I cultivate hope.
I refrain from the use of prophylactic pessimism to numb myself to disappointment.
I have found that of all the affirmations on the Creative Resilience Manifesto, it is these two that tend to meet the most resistance or confusion.
“It’s not that I don’t believe in hope…” people say. “It’s just that that kind of investment makes rejection so much harder to deal with. We can’t live our lives like that, plunging from hope to disappointment and rocketing back up again ad nauseam on a dizzying emotional roller-coaster of submission. Isn’t it better to learn to moderate our emotions and keep ourselves steady, so we can stay focused on our work?”
First of all: I want to make it clear that the path I propose may not be right for everyone.
It’s definitely not for the faint at heart.
I also don’t want you to think that I’m so great at taking my own advice! I, too, sometimes check my hope, either subconsciously or because I don’t have the strength to deal with the roller-coaster. I think it’s totally normal to need to step off sometimes and fall back on your old, comfortable coping mechanisms. It’s not all or nothing.
I do sincerely believe that embracing hope fully is the ideal. And I’m going to devote this post to explaining why.
Let’s start here:
Should We Learn to “Moderate” Our Emotions?
I used to think this was the healthiest approach as well.
Two things happened that changed my view: embarking on a very meaningful and enlightening process of therapy; and becoming acquainted with the work of social researcher Brené Brown.
Brené Brown became famous for her TED talk about the power of vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely take 20 minutes out of your day to do so.
Her main point is that vulnerability is the key to creating meaningful connection and living life with courage and “wholeheartedness”. We can’t selectively numb our feelings, she says. If we numb sadness and anger, we also numb love and joy. So if we want to truly experience the good things in life, and maintain relationships that are open and honest and healthy, we have to stop running from the feelings that scare us and face them head on.
I grew up thinking that it was my responsibility to control my emotions. “Don’t be sad.” “Stop being so sensitive.” “You care too much.” Most of all: “don’t be angry.” The problem is, these feelings don’t actually just go away when you tell them to. If you’re successful enough at suppressing them, they turn into something else–something else that is often a lot more destructive.
This is what Brené Brown and my therapist taught me:
You cannot, and should not, control how you feel.
You can, and should, only control how you respond to what you feel.
Many of us respond to painful or scary emotions by numbing or suppressing them–or, to put it more gently, “moderating” them. Keeping them in check.
The real question is: what are we sacrificing when we do this?
And is the cost of letting ourselves hope really that much worse than the cost of preventing the disappointment?
Prophylactic Pessimism: A Win/Win Strategy?
The second affirmation at the top of this post mentions something called “prophylactic pessimism”. It’s my term for the technique of shutting down hope to avoid disappointment. We all do it to some degree, and it has a logic to it: if I always expect the worst, the worst that can happen is that my expectations will be met, and the best that can happen is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Win/win, right?
I certainly thought so. I wrote about it in my guest blog post for Trish Hopkinson, Riding the Rejection Roller Coaster:
I became a pro at “Don’t get your hopes up.” In fact, I made an art of killing hope at every opportunity. When an unread e-mail with the subject “Re: Query” would pop up in my inbox, I would automatically assume it was a rejection. Usually I was right. Occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised with a request to see more material. When I found myself fantasizing about The Call, I immediately shot it down by imagining how awful the rejection of that full request would be. I wanted to be prepared for the let-down, so I practiced it. This system—preventing disappointment by preemptively shutting down hope—seemed to be working well for a while.
Until it didn’t.
What if I told you that prophylactic pessimism doesn’t actually prevent disappointment?
What if I told you that all it does is turn that disappointment into something else?
Here’s what happened when I perfected the art of prophylactic pessimism:
- I was less motivated
- I was sadder and more jaded about life in general and the publishing industry in particular
- I gave up more easily
- I believed in my work less
- I started fewer projects
- I burned out quickly
- I avoided taking risks that could have led to promising opportunities
- I shrugged off my actual successes and dismissed my triumphs as not really meaning anything
- When I did actually receive that rejection I had “practiced” for–I still felt awful!
I thought it was making me tough, impenetrable, resilient–but it was only making me numb.
Nonetheless, at the time, it seemed better than the alternative.
But one day I decided to do an experiment. You can read about it in greater detail on the guest post mentioned above. I decided to embrace hope just once; to let myself believe that a full manuscript request would end with an offer of representation.
