Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Conflict

Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash
I've been reading a lot lately about "high-conflict personalities" (HCP's).

I can't imagine why. (It's not like I watch the news or anything.)

One of the most prolific writers on the subject of HCP is Bill Eddy. A lawyer, therapist, and founder of The High Conflict Institute, Eddy notes that, although it seems that high-conflict personalities are most likely people with undiagnosed personality disorders--specifically, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, or antisocial personalities--the answer may not be quite so simple.

Yes, a HCP might very well be a result of a personality disorder. But research has also shown that people with high-conflict personalities differ from those who have a diagnosed personality disorder.

Not all people with personality disorders necessarily demonstrate the traits of a high-conflict personality. So it may be that HCP is a particular behavioral subset within personality disorders.

As Eddy notes, people with high-conflict personalities "can be rigid, angry, attacking, criticizing, lying, spreading rumors, manipulative, self-absorbed, attention-getting, self-sabotaging, and sometimes violent."

Someone with borderline personality disorder, for example, might also be a high-conflict personality.

But many individuals with borderline personality disorder are conflict avoidant, so their behavior is not consistently marked by the qualities that Eddy describes.

Similarly, people with narcissistic or histrionic personality disorder may have behaviors that often create conflict, but causing conflict is not their intention and if their needs are being met, they are not necessarily inclined to target someone else and instigate a problem.

In short, they aren't nearly always in conflict, all the time, with absolutely everyone or constantly spoiling for a fight of some sort, as high-conflict personalities seem to be.

Perhaps more importantly, people with diagnosed personality disorders can often, with therapy, gain insight into their behavior and find alternative ways of coping that reduce conflict. Some personality disorders are challenging and a bit resistant to treatment, but there have been advances in using things like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, that have shown a lot of progress in working with people with borderline personality disorder, for example, so there's reason for hope and optimism.

High-conflict personalities, however, are not inclined to seek treatment and seem to function a bit differently. As Gary Direnfeld summarizes, people with high-conflict personalities tend to demonstrate all-or-nothing thinking, an inability to regulate their emotions, a tendency to always blame others for their problems, and "extreme behaviors."

In short, the problem or conflict doesn't exist that they can't escalate and make a lot worse.

This is because high-conflict personalities are always seeking what Eddy refers to as a "Target of Blame."

It is also because those of us who encounter high-conflict personalities tend to respond to them in a way that strikes non-HCP's as helpful and logical.

We try to enlighten them. We point out the inherent problems in their behavior and the bad effect that it is having on us, on the HCPs themselves, and on the world around them.

We ask them why, in the name of all that's holy, they're behaving in the way that they are and explain to them that they seem to be a ... high conflict personality!

If (or when) you do this, you've sealed your fate. You are now on deck to become an HCP's "Target of Blame."

People with a high-conflict personality are defensive to an extreme. As Eddy argues, they appear to be guided by a kind of "MAD-ness," where "MAD" refers to a "Mistaken Assessment of Danger."

Depending on their inclination, they may fear being ignored, abandoned, betrayed, helpless/ dominated, or perceived as inferior. These fears appear to stem from childhood experiences (potentially, traumas) and have nothing to do, really, with the situation at hand.

This fear is what drives their (over-the-top, aggressive) responses to and behaviors toward the people around them.

As a result, as Eddy argues, the issue or conflict at hand is never really "the issue."

The issue is the nature of their (mistaken) fear and the behavior that it provokes.

If you say, "Ya know, you're kinda acting like a jerk...", you become the immediate problem in their eyes. It doesn't matter that yes, indeedy, they are definitely acting like a jerk and you're quite right about that.

You've identified yourself as someone inclined to betray, dominate, abandon, or ignore the HCP. And what you may regard as a helpful (if somewhat pointed or critical) suggestion will be processed as a threat.

And remember, they cannot regulate their own emotions, they lack insight or self-awareness, and they are inclined to respond in "extreme" ways.

So the psychological correctives in place for the rest of us--the fact that we can (and often will) tell ourselves things like, "maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing," or "Man, that pissed me off, but I think I need to calm down," and "I may be overreacting," or "this really isn't worth fighting about"--will not kick in for someone with a high-conflict personality.

Instead, they will behave "BAD-ly," wherein "BAD" refers to "Behavior that is Aggressively Defensive."

You will find yourself caught up in an (emotional, verbal, legal, cyber) maelstrom that is out of all proportion to the situation.

And it will become a conflict that never seems to reach a resolution.

So the goal (obviously) is to spot HCP's before you inadvertently do or say something that makes you a Target of Blame.

In Talking to Crazy, Mark Goulston argues that, if you want a rough-and-ready way of sorting out those among us who might have a serious psychological issue from those of us who are simply struggling, you should get the person to talk to you about a time when things didn't go their way.

