About a month ago, I got an email from one of the literary magazines to which I’d submitted a short story. The past five times I’d gotten such an email, my heart would jump and I’d open it, only to see a “we will not be publishing your story.” Rejection. I’d mope but thankfully never get too dejected because I know it’s part of the process (insert story here about how a famous author got rejected hundreds of times before their first publication). And since my livelihood doesn’t depend on getting published, I could do another search on Poets and Writers, find another journal that published similar stories to mine, and send it off again.
About a month ago, the email instead said my story WOULD be published. Here is what happened in the thirty seconds that followed:
- Stared in disbelief at my phone
- Smiled and did a little squirmy happy dance
- Stared in disbelief at my phone
- Turned the phone to show J the email
- Panicked because this would mean people would actually read my story and it’s probably crap! And people will see it! They’ll find me out! I’m a shitty writer!
- Calmed when I told myself it’s a low-circulation random-ass journal so no one would probably even see it.
- Scolded myself for submitting to a low-circulation random-ass journal—no one will even see it!
- Pretend record scratch “hold everything” noise
- It’s a journal (no, it’s not the New Yorker, but let’s start somewhere) and you’re going to be published (but don’t tell anyone until it’s actually live online because, um, it still seems too good to be true) and BE PROUD OF YOURSELF.
I write this to show how easy it is to get into this tailspin of self-criticism and imposter syndrome. Even in the glow of a moment of success, my brain found ways to downplay, to qualify, to limit my success.
Why do we do this? I think our brains get a hint of fear and don’t know what to do with it. We’re still wired to equate fear with, “A tiger is chasing me RUN!” Steps #5-7 above are that fear saying “FIGHT OR FLIGHT YOU SILLY HUMAN DON’T MAKE YOURSELF VULNERABLE HIDDDDDEEEEEEE!!” We are not well wired to equate fear with “Gee, I’m doing something new and I’m not sure what I’m doing but it’s good to be out of my comfort zone because that’s where I’ll learn the most, even if I fail.” We can get there, but it’s not our innate wiring. Instead, it’s a conscious effort and intentional self-talk that has to rise above the knee-jerk reaction of our subconscious to protect us from fear, from the unknown. And it’s really hard.
Catching it when it happens is important. At first, it’s a bit depressing because I think we do it almost all the time. One of my biggest challenges is not thinking this means there’s something wrong with me, that it’s normal brain chemistry to have this fight-or-flight response to danger. The key is to train the brain that it can relax when this danger isn’t real. Thank you, brain, but I’ll be fine, submitting my work won’t actually kill me. Or, speaking in front of people won’t actually kill me. Telling someone I love them or asking for what I want won’t actually kill me. Being vulnerable won’t actually kill me.
When have you noticed your brain over-reacting to the scary stuff in your life? Can you thank it, and then be damn proud of yourself for your big and little successes along the way?
I’m PROUDLY published in the January edition of Adelaide Literary Magazine, online here (or please consider purchasing the hard copy): http://adelaidemagazine.org/f_erinbank.html