Rejection and Bouncing Back

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I used to be horrible at rejection. I’d get a rejection letter from a job or a scholarship and I’d spend the next few hours curled up in the fetal position feeling miserable, crying, beating myself up. I should have spent more time on the application, I should have been a better person, I should have been smarter, I should have gotten better grades. No one likes rejection, although some people handle it better than others. But it’s not uncommon for rejection of any kind to leave us questioning our worth as human beings.

In the last week, I’ve been rejected from two of the jobs that I applied to. That’s not that many, but both were things I was extremely interested in and sincerely hoped I’d at least get an interview for. And yet I find myself completely unconcerned. Of course I still would deeply like a job sooner rather than later, and I’m a bit worried about my finances, but I didn’t get that stomach dropping feeling that I screwed up and will never recover.

How?

It’s easy to imagine that I just somehow calmed down. I grew out of some of my anxiety, my meds are working better. But I think that discounts the real work that anyone can do to limit the panic that often results from rejection. I have just lived what could be considered a worst case scenario. I don’t have enough money to live on my own, I don’t have a job. There are times in my past that this would lead to a full on “I’m going to end up selling drugs on a street corner and living in a cardboard box” meltdown. But I know how this is going to end: I’ll go home, move in with my parents for a bit, furiously apply to jobs, take what I can get, and move on with my life.

My friends will still be there for me. I won’t be miserable because I still have a safety net, I still have the things that I love. The bottom has fallen out and I’m still standing. Now for most people this is not the ideal way to get past the failure fear. But you can imagine it. If you were to lose your job and your savings right this minute, what would happen? If you were to not get the job that you absolutely want and had to take something you weren’t thrilled about, what would happen?

In all likelihood, you’d survive. You probably have people to support you. And if you did have to take a shitty job, you might have other things in your life that could balance it: friends, family, hobbies. The shift of focus from “finding perfect career” to “building a family and home that I love” has completely changed my sense of rejection. My friends aren’t going to reject me if I screw up once. My family will probably never reject me. These human relationships are a far more solid basis for an identity and a safety net than a career or an education that doesn’t have a personal relationship with you. Personal relationships are what create safety for us: they keep the bottom from falling out because we’ve got some extra people hanging out with us who can catch us.

This metaphor has become far too cheesy, but the point is that each individual rejection no longer becomes about the whole of your future or your identity. It’s simply one piece of a life that has other elements to balance it. I used to think that I was amazing at seeing the big picture. I got a B on a test in high school once, and my mind immediately started following all the links to a prediction of utter doom: I wouldn’t get a good enough grade in the class which meant that I wouldn’t get into a good college which meant that I wouldn’t get a good job which meant that I would be homeless and die alone. Big picture, right? Thinking in the long term?

What I missed was that the big picture has to include all the elements of the picture: the fact that schools look at more than just grades, that I am a hard and dedicated worker, that even if things did go poorly I knew people who would help me out. The big picture is more than just a series of links in a chain to doom. It’s all the mitigating factors, the people you know, the backups you have in place, your resources and your resourcefulness.

So I’m not worried. I’m not worried that I’ll end up stuck in a career I hate because I got a few rejections. I’m not worried I’ll be living with my parents for years and years and all my friends will abandon me and I’ll die of starvation. Because I can survive some temporary nastiness and find new ways into the careers that I want. There is no singular right way, and not getting one of the things that I thought could be a right way doesn’t mean dead end. It means try a different route.

Maybe this whole “focusing on relationships and my identity” rather than focusing on accomplishments business is actually fairly effective. Whoa.

Overt and Covert Power

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This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.

It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.

And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.

Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.

So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.

Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.

I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?

I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.

Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?

There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?

Gratitude: Mental Illness

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It’s Thanksgiving this week, and I’m going to be cliche and talk about gratitude. I’ve unintentionally spent some time earlier this week looking at an experience that I was grateful for, but today is going to be a difficult exercise for me: I want to talk about something in myself that I am grateful for. This isn’t easy, but I suggest all of you try it as a way to see those things in yourself that are good.

I spend a lot of time griping about my mental health, but after a lot of thought, I am grateful that I was born this way. My mind is quite often a bitch to me, but I’m glad that it is the way it is. Despite the fact that my mental health is probably my biggest hurdle in life, it has forced me to become a better person, to learn many things that I otherwise could have easily avoided, and to simply be kinder.