Talk to them about something they regretted or circumstances that they found disappointing... and then pay attention to how they respond. Both what they say and how they say it.

Most of us will, when asked about such a situation, acknowledge at some point that, in some way, we bear some responsibility for what happened.

Or we'll indicate that we learned a valuable lesson from it. We'll indicate what we wished we'd done differently. We might even say that the disappointment turned out to be a good thing, in the end.

If the person simply blames others, insists on the general injustice of the world and their own status as victim, assumes no responsibility for what happened, and expresses no real regret for any bad outcomes... step away.

Don't go on that second date.

And bear in mind, their affect may not be angry. They may be inclined to cast it as a "woe is me" situation, but underneath it all, you need to be able to assess frankly whether they showed any sense of self-blame or self-awareness in their retrospective assessment of the situation. If they don't, you should keep your distance. 

If you can't avoid or keep some distance from the person (if, say, s/he is a co-worker or--heaven forbid!!-- a boss), then this post by Sarah Somerset offers some suggestions for moving forward while also protecting yourself.

Whatever you do, don't criticize or try to correct their perspective. Don't call attention to their "high conflict" relationship style or personality.

Instead, Eddy suggests, try to give them an EAR--where "EAR" refers to "Empathy, Attention, and Respect."

Recognize that the HCP's defensiveness, although it constitutes a mistaken assessment of danger, is a response to a very real feeling of fear, and that this is what is causing them to be over-the-top aggressive in their own self-defense.

Don't be dismissive or disrespectful of that fear. Try to imagine what it would be like if you felt that way, and how you would want to be treated in that moment.

At the same time, try to set limits early on. If you can do this in a way that allows the HCP to save face, all the better. The acronym to remember here is "BIFF": be Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly.

They can't really "hear" you or take in a lot of information right now because their hyper-defensiveness is (and may always be) clouding their judgment.

If you seem angry or hostile--even if you may very well have good reason to be--it will only escalate their feelings of fear and defensiveness. That's not what you want. (Really, it's not.)

So swallow your pride (if you can) and try to focus on what you do want: a conflict-free situation and life.

This means that if you can't avoid a high-conflict personality, the best you can do is not aggravate them or situate yourself in their cross-hairs. 

Which means that, as Somerset points out, you have to remind yourself not to respond emotionally and to take a step back: "be ready to disengage at any time," "change the subject," and/or "focus on the future."

As Direnfeld points out, you'll have to let go of any need to "set the record straight." At times, you may simply need to accept the fact that a high-conflict personality is not going to be happy with the outcome and that they may blame you for that. 

In such situations, as Eddy points out, the best you can do might simply be to limit the damage done and be at peace with yourself, recognizing that the person with a high-conflict personality isn't "inherently evil" just ... fearful and terribly unhappy.

You can't prevent that unhappiness. But at least you can say that you did your best not to add to it.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Nothing

All week long, I've been waiting for something--an event, an idea, something--to blog about.

And all week long... nothing.

They say "nothing comes from nothing." Hence the title of this post.

So what does a week of nothing involve in my world?

There's a little bit of writing. In particular, an article that seems to be inching its way towards completion. Not as quickly as I'd like (of course), but, as I said, inching.

Maybe millimetering at a couple of points, actually, if we're going to be totally honest here. Okay, just thinking about this is making me mentally hyperventilate, so I'm going to move on to the next bit of nothing.

There's a little bit of reading. I reread Elyn Sak's The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness (2007) during the heat-wave last week. It's still a really good book, in my opinion, and one I'd definitely recommend.

I also read a couple of books by Sarah Manguso: Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir (2009) and The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend (2013). I liked the former a bit better than the latter, but I found both of them to be interesting reading.

There's a little bit of yarn. If we're still trying to find the silver lining to the cloud that was having the credit card number stolen--and I suppose we are and we will be for some time to come--then it seems to be that it makes me highly reluctant to buy anything anymore.

This means that I'm showing much more commitment to finishing the various (okay, many) knitting projects than I've already started than to shopping for yarn so that I can randomly start new ones. This is a good thing.

There's a bit of biking. A couple of weeks ago, my very old sneakers died, so I decided to go out and buy shoes that are made for biking. (No, I'm not going clipless: for reasons that I explain here, I'm inclined to keep biking a recreational, enjoyable sport and thus not attach myself to the bike simply to be able to bike faster.)

I invested in mountain bike shoes, because I want shoes that I can actually walk in, if I need to. I don't bike terribly far, so being able to walk home is a nice option if you run into a problem with the bike itself.

Can I just say that, if you've been biking in regular sneakers and wondering how everyone else is able to go so fast, I'm here to tell you: it's the shoes. The soles are firmer and flatter, so it's like you're pressing down on a solid block, instead of pedaling with the ball of your foot.

Suffice to say, you'll go quite a bit faster when that happens.