It was scary. It really was. I knew I was setting myself up for a big, big disappointment. And when that rejection finally came, it was devastating. It was, as Brené Brown calls them, a true facedown moment; one of the worst I can remember. I had stepped into the arena of hope, just like Brené said to; I had dared greatly and faced my fears; I had made myself completely vulnerable; and I got sucker-punched and knocked flat on my face.
But. While the fall was definitely worse than it would have been if I had prevented myself from hoping…. I was surprised to learn that my recovery was much, much faster than it had been in other cases.
Gradually, I started to walk into that arena more and more. Sometimes I was too afraid and didn’t think I was strong enough to take the fall. But every time I did, I found that getting up again was easier; and more than that, my entire attitude towards my writing career was changing dramatically.
I started to realize that I was no longer constantly questioning whether I was ever going to succeed; I just knew that I would. The question was becoming how.
I was starting to enjoy the journey.
I no longer felt like a martyr.
I no longer felt weighed down by the expectations or standards of some external entity.
Sure, I was still terrified; sure, I still regularly experienced disappointment and despair and frustration; but something was fundamentally different. I felt unstoppable.
This was true resilience.
Disappointment Is Not Nearly as Bad When You Actually Know How to Cope with It
So was it worth facing that horribly painful disappointment to enjoy the benefits of fully embracing hope?
My answer is an unequivocal yes.
Because here’s what I learned from the floor of the arena of hope: it is completely possible to face disappointment head-on, in its full intensity, and walk yourself through and out of it effectively–and come out stronger, more resilient, more wise, and more hopeful than before.
But no one teaches us how.
All they teach is to avoid disappointment–and then they tell us it’s our fault for feeling it, because we made the mistake of letting ourselves hope!
Here are some of the strategies I found:
- Acknowledging and letting yourself feel the pain instead of struggling to make it stop (which just piles guilt and shame on top of the disappointment).
- Being kind to yourself and giving yourself what you need, physically and spiritually–whether that’s rest, exercise, meditation, a walk in the park, a chocolate bar, getting a hug from a friend.
- Sharing your pain with people who will respond with empathy.
- Rewarding yourself for your courage and reminding yourself that you are awesome for taking this chance.
But the most powerful and most effective strategies for recovering from disappointment? They all involve the active cultivation of one particular emotion.
Guess which one.
Hope Is Not Just the Problem; It’s Also the Ultimate Solution
Here’s an unusual strategy I stumbled upon during that first experiment:
Then I did something kind of bizarre. I wrote a letter to myself from my favorite character in the novel.
“He” reminded me that this business is entirely subjective, and assured me that there is still a chance, and that he believes in me. “Honestly, woman, I don’t know how you do it,” “He” wrote. “I would never have been able to withstand all this negative energy from the universe. You have our support and love and admiration, and that’s got to be worth something, even if we are fictional characters who live in your head.”
Strange as it sounds, that was what helped me start to feel better. By that evening, I was already surfing around looking for more agents to query and chattering to my husband about new ideas.
In a way, writing that letter was calling up an inner voice that I was having trouble accessing through other means at that moment. And when I thought about it, I realized what that voice was.
It was the voice of hope.
That same hope that I thought did nothing but harm was what pulled me out of despair and helped me pull myself together and keep going.
Hope is not just something that sets us up to fall. It’s also the thing that helps us pull ourselves back up.
But we can’t have it one way and not the other. We can’t numb hope selectively. We have to embrace it completely to fully benefit from it. You can’t hope your work will succeed only when you need to get past disappointment, and then turn it off again when you’re anticipating a response to a submission. Feelings don’t work like that.
Here are some more strategies that involve rekindling hope:
- Engaging once again with the work that you love, and reminding yourself what you love about it and what makes you believe in it.
- Calling up the encouraging voices that reinforce your belief in your work: rereading any positive feedback you’ve received, or speaking to someone who loves your work about the criticism or rejection you experienced.
- Starting something new that makes you excited about future possibilities–whether that’s a new project, or sending a new wave of submissions. (I’ve seen people refer to this latter strategy as “revenge submission”!)
Yes, I Know I’m Crazy.
I know my approach here goes against a lot of what you’ve probably been taught about how to deal with life.
But I firmly believe those common wisdoms are flawed and come from an approach that is fearful and unhealthy–one that is meant to prevent us from feeling painful things instead of effectively coping with them and growing from them.
I really, truly believe that the world will be a better place when we all learn to face our fears and disappointments fully, head-on, with unflinching courage. And I really, truly believe that doing this will ultimately make you happier and more resilient, as a person and as an artist.