I made an unprecedented move. Scary!

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Being ferocious? For others, yes…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Yes, I’m bold and direct and outspoken and have plenty of opinions.

But they’re usually in defense of an abstract idea, or a principle or a policy. Rarely, if at all, in defense of myself and my behaviors and choices.

How can this be?

I grew up in a weird way — sent to boarding school at the age of eight, where I was often in trouble and shunned and punished for it — with only 2.5 years living at home with my mother. Then ages 14 to 19 with my father and his girlfriend (later wife) who was 13 years my senior, too old to be a loving sister and too young to be a nurturing mother.

It was tough.

So I learned to get on with it, to not show or share my true feelings, and — when I did — to be very careful. If I dared to disagree with these people, I could be met with rage or estrangement, sometimes both.

I was never abused physically, but verbal abuse can really leave deep scars. I still remember an argument with my father I had at the age of 20, another from six years ago, in which I was utterly excoriated.

This week, in a rare and very scary moment for me, I wrote a long email to an editor — obviously someone I hoped to work with — challenging his knee-jerk suspiciousness of me as  a “new” freelancer.

New to him.

I know, thanks to lots of therapy, that when I start to shake, (let alone cry), something is hitting me really hard and in a very deep place that has never healed — the automatic assumption I’m shitty, stupid, incompetent, wrong. That my opinion, however valid or well-argued, is going to just be ignored in favor of theirs.

Standing up for others’ needs and concerns? I do it all the time, happily and ferociously. It’s one of the reasons I still love being a journalist. I thrive on finding and telling stories that show social justice and offer some sort of hope to readers.

It’s a real privilege and one I value.

When it comes to the people I love — look out! If they’re dissed or dismissed, I’m a momma bear.

But standing up for myself?

Hard as hell.

 

How about you?

 

37 thoughts on “I made an unprecedented move. Scary!

  1. Heide

    GOOD FOR YOU for writing that long email, and for sticking up for yourself. I don’t know why so many of us “mama bears” are so reticent to defend ourselves, but I can tell you from my own experience that with practice it gets easier. Never easy … but easier.

  2. i agree with heide, good for you, it’s about time. like you, it is sometimes very hard for me to do something like this on my own behalf, but i could do it in an instant for anyone else. i am getting better it over time, but it is an ongoing process for me and one that does not come naturally.

  3. Good for you! And I know exactly what you mean! It’s something I’ve pondered about myself, and I wonder if the business environment of writing is something that essentially pushes writers down this track of feeling uneasy about standing up for themselves, as much as any personal background of their own? It seems to me that the buyers’ market sub-culture at editorial level cultivates any tendencies among authors to buckle under, even when confronted with some appalling and financially costly betrayals of trust. And yet why should writers have less self-worth or right to their own dignity than anybody else? Lately, I’ve made the decision to stand up on basic professional principle a number of times, one of which led to my never working again ever, not even after the universe dies of heat death, for the largest cultural magazine in the country (NZ’s equivalent of Time). But I felt it important – it was to do with work they commissioned that ended up being spiked post-fact, all at my cost and loss. It’s too common in the business and I’ve been stung with that before. This time I drew a line in the sand: they’d asked for it – so they pay for it, used or not. I got the fee. Of course they haven’t spoken to me since. Does it worry me that I’ll never work for them again? Not really: if they feel they can play games with basic professional trust, that’s their problem – not mine.

    1. You know it very well — we are cowed and scared and loath to burn professional bridges and sometimes we just have to.

      I applaud you for doing it and it’s not an easy decision when so so many just cave.

      The power imbalance is not helpful.

    2. I burned that bridge (holding out for a hundred percent of the kill fee) at Conde Nast Traveler, because I knew I NEVER wanted to work with them, ever again.
      And good for you for standing up to that editor. I do ponder the effectiveness of the long email, however. Did you think to call him at all? Sometimes that’s even more stressful. Did you want to work with him because he was a good editor, or was the publication seen as prestigious? Was the story a big one that you were personally invested in? These things weigh on all of us.

      1. It was a tough story (impossible) to report (from BC) and he wouldn’t send me and he wouldn’t let me use anyone else to do some on-site research — telling me that I was enough of a risk as a “new” freelancer. I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990 for dozens of editors. Tired of the automatic dismissal from someone who could have easily turned to a colleague who knows me and my work….and did not bother. I didn’t feel like calling. I was too angry.

        I’ve had it with this snottiness — and I’m on assignment tomorrow for another section for another editor who was happy to assign to me….for the first time. Such bullshit.

      1. Believe me I get it. Truth is, shockingly difficult greases inexplicable transformation. You’re over the hump, released from shackles and primed to pen with renewed purpose. :0

      2. We’ll see. I’m generally not frightened of writing stuff down — but confronting authority (at least that which pays our bills!) — is tough for everyone who works full-time freelance. Our financial survival relies on finding and nurturing relationships, so potentially severing one at the very start feels like a lousy decision.

        Even if it is not.

  4. I have spent a lifetime deferring to everyone.. “No, you go first.. No, you must be right.. No, your idea is better.. Not sure why, it is just my (annoying) nature.

    1. Thanks, Randy.

      I do think being Canadian/living in Canada it’s also very much expected culturally and socially. Which meant that I had an interesting adjustment to make when I moved to NYC and would — reflexively — make self-deprecating jokes. NOT a good idea in a place that then assumed I’m serious and think poorly of myself (I don’t.) The last time I did it, in early 2018 with a NYC literary agent (male) he savaged my work in reply. NICE!