There's some attentiveness to the environment. It's "Plastic Free July." If you don't know what that is, I blogged about it last year, and it's really worth doing. Or at least trying to do. Having done it for one month last year, I found that I spent the remainder of the ensuing year being very aware of how much (pointless) plastic is out there, and being mindful of what I can do to reduce my use of it--particularly of single-use plastic.

There's some attention to health. I stumbled on Mark Bittman's VB6 diet plan. It's been around for a while now: the idea is, you eat "vegan before 6 p.m." (hence, "VB6") and then for dinner, you can have what you want (in moderation).

In all honesty, I think I'm somewhat close to doing this already. But I'm also aware that I eat a lot of dairy during the day, so it might not hurt to try to scale back on that. So the plan is to give this basic concept a try--it's always easier to do a food-adjustment during the summer and see if it will "take" well enough for me to be able to maintain it once the more hectic pace of the semester begins.

So that's it for this week. A whole lotta... nothing.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Heated

As I'm sure everyone already knows by now, we've been in the middle of a little heat-wave here on the East Coast and at this point, I think pretty much everyone is looking forward to having it break sometime tomorrow.

I know I am.

I've been feeling a bit under the weather all week, and needless to say, this is not weather that anyone really wants to be ... under.

On the plus side, I'm not in one of the Mid-Atlantic states, where it's (always) hotter than here by the sea. I marvel at the fact that, for most of my life, I spent summers somewhere nowhere near the ocean--always inland, in NY or VT or NJ.

But somehow, I just knew: life is better by the water. And now, I can't fathom being asked to be somewhere where water isn't, especially during the hot summer months.

Winter, of course, can be a bit of a different story, but even then, you've just got to be prepared for a windy damp chill that settles into your very bones.

No prob. That's what knitting is for.

Speaking of which, I've been using the time over the past couple of weeks to catch up on the 2018 Temperature Blanket.

If you're wondering what kind of nut works on a blanket in a July heatwave, let me just take this moment to thank God I was born with the good sense to know enough to make it in 8 x 8 inch COTTON squares. Wool is just not what anyone needs right now.

So here it is, more or less completely up-to-date:


As you can see, the color scheme has changed with the weather--gone are those nice blues, greens, and silver (on the right-hand side of the photo) that marked things like snow and freezing temps and sub-zero windchills.

(I stared longingly at those squares this week: that's where it all began...)

Now, it's all about the yellows and orange and greens with the deep red of soaring summer temps soon to be added to the mix.

(And I'm sure I'll stare longingly at those squares this winter.)

I'm enjoying this project as a way of marking time. This week, I marveled aloud to Smokey (Juno and Freya were asleep in the other room), that it seems like just yesterday I had the Christmas tree up and was cooking a dinner to celebrate the holidays.

The time is just flying...

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Civility and Disobedience

I've been thinking a lot about the current debates regarding "civility," and I have a few thoughts--some more finished than others.

First finished thought: resistance and rebellion are never "polite."

They never have been, and they never will be.

Both words derive from Latin roots that imply conflict: resistance, from resistere, meaning to stand AGAINST, and rebellion, from rebellio, meaning to revolt or resume an act of WAR.

"Civil" and "civility" on the other hand, derive from the Latin word civis, meaning "citizen." The Latin adjective civilis means "relating to public life, befitting a citizen."

(Yeah, I was a big ole Classical Studies major as an undergrad. Come at me, bro'.) 

There's been a lot of talk in the news lately about people "needing" to be "civil" to one another, even if they express "disagreement." 

If you're one of the proponents of that notion, you might want to check your privilege to ensure that you're not operating on the assumption that "citizens" should never express resistance (take a stand) or rebel against the government, since that's a quintessentially American right and value.

The Framers of the Constitution believed in it so strongly, they made it the core of the First Amendment. The "right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" suggests that, as Americans, we fundamentally agree that there is no inherent conflict between the notion of "civility" (defined as appropriate citizen-like behavior) and the idea of "resistance."

Citizens can openly object when they feel aggrieved, and they are no less civilis for doing so.

On the flip side, if you continue to insist that people should "at least be polite," I would ask you to consider the following: Has anyone ever, in the history of the world, been cheerful and pleasant in a disagreement that involves power and moral principles? 

How effective is it to say (for example), "Hi Bob! I hope you're having a great day today--how are the wife and kids? Great, great... Here's the thing: I've noticed that lately, you've been doing some stuff that--well, gosh, don't take this the wrong way, but I find it kind of morally troubling, you know? So I was wondering if you'd consider not doing that, because I've been feeling oppressed by it. And I talked to some other people and it turns out, they are too, and I can't imagine you want us to be feeling that way... so I thought if I told you about it, you'd reconsider and take a different approach from here on out and then we could all just go get some dinner--no hard feelings, okay?"?

