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How To Navigate a Spirit-Crushing Insult
Keeping the keys to your emotional ride.
I have a friend who's a published author. Let's call her Carolyn. Carolyn's relationship with her literary agent was very good, right up until the point when it wasn't. After sending him four emails about an exciting new manuscript she'd been working on and had sent him, along with four phone calls, Carolyn got the following in return: —————————. Those dashes are my typographical depiction of utter silence. I don't know of any other way to express the regret, the exasperation, and the sense of humiliation that Carolyn felt at being ghosted by someone she thought of as an ally.
Last week Carolyn told me that she'd written to her agent one last time to ask why she hadn't been given the respect of getting even a one-line email, one that could have simply said: "Sorry, I don't have time for you. Good luck in the future." As you might have guessed, there was no reply to that email, either.
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My point isn't that people sometimes do cruel things; we all know they do. Rather, it's about taking stock of the ways these kinds of encounters can sap us of the will to forge ahead. Perhaps more importantly, it's about a technique we can use to recover our lost self-esteem. And all of us—yes, even the most successful—will lose confidence at one time or another.
Let's look at what Carolyn is going through. She told me that she thinks about her now ex-agent several times a day. And that each time she thinks of him, she doesn't think: Wow, what an incredibly thoughtless prick. Instead, Carolyn turns the insult back on herself: What did I do wrong? What awful thing did I say that I'm not aware of? Is my work that bad? Carolyn has now begun to seriously doubt her ability as a writer.
Am I good enough?
I'll bet that if there were a gray cloud trailing every person who feels an occasional or even overwhelming lack of confidence, there would be a permanent pall cast over us all. And as I mentioned, those hypothetical clouds would be trailing everyone on earth, including highly successful CEOs, athletes, musicians, and writers. No matter how much money gets made, how many home runs get hit, how many hit songs get recorded, or how many books get sold—none of that quantitatively measured stuff does a thing to quell that nagging feeling we all get from time to time: Am I good enough?
What's at the root of that negative thinking? It stems from the way human beings are wired. We have specialized parts of our brains that remain on constant alert for lethal threats. In earlier times, or in patently unsafe parts of the world today, we feared or fear death from wild animals, warring tribes, or violent gangs. Fight or flight responses in such circumstances can be life-saving and entirely appropriate.
For most of us, though, such threats are not real and certainly not lethal. But as Carolyn can attest, our innate, biologically programmed response to perceived threats makes them feel very lethal. They make us lose sleep, question our value in the world, and retreat from doing the things that give us the most pleasure—including the pursuit of our own creative ideas.
As long as Carolyn remains in the throes of fear about her talent and self-worth, she will be unable to write. The energy that Carolyn expends in her negative, threatened mindset is the antithesis of creative; it is last-ditch, Oh My God!, life-sparing energy she’s burning.
If Carolyn feels that if she's judged unworthy by her agent (a person who is assumed to know who is qualified to be a published author and who is not), then it's easy for her to believe she has no real worth as a writer. And if she has no worth…well, it's easy to see where this goes next. Carolyn fears, if only on a subconscious level, that she will be abandoned, that she is alone, that she has no value. Carolyn is no slouch intellectually. She's already done the math. She knows full well that abandonment means actual death. Think about it. Who among us can live in isolation from the rest of humanity? No one.
You might say that Carolyn is taking things way too far; it's just her agent, after all, she's not in any real jeopardy of being abandoned. Well, try using that logic on the autonomic, subconscious mind. Try using that logic in the dead of night when those perceived threats to your essential worth are the most potent, the most debilitating, and hardest to counter with logic.
Has the phrase, "Calm down!" ever worked on a person in a state of emotional extremity?
But, of course, that objective perception of her overreaction is correct. The antidote to Carolyn's agent problem, then, therefore, lies in deliberate actions she can perform to negate the power of her negative emotions.
First, she should identify and articulate what she's feeling. To state it is to objectify it.
Next, she can take stock of the facts surrounding her feelings. She can realize that she is in control of her reactions to any perceived threat and that she is only as threatened or insulted as she allows herself to be.
Carolyn can keep running the facts of the situation through her conscious mind to counteract the negativity coming from her subconscious. Whatever doubts she might have about her writing ability, her agent, in this case, still acted like a total jerk. A little diffusion of responsibility is a healthy start.
Carolyn can then set the timer on her Smartphone for five minutes, sit down at her desk and handwrite the following (or something similar) three times:
I, Carolyn, am a smart, capable person. While I may not yet be a superstar, I am successful at what I do—as proven by my many past accomplishments. Further, I will no longer let my ex-agent's actions dictate one of my moods.
Next, Carolyn can take what she's written and hang it in three places in her home:
1. On her bathroom mirror
2. On her refrigerator door
3. On the wall next to where she writes
Finally, she can set aside time each day to write, even if it's just five minutes, to affirm her belief in herself and her abilities. That is, she can deliberately create objective evidence that counters her false self-perception. And in doing so, she exercises agency that dissolves her sense of victimhood.
The effectiveness of this technique lies in its dignity and objectivity. What Carolyn writes in this exercise isn't fiction. It's a testament to the truth, to wholly verifiable facts. And little by little, those facts will inform her subconscious that there is nothing to fear, that there will be no abandonment because she has not abandoned herself, and that by releasing her newly restored creative energy and agency, there will be renewed joy and abundance.
Note: I want to add that in severe cases, “positive” thinking will be insufficient. The following is some advice from Therese Hicks, a professional therapist.
For quite a while now, the role of unresolved trauma in our vulnerability to distress has been well-documented. That trauma can be in the shape of either developmental trauma, where our basic emotional needs were not met or respected from early childhood, or acute or chronic physical or mental trauma from any previous time in our life. When this is the case, no amount of ‘positive thinking’ can still the distress that is held in our tissues. This requires much more than simply banishing negative thinking.