I certainly can’t say that if I was given the chance I’d choose my mental illness, and I’m not saying I enjoy my life the way it is, but if I’m being honest with myself, I’m a better, more selfless, and kinder person because of my mental illness and the places it has taken me.

First and foremost, my  mental illness has required that I spend time with myself. I have spend more hours than most people could imagine delving into my deeper fears and insecurities, ripping apart all the myths and lies that I tell myself, and examining why I do the things I do. I have become a far more facts-based individual due to therapy. I have become better at assessing myself and my situations. Because I’ve simply had to really BE with myself, in an entirely present way, I’ve figured out what I don’t like about myself and made improvements, and because I’ve spent so much of this time with a trained professional, I’ve also started to notice when my perception is a little off.

I’ve also had to spend a lot of time with therapists who are unafraid to criticize me and my coping strategies and who want me to improve my relationships. This means a whole lot of real, honest feedback about who I am and how my behaviors affect other people. Because of this, I often get to think about things I screwed up without falling into a guilt trap and with someone there to help me brainstorm immediate techniques to improve the situation.

While I have spent a lot of time thinking about myself, I have also spent a lot of time thinking about how other people influence me and how I influence others: I have learned to shift the perspective away from me, me, me. Your actions aren’t about me, and my actions are small. I have learned that often I should be thinking about someone else instead of about making myself smaller to fit someone else in.

In addition, I’ve found that I understand emotions better, both my own and other people’s. This makes me far more effective at Not Fucking Shit Up. I’m extremely grateful for that.

I can’t imagine that I would be doing the things I’m doing today if it weren’t for mental illness. I would be locked away reading books somewhere instead. I’m so glad that mental illness has forced me to engage with the world, that it’s led me to my VISTA year, and that it’s demanded of me that I do more for others.

But the thing I’m most grateful for is the compassion I feel I’ve gotten for people whose brains don’t process quite the same as mine. After seeing the confusion and frustration in people’s faces when they try to comprehend what I’m thinking and feeling, I don’t want to be the person that dismisses another’s pain or struggle. While those experiences were horrible, I’m grateful that I think I’m a better person for it.

My mental illness itself has not given me much, but it has forced me into situations that have given me tools to help myself and to help others. I am grateful. I would never have thought so deeply, been nearly as effective, or been so perceptive without the drive of mental illness behind me. I’m grateful that I now have a habit of therapy behind me, that going forward I will now how and where to find appropriate tools to improve myself, and that I will continue to reflect on myself in this way. I’m grateful that when I ask others to go to therapy now, I have the weight of my own work behind me. I’m grateful that I am in a better position to help others now.

So thanks mental illness. You’ve made me a better person.

An Apology is a Phoenix

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In the skeptical community, people have been talking about apologies. We’ve been working on being open about when we’re wrong, valuing the apology, and discussing what constitutes a good or a bad apology. What is more fascinating to me than these practical discussions is the question of how apologies actually work. What is it about saying two words that can change the nature of a harmful act? What are we doing when we apologize?

 

The place to start might be when you should apologize. In general, an apology is expected when you harmed someone and you could have acted differently, particularly if you harmed them intentionally. An apology usually implies that you will change your behavior in the future and that you can see you should have acted differently. Oftentimes we might say “I’m sorry” just to express sadness or sympathy. That is not the same as an apology. This is the type of thing you might do with an accident, although if the accident is bad enough you may apologize with the intent of improving your behavior in the future, especially if you were reckless or careless.

 

In college, I had a professor who likened apologies to the lifecycle of a phoenix: you kill off a small part of yourself and are reborn better and stronger. I think that this conception of an apology is important: an apology is more than simply saying words. It is a speech act: you are doing something with words. You can threaten someone with words, you can question someone with words, and similarly you can apologize. So what are you doing when you apologize?

 

The image of a phoenix is particularly pertinent to an apology, because a good apology is one in which you identify a piece of yourself that you want to kill off or change into something new. An apology that truly understands what you have done wrong and seeks to right the wrong will want to distance the new self from the self who did the harm. Each of us spends our whole lives choosing which parts of ourselves to cultivate and which parts to cull off. When we apologize, we clearly identify a type of behavior or attitude that we want to kill off. When we do that, we open the way for a new behavior that is more positive and more in line with our values.