Yeah. No. Not happening.

What seems to have become particularly fraught in recent days, however, is the notion that people are being "uncivil" to each other in their day-to-day lives, as a result of their political convictions.

The notion is, we should object to the government--or not--as we see fit, but then sit down to a pleasant meal together (or, in some cases, a wine and cheese platter that, as it turns out, ends up being "on the house") and just accept that none of this really matters all that much, could you pass the potatoes, please?

I smile at this because I imagine telling a colonist circa 1775 that they should not only feed the British soldier currently quartered in their home, but do it with a smile and a friendly spirit, because, you know, its food, not politics, and yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but some people are just doing their job. No need to be rude!

The thing that stands out to me in the current dilemma involving civility is that, initially, both parties to the Red Hen scenario were civil. A restaurant owner stated an opinion, and asked a customer to please leave. The customer politely did so.

I would say, based on everyone's description of the initial encounter, it was "respectful" on both sides.

It should have ended there. But of course, it didn't, because ... Facebook. Followed by some Tweeting. Exacerbated by Yelping.

In today's battle for freedom in America, this is the new Lexington, a social media shot heard round the world.

In a psychological drama triangle, "Persecutors" will remain persecutors as long as it's working for them. When it starts to not work, they will quickly shift to the role of "Victim."

People who are more comfortable as "Rescuers" will try to assuage the situation and keep everyone happy (and "civil").

In everyday life, it's a sign of an unhealthy dynamic marked by defensiveness, anxiety, control, and emotional manipulation.

I would say that this is our current political climate, in a nutshell, so it's no surprise that it's leaking out into everyday life (where it always existed anyway).

There are personalities in charge who regularly exhibit patterns of behavior and personal interaction styles that are not always productive. (I'm putting that very... civilly, aren't I?).

They thrive on control and manipulation. They benefit from chaos, because pathological narcissists thrive on turmoil. As Susan Krauss Witbourne notes in "Why Narcissists Thrive on Chaos" (Psychology Today, May 5, 2018), "The disruption they cause in everyone else’s lives ... is part of the pattern of needing to fuel their sense of self-importance."

Narcissists prefer positive attention, but they'll settle for negative--so long as they're the center of attention.

Do I have a solution? Not really. I think awareness and vigilance are powerful tools, though.

One point that stands out to me to always remember is that narcissists will enjoy making you angry to a degree that is crazy-making, so that when you finally scream and go off your nut, they can bask in a triumphant, "SEE? She's crazy!!"

So angry outbursts aren't the best weapon in this kind of situation, although it's understandable one would feel angry to the point of bursting. Expletive-laden outbursts will always work in the narcissist's favor, by giving them a reaction they can feed on.

They know they're going to make you angry; it's what they do. Your anger keeps you focused on the narcissist. They don't mind that one bit, because the more out-of-control you appear to be, the more in-control they will feel.

They lack empathy. And expressions of shock and ranting and raving will not get them to feel it.

So I think the strategy has to be focused, not so much on the narcissist, as on protecting oneself and on those around us who are vulnerable.

In my opinion, there a lot of people out there who are doing that right now.

I also wonder whether some of these research-backed strategies might be useful in shaping public discourse, for the bulk of us exhausted, but generally "civil" citizens. They're based on the work of Craig Malkin, and drawn from his book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad--and Surprisingly Good--About Feeling Special (2015).

Can we use the word "we" more often?

Not all the time, and certainly not as a way to pacify and accept the behavior of Perpetrators, Rescue Victims, or suggest agreement with ideas and behaviors that we cannot fundamentally agree with, but to change the energy and the dynamic? I don't know if we can, but I hope we can try.

Can we find a way to implement the "ABC" strategy on a large scale, as a way of framing public discourse?

Can we express how we're feeling, using less intense emotional language--or at least paying attention to the tenor of our emotional language when it does get intense-- not as a way to silence or self-censor, but as a function of strategy, since we're directing our concerns toward people and entities that we don't have an intimate personal relationship with? (They're our "bosses," not our "life partners.")

As Malkin suggests, describe the experience, without using the word "you." This is the Affect (A) stage.

Can we identify the Behavior (B) that causes the feeling? I think we can. Can we remain calm--but firm and unwavering --when describing it? That's a real challenge, but I think we can do it.

Can we clearly and coherently alert others to the Changes (C) that we seek, without getting defensive? Again, a challenge. But effecting change is always a challenge: we've done it before, we can do it again. It's what Americans do.

Majorie Fjelstad has suggested that, in coping with someone with narcissistic (or borderline) personality disorder in one's personal life, it's helpful to use a formula for communicating with them: "When you do X, it makes me feel Y. If you continue to do X, I will do Z."

And then the focus is on doing "Z," not on continuing to respond and react to the person (or persons) exhibiting the bad behavior.

