Have you ever had the feeling that the Universe was trying to tell you something? Events in your life—big or small—occurred that you just couldn’t get out of your mind?
They were close together in time and felt confusing or hurtful. In some way, those events felt oddly similar, but you struggled to discern their underlying theme.
There was a message in there somewhere—a lesson—but what could it be?
It’s Time for Another “Growth” Lesson … Complete with Growing Pains!
Welcome to my life! I often experience “patterns” of events that confound me. That’s when I buckle up and pay attention. It’s time for another one of those “growth” lessons, and most often, it’s a lesson complete with growing pains!
Recently I had two separate interactions that happened just a few days apart, both of which made me stop and take note. Both were email communications with seasoned, well-established writers, and both had to do with my own writing—tangentially. They really had much more to do with my shame.
“I Look to Those Moments as Validation That Perhaps I’ve Finally Grown Up!
I’ve developed quite a tough skin when it comes to writing. A big part of putting one’s artistic work out into the world is the “R” word—rejection. There are famous stories of blockbuster writers who have, before they hit it big, had their work rejected—not once, but over and over again. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, even Dr. Seuss!
And the rest of us writers, who have not achieved ginormous success—we all have had the experience of seeing this email, give or take, from that coveted journal or magazine: “Thank you for submitting “Title” to Name of Journal. After careful consideration, we’ve decided not to publish …”
Countless experiences. Just like that.
While rejections are never fun, I’ve come to accept them as just another part of the biz. After the initial “ouch,” I revisit my essay or article, make any changes I see fit, upload it to another submission site, and click “send.” Then I go about the business of the day.
It’s wonderful, actually. There’s no drama. I look to those moments as validation that perhaps I’ve finally grown up!
What I Didn’t Expect Was for My Feelings to Be Brushed Aside
When it comes to feedback of my work, I also have tough skin. In fact, I appreciate honesty—straight up—even if it means that my piece needs a ton of revision. I want to get better, and I look to those “ahead” of me in the writing world to help me get there.
So when I made an arrangement with one of my old teachers (I would pay him to pay him to read my pages at a rate per page that we agreed upon), I expected—and welcomed—whatever thoughts, suggestions, or criticism he had of my work. What I didn’t expect was for my feelings to be brushed aside.
I Had Bumped into Imposter Syndrome
I had been working on a review of a book—for what seemed like forever—by an author I greatly admire. Because I just couldn’t get it right, I sent it to my teacher for a reading, and I got exactly what I had asked for: thorough, honest, cut-to-the-chase feedback. He agreed that the review wasn’t working, pointed out the where and why, and generously made suggestions regarding how to approach the revision process.
I had what I thought I needed to turn this baby around, yet when I began to rework the review—nothing. It was then that I had an epiphany. I had bumped up against imposter syndrome: Who was I to think I had anything to say worthwhile about this wonderful author’s work?
I shared my eureka moment with my teacher and asked for a phone conversation. (We had also agreed that I’d pay him for emails and phone contacts—I value his time.) I wanted some sage advice about how to write through imposter syndrome, or better yet, how to look it in the eye and say, “go away”!
Instead, I got this: “I am too busy right now for a call. I trust you will figure it out.”
Who got the “go away” now?!?
It Was as If I Was in a Calculus Class Without Having Taken Basic Math!
That was the first interaction. Here’s the second: I am taking an online poetry course with my sister. I know very little about poetry, and it turns out that most of the students in the class have taken multiple poetry classes previously; others have had several of their poems published. I was excited! I love to learn with people several steps ahead. It pushes me further, faster.
But, after the first week of the course, I was feeling lost. It was as if I was in a calculus class (God forbid!) without having taken basic math!
So, I sent the teacher an email, explaining how I felt. I asked for suggestions for how to handle the required discussion prompts, prompts I had no idea of how to answer. Basically, they were questions for which I felt I had absolutely nothing of value to say in response.
Here’s what I got back: “I will answer you shortly, but would you mind first just uploading your thoughts to “assignments” (another tab in the online course program)? The “assignments” tab hadn’t been working, it seems, and my teacher wanted me to see if she’d fixed it.
Compliant student that I am, I helped the woman out … and then waited for the response she promised. It did not come “shortly”—or otherwise.
I Didn’t Crumble!
So, there I was. I had made myself vulnerable to two different people, exposed my feelings of inadequacy. I had asked for help … and had received none.
That’s not exactly true, I’ve come to see. For, while these two teachers’ reactions were not what I had wanted or expected, I did receive the most valuable guidance, guidance I hadn’t expected—and it came in the form of my own reaction.