 

What I find the most interesting about this is that it helps to explain why apologies are so painful and often difficult. We have to clearly identify something about ourselves that we don’t like and that we want to change, openly get rid of it, and then somehow try to come out with new life and growth from the experience. It hurts to change, it hurts to realize that you dislike a part of yourself, and it’s painful to try to remove something. The very image of the phoenix is one of violence towards the self, but it also explains why apologies can be a great thing; only by burning away the mess can you turn into something better.

 

And when we use this image to understand what someone is doing in an apology, we begin to understand why it holds the power that it does. When we’re talking about our identities and how we form our identities, the most we have are metaphors, symbols, and words. No one can see our identities or our personalities, and so the things we do with words are often the most important. When we apologize, we are doing something to ourselves even more than we are doing something for another person: in front of witnesses, we are killing off one piece of ourselves and committing to the growth of another piece. We are allowing others to see a process of change in ourselves, which is something personal and difficult. The intimacy of an apology is something that is rarely discussed, but I believe it plays an important role. We could go through the same process of recognizing that we are wrong and committing to change our behavior without telling anyone, however the fact that we do it in front of others and as reparation for the harms that we’ve done makes it a kind of justice.

 

In the atheist community we don’t like to talk much about the power of metaphors and symbolic acts but let’s be real for a minute: symbols mean something. People wouldn’t hold on to them so hard if they didn’t mean things to us and if symbolic acts didn’t mean things. And so the symbolic act of an apology does more than simply let someone know you’re sorry and sad for what’s happened. It illustrates to them that you’re willing to distance yourself from someone you used to be, perhaps even to the point of destroying that part of yourself. Apologies are powerful symbols.

Growth: A series of Drabbles

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Growth

It was a good idea to never look down and never look back. At this moment, clinging by his fingertips to an unhelpfully flat cliff, he was acutely aware of the fact that looking back at his progress was a horrible idea, and so he stared upwards, his eyes seeking out any slivers of crevice, crack or ledge that his fingers could hold to through the strength of friction and hope. Somewhere above there was a shadow, barely indicating a ledge. He tensed, let himself hang downwards before launching himself up to grab at the wall. Growing by the second.

 

 

Yesterday there had been a beard on his face. Today there was none. He looked younger without it, as though his hair were suddenly less gray and his eyes more blue. His friends remarked on hos spry he seemed, but he simply smiled enigmatically. The following month they were sure something was different.

“Are you working out?” they asked.

“Just standing straighter” he replied.

By the end of the year Art knew he had to say something. His friend’s old staff rested uselessly in the corner while the man himself nearly danced across the floor.

“Merlin, are you growing younger?”

 

 

Bright eyed and bushy tailed. Dashing over crisp leaves. Preparing.

The twitchy little squirrel carries his acorn across the ground, looking for the perfect hiding place. He can feel the fall air in his bones and is ready. The ground is right here. The nut is buried. Squirrel departs.

 

Melting snow has left the ground soggy but the searching nose of squirrel is certain it remembers where it left that nut. Aha! Here it is! Little squirrel looks up at little sapling. A pause. A deep search through memory. How many summers ago had he buried it? Grown up nut?

 

 

“Mommy, where do babies come from?”

I froze, taken aback by the sudden and unexpected question. Why was my baby asking me about babies? I was certain I had not been this little when I started asking…she couldn’t be ready yet. I wasn’t ready yet.

I pointedly looked away, turning my attention to the brief I was writing, trying to buy time. I had not prepared for this.

“Why are you asking?” I hedged.

“Sarah’s got a baby brother. How?” I sighed and turned to look at my baby girl. She hadn’t been so tall this morning. Growing so fast.

 

 

 

 

This sucker here is my first attempt at a haibun. I’m not totally happy with it, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

 

The room is always dark, the shades always closed. Not even the fresh sun or the smell of melting snow can sneak under the window sill. But despite the darkness a harsh lamp spreads tendrils of light across the floor, leaving patterns here and there. She walks in, looking for ink and parchment. Her boots drag. Clothes are shed and the pattern is from door to bed. She can see the crosshatches on the floor of shadow, light, shoe, and pen. The room is covered with lines, straight and sharp, almost as harsh as the light. Her skin turns pale in the light, blueish with veins and red with cold.

 

This will be my pen

The ink that I use is red

Drawing patterns here