Obviously, the person behaving badly is the source of the problem. But if the person is a narcissist, they won't mind crazy-sounding people yelling at them or in defense of them: the attention (positive or negative) affirms their own self-styled "superiority" and feeds their unending psychological need.

Perhaps in these times, we need to infuse civility and disobedience with a bit of psychology? This is my still unfinished thought. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Chicken & Feathers

This week has reminded me of a saying my dad used to use all the time: "One day chicken, the next day feathers--that's life." (Apologies to the vegetarians and vegans out there--obviously, my dad was an old-school carnivore.)

The week was going well. I submitted an article on Wednesday, got up bright and early and ready to roll on Thursday. All the credit for that goes to my kitty, Juno, though--she keeps me on the straight and narrow. (That's another expression my dad used to use a lot.)

Thursday night, I was just about to unplug and read, but I decided to check my email one last time before I did.

That's when I was cheerfully notified by PayPal that, using my credit card, I had made a payment of $500. to a guy named "Pablo" for "professional services."

Yeah. It sorta sounds like I hired a male escort, doesn't it?

Full disclosure: I was, at the time, curled up in bed with a guy named Smokey, but 1) he's a cat, and 2) he has no interest in money or credit cards.

His lovin' is for free. Or at the most, it's an in-kind transaction: food for snuggles, that kind of thing.

So I hurtled out of bed and called the credit card company, then I called PayPal. Because yes, my credit card number had been hacked and stolen.

AGAIN.

This happened a couple of years ago as well. If we're looking on the bright side of things, I suppose we could say that a good thing is that in both cases, by a weird twist of fate, I managed to catch the fraud within 15 minutes of it being posted to my account.

Yeah, sneaky little thieves? NOT ON MY WATCH.  

But of course this is not the bedtime story anyone wants to be greeted with (and in both cases, it was a 9 p.m. event--apparently that's the witching hour for credit card fraud).

Nor does one want to awaken the next morning to find what looks like yet another PayPal email courtesy of "Pablo," requesting $500, seeming to originate in Argentina, and written entirely in Spanish.

I contacted PayPal yet again, and told them I was "FREAKING OUT ABOUT THIS." (No one could ever say I don't "name it" when I'm upset.)

They chuckled very, very gently (they've been trained), told me that was "completely understandable, given the situation" and then asked me questions about the email to help alert my befuddled mind to the fact that it was a fake.

As the woman said, "The guy is just trying to get you to enter your financial information again, now that you've shut down the card."

In short, "Pablo" is not terribly bright. Granted, it may have come as a bit of a surprise to have his attempted charge blasted into nothingness within approximately 7 minutes of clicking "submit," so perhaps he just couldn't believe that the card had really been cancelled. Or he's unaware of how quickly PayPal sends out those email notifications.

And, I'm guessing, he's also unaware that thanks to him, there's no more financial info. to be had, really, because the dude officially crapped out my only credit card, thank you very much, you asshole.

I'm sorry, was that out loud? Sigh. Between Equifax and these credit card fraudsters, I long for a simpler time.

I can't speak for others, but I feel like there was a "sweet spot" out there, somewhere in the mid-90's.

When the internet was a convenience, but there was a general wariness surrounding it. We bought some things online, but not all. Not everything was automatic or automatically online. There was email, but no major forms of social media. TV was "okay" sometimes. People talked to each other. They weren't always staring at their phones, because they didn't always have phones.

If you had said "selfie" to someone, they would have said, "Kinda full of yourself, aren't you? I mean... you're gonna take a picture of yourself and then post it somewhere? And do this, like, every day?? Why?"    

These days, I feel like... we've gone too far, somehow. Are we happy? I don't think we're happy, really.

Anyway, I got a chance to enter that simpler time yesterday, when I found myself writing checks and putting stamps on envelopes that I then walked to the post office to mail.

How cute, right?  I might as well have been wearing a bonnet or carrying a parasol. (I was not.) (Those things are probably safer than sunscreen and won't destroy the coral reefs, though--just sayin'.)
 
Because my feeling yesterday was NO, I'm sorry, I'm not making "one-time payments" online or over the phone right now.

I need time to heal.

So yesterday was a day of financial and emotional healing. I did not write. I read. I dealt with recurring payments that can no longer recur. I planted flower seeds. I took a walk.

I finished knitting a sock. I worked on a blanket.

In short, I unplugged a bit. I didn't go all out and shut down all technology, but I made my needs and interests central to my decisions about how to use it.

Radical.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

An Academic Writbit

About a week ago, I stumbled on an essay by Beth L. Hewett in Insider Higher Ed entitled, "What's Stopping You From Publishing?"

Indeed--it's a very good question.

Hewett notes that "One of the biggest hurdles writers say they must leap is their fear of an editor’s letter of rejection or a decision that the manuscript needs significant revision," because "any response other than a blanket acceptance" can feel like a rejection.