I didn’t crumble!
Crumble? Who would have crumbled? What is there to crumble about?
In the past, and the not too distant past I might add, I would have! You would have found me in the fetal position—right there on the living room floor! I would been deeply hurt by their responses (or lack thereof). I would have felt dismissed, insulted, rejected. (Yes, that “R” word) My shame-counter would have hit the roof!
Next, I would have engaged in a fruitless mind-reading exercise—what were they thinking—about my request, about me?
I would have blamed myself—what did I do wrong? I must have been too demanding/needy/fill in the blank.
Or I would have become angry—how dare they?!?
Their Reactions Were Theirs, and About Them—Not Me.
But, today, I can wholeheartedly say that I didn’t engage in any of that shame-spiraling behavior.
I was disappointed that I didn’t get what I thought I needed, but their reactions? Their reactions were theirs, and about them—not me.
Of course, I talked all about this in therapy—where would I be without Marsha, my therapist? And as I explained, my eyes teared up.
But the emotion I felt during the therapy session was not about what had recently transpired between me and my teachers. The emotion was for the woman I was, even just six months ago.
I felt a tenderness for my past self—for the tremendous sadness that I used to carry, for the weight of others’ feelings/issues/whatever—feelings/issues/whatevers that did not belong to me.
How did I manage, carrying such a heavy load? Why did I agree to take it on as my burden?
“The Precursor of the Mirror Is the Mother’s Face”
Yes. That bears repeating: “The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.”
I remembered a book I read way back in social work school. (That was way back—1983!) The book was called Playing & Reality by D.W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who studied the parent-infant relationship.
Young infants do not yet have a sense of self apart from others. So, when they look into their mother’s (or caretaker’s) eyes, it is as if they are looking into a mirror—they see themselves reflected there. If their mom reflects back love and positive emotion, through smiles and genuine, loving connection, the infant will learn to see herself with love, as well, according to Winnicott . But if the mother (Winnicott published the book in 1971, so “mother” is his fallback) is often preoccupied, depressed, or angry when looking into the baby’s eyes, developing a healthy sense of self becomes more complicated for the infant.
I love my mother. And she loved me. But, when I was an infant, she was preoccupied and depressed much of the time. And I am guessing, when she looked into my eyes, I saw reflected not only her love but a whole host of other, less positive and more confusing emotions.
What the Universe, through these two recent exchanges with my teachers, wanted to teach me was how far I have come. In the past, I would constantly be looking to others as my mirror. I became whomever they thought I was—or whomever I imagined they thought I was.
Who was I, really? I looked to others to show me. I didn’t know that the answer lay inside myself.
Wow! Big lesson! Other people are not my mirrors! They are only mirrors of themselves!
“Don’t Take Anything Personally”
This moment of truth led me to revisit another classic: Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, a runaway self-help bestseller published in 1997.
The agreement most instructive to me in my current life-lesson was agreement number two: Don’t Take Anything Personally.
Ruiz writes: “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.” Each of us, according to Ruiz, lives in “our own dream.” We have our own beliefs and ideas about the world, the result of our own particular programming from childhood. When we take things personally, we are signing on to another’s belief system, taking on their “poison.”
Why would we want to do that?
“What Other People Think of Me Is None of My Business”
Not taking anything personally is incredibly freeing—and easier to do than it may at first seem. When I catch myself feeling insulted, I remind myself to take a step back—and to say “no thank you” to the poison. I don’t need anyone else’s mirror—or anyone else’s “dream.” Ruiz’s third agreement—do not make assumptions—is critical here. No one can get into anyone else’s head—and why would we want to? If we would really like to know where someone’s comments are coming from or what is going on for the other person, ask! Or just let it go, move on and move forward—that’s always an option too.
I’m reminded of a famous quote that’s been attributed to everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Mark Twain to, even, Wayne Dyer: “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Yes!
What other people think of me really is none of my business, and what other people think of you is none of yours!
Other people’s thoughts are their business. I will no longer take their thoughts or their business on.
So … I want to thank my teachers for giving me exactly what I needed. And thank the Universe for bringing me such wonderful lessons.
As I grow older, the growing pains are less painful, even as the growth is much more expansive.
It’s that tough skin, I think. The tough skin I’ve developed on the outside lets me keep out what is not mine. And that makes it much safer for me to let my softness shine through and to let compassion lead the way.
What lessons has the Universe sent your way lately? How have you dealt with the “R” word (rejection)? How do you stop yourself from taking things personally?
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please write a comment or send me an email!