      I am not scared of conflict in many situations and I don’t avoid attention, per se, but I have experienced such anger in my own family (and from some truly toxic bosses in NYC) that it has scarred me and left me much less capable of standing up for my needs than I think is healthy. It’s easier — in the moment — to take the emotional hit, but in the long run, as you say, I think it does some serious damage.

      The email I sent may well have burned a bridge to an editor I had really hoped to write for. But the self-abnegation required?

      No income is worth it anymore. I’ve done it far too long.

      I admire you for knowing this now!

      I’ve done this a few times in the past few years and, but the prior times (one social, one medical — neither risking a professional contact) — it worked out. I wrote long, calm letters explaining my concerns. So, some people DO respond and respond well. It’s (ugh) a gamble. When it’s work-related and we rely on earning more than $5,000/month to just pay our bills, that feels very very risky.

  5. I’d ten times rather fight on someone else’s behalf than my own! I’m still processing some behavior received in December that, if it had happened to a friend, underling, or possibly even random woman in my general vicinity, I’d have absolutely set something on fire! But because it happened to me, I muted my reaction and just sort of dealt with it. And I’m furious with myself because of it!

  6. Good for you, standing up for yourself.
    I got bullied a lot as a kid, but growing up and getting to really understand myself, I figured out they were assholes looking to get a high off of messing with the weird kid. I think that stopped around fourth grade, when I actually fought back for once, and scared them pretty badly. They were still assholes, but they learned not to push me too hard.
    Nowadays, I do try to stand up for myself. There are times when I just let it roll over me, because it’s really not worth getting angry over. The most recent occurrence where I didn’t let someone walk over me, they actually got punished for it before I’d even stepped in the building (it’s a long and crazy story that I won’t bother typing out here). So that was cool.
    But yeah, it’s important to stand up for yourself. Otherwise, life gets a lot less enjoyable and you feel like you don’t matter in the world. Standing up for yourself allows you to matter in the world.

    1. I was bullied for years, daily, in high school. Exhausting. I’ve been bullied at workplaces in NYC. Now, when I am treated poorly as a freelancer — and my income is vulnerable if I can’s retain relationships — it’s harder to walk away because we need income! Every month.

      But that’s why everyone has to have savings — without the freedom to walk, we never do.

  7. My family was dysfunctional, not least because my mother was a narcissist. I had issues around giving my opinion or saying what I felt or even at times knowing my own mind, a typical result of being raised by a narcissist. I was a rebel though, and in many ways, that saved me.

    1. Yup; I knew you would understand, as the pathology is pretty standard. I was always in trouble at boarding school — docile in high school — and chose a career that pays me to be stroppy and question authority. Sweet!

      1. Were you making yourself deal with it by going into a profession where you had to be outspoken? That’s certainly part of why I was a rebel and did things like the military and aviation. I pushed myself to get out – although at the time I wasn’t able to explain my need for that.

      2. Not consciously.

        I always wanted to be a journalist — my mom did it for a while and my father made doc’s and it all looked like such a great adventure. Which it has been! I have met the Queen, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, you name it…and have loved that.

        I get paid to ask questions. I advocate, at best, for my readers and I love that role.

        So there’s a lot to my choice.

  8. I try to be selective when it comes to defending myself. I ask myself if I should be offended. Does the person confronting me, calling me out, whatever, have a point? Is this person showing their ignorance, and therefore more to be pitied than scolded? Much of the time this is the case so I act, or refrain from acting, accordingly. The rest of the time, when I am treated cruelly or disdainfully, I have no compunctions about showing that person what it is to reap the whirlwind, anytime, anywhere.
    I have a stable income, so I don’t worry about things like losing my job, but I didn’t worry about it too much back when I probably should have. It’s cost me plenty over the years but not as much as the lost sleep and regret I have lived with from all those times I should have stood up and didn’t. I told you I have been ashamed.
    Good post, thank you, Caitlin.

    1. Thanks.

      As several people have told me, this gets easier. So I finally bit the bullet and emailed an editor this morning that I thought (?) had been annoyed with me — and with whom I expressed some frustration last fall. He wrote back within an hour and all is good.

      The damage that gets done when you are forever scared to stand up for yourself is the repeated tape loop — if it never worked before, why would it now?

      But it didn’t work with people who were not open to it! Oh, that.

  9. It’s the risk you take. Like we all said back in the martial arts days “If you’re gonna get in a fight, plan on getting hit.” I’m glad the bullet wasn’t the full metal jacket kind, you could chip a tooth. I would think an editor would seek out journalists who weren’t afraid to take a risk. In the case of this one, probably so. Good on you, now give ’em Hell.

    1. Well, my work for him wasn’t exactly conflict zone reporting but I appreciate his kindness. When you are not accustomed to being forgiven — or not NEEDING to be forgiven (likely SOP for children of narcissists) — it’s pleasantly disorienting.

  10. OK, on a completely different subject, I have got to say you are racking up some Hellacious activity on your posts. There’s always lots of interesting stuff to talk about and interesting, thoughtful comments. By all indicators you are definitely givin’ it Hell. Forward.

  11. Ah yes. When the bullies hit a nerve that comes from many moons ago, it feels like we’re six again. Or eight. Or sixteen. Whenever the pain occurred. I’m so glad you stood up for yourself. That’s healing.

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