I've published 16 articles (and counting) in a 20-year (and counting) academic career that's been marked by professional challenges including a 4-4 teaching load (for more years than I care to remember), limited release time for scholarship (course releases are always competitive and, in my opinion, occasionally based on things other than scholarly merit), and a single sabbatical.

As this blog can testify, I've also had my share of personal challenges to deal with. I now refer to the half-decade from 2006-2011 as my "Season in Hell." Although it had some definite perks (the sabbatical was one of them), it was not a happy time overall and it brought a lot of stress that was not at all conducive to writing.

Despite what people will try to tell you, writing and misery really don't go hand-in-hand.

Certainly not academic writing, which involves putting together an original, insightful, and coherent analysis, supported by research. All the while knowing that maybe 5 people will read what you've written, and only 2 of them will probably care. (And no, neither of those two people will be your mother. If you're an academic, she stopped actually reading your stuff years ago.)

While I would agree with Hewett's observation that many academic writers balk at the idea of a rejection, I think there are other reasons why they struggle to see their work through to the point of publication.

Consider the following. Let's call it Exhibit A.

This is the revision and editing data from the article that I'm about to submit. It has not undergone any editorial review. It does, however, need another small batch of revisions. (I have to add a few more endnotes. Yippee. Such fun.)

I offer this image because I have been referring to this essay as "one of the quick ones" and thinking very cheerfully about it.

The idea shaped up quickly, it's about a novel I've published on before (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for the 2 people who are interested), and I didn't run into any problems while researching it.

N.B. If an academic tells you they've been having "research problems" it means "I just read something last night that said everything I wanted to say better than I could ever have said it myself so now I'm focused on eating Mallomars by the dozen instead."

If I were to be brutally honest about this "quick" article I've been working on, I would acknowledge that I had the initial idea for it about 5 years ago, after a conversation with a colleague.

I simply found the inspiration--and miraculously, the time--to put the idea into words, supported by soon-to-be properly formatted endnotes, and the self-confidence to decide that it's "okay-enough" to submit, over the past couple of months. 

This is the aspect of the academic publishing process that I think Hewett's essay overlooks. I think it's a question of time, inspiration, self-confidence and motivation--and these are just the things that you need to get you to the point of writing and then submitting a scholarly essay for publication.

I would argue that one of the reasons that rejection causes many academics to simply give up is because it takes so damn long to write and research their ideas that anything other than an outright acceptance feels like... "what more do you want from me?"

Academics also achieve success in a system in which they're awarded "A's" for their work, with very little sense of what the surrounding context for that grade is. Put simply, we aren't trained to write for a wide--or simply wider--audience. We practice writing for one professor, then we move on to writing for another professor. If we're lucky, their standards of evaluation are relatively consistent.

So an editorial response that alerts the academic writer to audience and context and offers significant criticism of their ideas and suggestions for further reading can feel overwhelming. It feels like we're being told we've "failed."

We're supposed to think of our work as part of a "disciplinary conversation" and accept that this entails give-and-take, but we've spent years simply "giving" our work to someone, who "takes" it and grades it. So a "revise-and-resubmit" feels like ... a grade. And not a good one.

Even those of us who had a good (or in my own case, great) dissertation advisor are still writing for an audience of one. (Ultimately, three, since the work has to pass muster with a committee, but typically one.) And a dissertation advisor is not an editor.

All this said, I agree with Hewett that a good editor is an academic writer's best asset. Over the years, I've often heard the argument made that if you find yourself "needing" a publication, you should find a journal with a high acceptance rate.

I disagree. I've found more selective journals often give the most helpful feedback. Not always, but often.

My own experience leads me to wholeheartedly agree with Hewett's advice about revise-and-resubmit. I would simply say that sometimes, you do have to set it aside for years. And that's not necessarily bad.

In my own case, an essay that I started in 2006 (right before my "Season in Hell) didn't get published until 2016. It did not get accepted at the first place I sent it. The second place I sent it, took nearly a year to get back to me about it.

When they did, though, they liked it a lot, had good suggestions, and offered the chance to publish it almost immediately.

Of the articles I've published, I can count about 3-4 that received outright acceptances (always with minor revisions and corrections requested).

Think about that: only a few outright acceptances, but quadruple that number of publications. This is proof that Hewett's advice-- to not give up in the face of a revise-and-resubmit-- is excellent advice.

I've also gotten a few rejections over the years, and a couple of them were rather rude.

The most unprofessional of the rejections, though, occurred when a peer reviewer suggested a raft of revisions. The editor insisted that I do all of them and send an itemized list confirming that I did them (by indicating the suggested revision and the page on which the new material would be found).

When I did, the reviewer who suggested the revisions said, "I know I said to do this in my initial review, but now that I read it, I've decided I actually liked it better the way it was... so I think this essay should be rejected."

