I bless myself. I say bless you, fuckhead, bless you, my son, let's see you make it through this day without driving off a cliff. Let's see you smile in line at the grocery store and try to make small talk with the cashier. Let's see you ride all the way from here to the ocean with murderous voices murmuring in your skull. Good morning, fuckhead, bless you for another day. What do you think this is, the Ritz?

The murderous voice says do you, Cary Tennis, take this life to be your lawful welded life and I say, I do. And do you, life, take this man to be your impoverished and humble obedient slave, to breath in and out until God knows what unholy combination of stress, disease, cell mutations, poison, decay and entropy force him finally into one last dark half-breath? And life says, Yeah, sure, why not. And so we go on, me and my weary bride of life, two ragged beggars hiding behind the Safeway looking for cans and cigarette butts.

Oh, I don't know, I do exaggerate. I have a good if perilous middle-class existence. And so do you. But in our hearts, if we are artists, we are hungry and desperate. That is utterly normal. That is our condition. That is the condition of the creative person, to be hungry and desperate without moderation. Our job is to continue in our crazy journey with immoderate and unearned joy in our hearts and keep creating things, immoderately and without delay, desperately, beyond all reason.

But let's talk reasonably here just for a minute before I jump off a cliff. Why did cognitive therapy help only temporarily? Is that because you only practiced it temporarily? Are you practicing it now? Are you using the tools that got you some relief? You have to do it every day. If you've stopped doing it and it's not working, it's not working because you're not doing it. So start doing it again. If you're using cognitive therapy but it isn't working enough, work at it harder. It worked once. It worked because it's effective. But the dysfunctional voices of self-hatred and despair will happily come back. So you have to keep doing it. You have to keep them at bay. It's a maintenance thing. So keep working it.

Don't let these stupid voices in. Don't give them a chance. Kill them unmercifully. Do cognitive therapy every day until it hurts. Do what works. Do it till it hurts.

And don't idolize your fucking sister so much. She's a designer just like you.

OK. Enough of this.

Now get back to work.

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