Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I am finishing a training program and the ritual is a gathering with one of the senior people standing up to say (presumably nice) things about each of the departing trainees. I’ve had a rocky year, and my close supervisors and I know it’s well short of my potential and we’re all kind of disappointed in me. So it sounds just excruciating to go to this “graduation” thing and sit through someone trying to publicly praise me for show. Is there a graceful way to get out of going to something like this?
Carolyn says: There’s a graceful way out of just about everything.
But I’m not sure that’s your best play. You had a rocky year, OK, you didn’t live up to your full potential. Bummer. And now ... onward. Sit through your moment of less effusive praise than you had hoped for, clap for everyone else’s turn, have a cookie and go home.
Then you become praiseworthy for something you hadn’t anticipated (and certainly didn’t hope for) going in, and may ultimately serve you better: your ability to show up and hold your head high even though things didn’t break your way.
Best self forward
Dear Carolyn: I think it’s important how I am treated and how I treat others, but I’m not perfect, especially when I’m angry or frustrated. How do I bring my best self forward even when it’s a difficult moment?
Carolyn says: I think all of our best selves get elbowed aside by our worst sometimes, and so aiming for perfection is not realistic. But contrition is realistic, and it’s essential. If you behave poorly when angry or frustrated, then you admit to it the moment you recognize it, whether it’s while you’re still snarking or an hour later or a day later or a year or when a witness asks you, “Are you OK? Your reaction was pretty harsh,” and it occurs to you that s/he’s right.
This is for the occasional lapse.
If you regularly snap during difficult moments, though, or if more moments are difficult than not, then it’s time to upgrade your response — because an apology for snapping is inadequate when it’s for the wrong transgression. Once it becomes a pattern, then the apology you owe is not for the particular instance but instead for the pattern itself, for your not dealing effectively with general anger or stress.
And the action you owe is both to find and address the source of the stress, and to identify habitual reactions that are unkind and/or counterproductive. For example: A problem you’re afraid to face can be faced; an uncomfortable or unsatisfying life rut can be replaced with a different path; a tendency to act out reflexively can, with awareness and effort, be replaced with patience and mindful action.
How can you know when you’ve become this angry person and need to change? Two steps: (1) Be able and ready to admit fault; a defensive self is not your best self. (2) Read the people around you. Are they avoiding you? Tiptoeing around you? Engaged in repetitive battles with you? Groveling to avoid ticking you off? This second part might seem subtle, but the first one is the tallest hurdle to clear.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.