And the editor upheld that rejection and simply said "Sorry, we're can't publish this, because our reviewer has decided its not acceptable."

No, I'm not kidding. (Or exaggerating.) They actually said that.

There's a special place in hell for people like that.

Looking back, I decided that they were just kinda nuts in ways that have nothing to do with writing or scholarship (and no, I won't send them anything ever again).

I can say that, because the article eventually ended up being published in a more prestigious journal. And I can also say that because many of the revisions they suggested did make the essay a better piece of work.

That's why the peer reviewer's arbitrary "I liked it better before" struck me as saying something about him/her, not about the essay itself, and the fact that the editor refused to override the reviewer's... bait and switch... and simply weigh the merits of the work itself (something editors have to do all the time, actually, because that's their job), told me something about the person's own understanding of the editorial process.
  
In short, I was able to take even the worst experience and see it as helpful in terms of the writing process: I just had to ward off a few unexpectedly psychological mind-games along the way. 

But here's the thing: when you get a rejection or a revise-and-resubmit, you have to know in your heart or your mind or your gut--wherever your writing comes from--that you're making the work better.

You can't simply surrender your own judgment to someone else.

In my case, I was pretty peeved at the response (to put it mildly), but I knew that I had made the essay better. Unfortunately, I simply stumbled upon a peer reviewer who had an odd approach to scholarly review.

They're out there.

Because I sent the essay somewhere else, I had the chance to realize this. The second journal also requested (more moderate) revisions, which I completed. One of their suggestions, however, simply didn't work for the argument I wanted to make.

And when I resubmitted the essay, I told the editor as much: "I did X, Y, and Z, as requested, but when it came to addressing P, I felt that it would not work for the argument that I've made. I think it would send it off on a tangent."

The essay was accepted. It took time, but it found a home.

So I would add to Hewett's advice the following recommendation: to publish in academia, you have to be patient with other people, but most of all, you have to be patient with yourself and, if possible, with the process.  And you have to be diligent.

Sometimes great work is cranked out quickly. More often than not, though, it is not.

Stay the course, no matter the season.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rumination

Photo by Rob Bye on Unsplash
I wasn't planning to blog this morning, but I woke up and began to ruminate, so I decided that writing might help.

So here I am.

The idea of writing things down when you're feeling sad or stuck or perplexed is not new. It can be a way of "getting it out of your system."

It can also serve as a way of "re-framing" your perspective on a situation.

This second option is actually the better one. Venting about things that are bothering you is all well and good, up to a point, but it has its limits and you tend to reach them very quickly.

Basically, if you've already said (and then written) "Shit!" and you don't feel any better, anything else may not help all that much.

Okay, I'm overstating the point a bit in an effort to be humorous, but I do have a point.

Whether you realize it or not, you're actually making it worse for yourself if you just keep venting and rehashing and discussing and reflecting and venting and rehashing--regardless of whether you do this over and over in your own mind, or by calling a friend (or multiple friends) to "talk it over." (And over. And over.)

You're ruminating. Chewing the proverbial cud of life's injustices and incessantly (and often angrily or despairingly) wondering, WHY ME?!

I call this blog "the thinker," which is already a bit of a tell that I'm in fact an overthinker.

I like to think and I've always thought that's basically a good thing.

I've learned, though, that I've got to take the baby out of the bath water: to separate the good and useful and productive thoughts from the ruminative ones. This can take some doing sometimes.

This morning was definitely one of those times.

If you're not sure if you're an overthinker, this page offers a useful quiz to help you determine whether you're effectively problem-solving or simply ruminating.

Rumination is a tricky thing, because it starts as--or can masquerade as--a kind of emotional problem-solving. My bout of rumination seemed to start yesterday morning, so I spent the afternoon trying to stave it off and then break the cycle (once I realized I was at risk of becoming trapped in a bad thought-pattern).

I did about 8 of these steps to help break the cycle of rumination, and yes, it did help. A bit. Eventually.

Usually, it helps more quickly and more effectively, so I think that's why I'm still "in it" a bit this morning.

The "Wait--STOP-- why isn't this working??" mindset is a frustrating one. It makes it all-too-easy to just give up and ruminate away.

But no. We will not.

This morning, when I awoke with the same uneasy, ruminative mindset as yesterday, I started writing about the thing that seemed to be on my mind:
Twice in my life, I’ve cycled through a situation where for a while, I’m Ms. Wonderful, full of good advice and wonderful opinions, smart and sexy as hell, such a big help to someone who’s suffering—better than any therapist… and this goes on for about a year or so, and then, suddenly… I’m not. Suddenly, the person who said all this now ignores me, doesn't respond, openly spends time with others (and then denies it), picks and chooses whether they "hear" me (usually not), and then... I'm always "wrong"--my thinking is "wrong," my opinions are "wrong," my work-worries are "wrong," my feelings are "wrong," my feminism is "wrong"... Eventually, even my anxiety about being "wrong" is "wrong"!!!! (Sometimes the word "ridiculous" gets used instead of "wrong.")
Wow, no wonder I was feeling kinda cranky this morning. It's like suddenly being beaten over the head by the person you thought was going to give you a hug.

The next sentence I wrote after this long-winded word-barf?

"You know why this happens, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you or the kind of person you are."

Well, there you have it. This was why I was feeling bad: I was beating myself up over the fact that I'd felt like I'd been lured into a situation I should have seen coming.

I remembered having the brief, fleeting thought over the weekend, and giving myself a quick, but painful psychological punch: "you're so stupid! you let yourself get suckered in again!" but quickly stifling it with a "well, whatever"...

But there it was. Still. Sneaky little thought-thing, lurking in the darkness.

I realized this morning that I got drawn in because I'd lost my way in the same old FOG (fear, obligation, guilt) that tends to influence those of use with Care-Taking personalities who are prone to emotional blackmail.

Once I realized this, I was able to remind myself that I'd actually managed to avoid a situation like this with another person this year. (Yes, some of us have a lot of people like this in our lives: we need to work on that, obvi. First things first, though.)

It's not hopeless--just a long road to recovery and change. 

This all helped, but there was still the, "but why?" question swirling around in my mind... and then I stumbled on this:
The very happy are much better than others at increasing the frequency, duration, and intensity of positive emotion and at reducing the frequency, duration, and intensity of negative emotion. Some of that is genetic, but much of it is learnable.

Most people start learning these skills from their family. How did your mother respond when your were sad? Did she encourage you to seek support? To pretend you’re okay? To problem solve? To ruminate?

And what did she do herself when sad? Seek support? Drink alcohol? Complain? Vent? Distract herself? (Source: "7 Steps to Reducing Rumination")
Okay. Got it. My mom had some problematic ways of coping and addressing interpersonal issues (I blogged about that here). Put simply, she could be a bit of a FOG-machine.

Many people are. It doesn't mean they're not good or enjoyable people in many other ways, just that they'll FOG up an emotional situation in ways that have an impact on those they are close to.

So this helped me to see that, in my own life, my tendency to succumb to FOG and "Rescue" others has a long history and an underlying context, and that I'm not helpless to rethink and reshape my life and my interactions with others, but that there will occasionally be challenges for me when it comes to doing that.

In short, I may slip up from time to time, what with the whole "being human" thing and all.

As I reflected on this, I also realized that there had been a small storm of frustration building for a week or so.

I've been feeling frustrated that I haven't been able to finish a couple of articles as quickly as I had hoped, and the reading has been piling up, and I'm feeling like maybe I bit off more than I could chew...

And then I had to skip my fitness class on Monday because I didn't feel well, and when I went to the pool on Tuesday, the power went out (!!) after I swam 2 laps, so we all had to get out of the pool and leave--no shower to get the chlorine out, cuz the locker room was pitch dark-- oh, and meanwhile, did I mention my cat has reinstated her habit of peeing on the couch?

So my sense of frustration kind of quietly zeroed in on a painful thought I had this weekend as the eye of the storm, and the psychological clouds began to gather around it.

Because I spent yesterday thinking, "See--you're not getting anything done. This is what always happens. This isn't going to go right either--why bother trying? This is what you always do."

Um, okay, well, now that I see this for what it is... I beg to differ.

So that's my mantra: "I beg to differ." When the thoughts start up, that's the response right now.

As I worked through all of this, I also stumbled upon an earlier blog post that I wrote about Mark Goulston's book, Talking to Crazy and I was reminded of his advice: DNR.

If you find yourself in a troubled relationship, Goulston advises, "Do Not React," "Do Not Respond," Do Not Resuscitate." As I summarized a couple of years ago,
Not reacting simply means not making the person's problems or responsibilities your fault or responsibility.  It's their point of view, their problem, and their responsibility.  Not yours.

Not responding is not saying anything that can be twisted and used against you--not giving the person a way of making their problem your problem, fault or responsibility.

Not resuscitating is simply refusing to engage with the person in way that enables him/her to "rev up and try to rehook you."
I realized that in fact, I'd already done all of these things in the situation that I was ruminating about.

I'd already shut off the FOG machine, uttered my soliloquy, and exited the drama.

So there's need to mentally rehearse (and re-rehearse) my lines or keep clicking "play" time and time again.

I hope that, if you're prone to rumination yourself, you find the links I've offered helpful and that my working through of my own thought processes here gives you hope (if not inspiration) to find a process that works for you.

Thoughtful problem-solving is always a process.

The trick with rumination is not allowing the process to become a problem--and take on a life--all its own.