My 6 Stages of Grief When Dealing With Mean Emails

I call it the email sucker punch.

You’re having a great day and then you get that email. The one that makes your heart sink to your stomach and threatens to color your day with a red pen. The one from someone who immediately makes you feel small, misunderstood, hurt.

I got one a few weeks ago.

I was having a wonderful day, the kind when you’re just in a flow. I was emailing people left and right, exploring new options, getting stuff done, excited about the future. Eventually my inbox was empty, ready for all the responses to the emails I’d sent out that morning.

Most of the responses were lovely, kind, wonderful.

Then one wasn’t.

It was condescending, rude, uncalled-for, nasty. It’s the kind that makes you wish that person had just ignored you instead of taking the time to respond. Whyyyy??? you ask yourself with the wailing emoji in your heart.

In that moment, all the kind responses vanish and this one takes center stage in my brain. It’s the kind of thing the imposter syndrome feeds on. It loves these emails. They are its sustenance.

So this time I decided to try to really notice what was going on here, to see if I could trap the email’s affect and throw it in the trash before it ended up on the imposter syndrome’s dining room table.

I instantly recognized the absurdity of letting one person’s response outweigh all the others, but that intellectual understanding didn’t change how much it hurt. So I went through what I’m calling my “six stages of email grief”:

1. The initial sting.

Wow, that’s rude. It hurts. But I did not deserve that response. I should delete this and move on.

Sometimes I’m able to stay here, tossing it the down the garbage disposal and never looking back. But the real email sucker punches stay in my hands for a little longer, sending me to stage two.

2. Maybe this person is right.

What if this person right? What if the way I’m being treated is what I deserve? What if I really am as small as she’s saying I am?

3. She’s definitely right.

Of course she’s right! I’m the worst and everyone else who was nice to me doesn’t know what they’re talking about and this person knows everything and sees right through me. I’ve been found out. It’s all over.

4. Break for cookies.

Nom nom nom nom.

Milk.

5. Phone a friend.

Hmmm, maybe I should tell someone I love and respect about this and see what they think. Maybe I need to change. Maybe I need to improve. Maybe I need to do something better.

The friend: “Oh my goodness, what a rude person. They are so wrong about you! I’m so sorry, though—that must have felt awful. Delete it and keep going, my sweet friend. Here is what I think of you and why this person is wrong. Wanna go out for cookies?”

I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I am a sensitive person. I’m trying to let that be okay, maybe even an asset. But it makes emails like this much harder.

Sometimes I get a rude one and it’s clear that the person is being unnecessarily offensive and I can move on relatively easily. Or for some I understand that person’s personality enough to know they are generally curt and don’t mean anything personal. While I am a “!!” and “:)” kind of person, it’s cool if you’re a “.” and “ok” kind of person. 

It’s not the curt ones that get me.

It’s the ones that come from people who don’t know me but for some reason decided to share unsolicited, condescending advice, or those I’d reached out to for help and instead of ignoring me (which would be totally OK!) decide to take the time to make me feel small.

These emails have told me what I should wear, that my ideas are stupid or impossible, that I don’t have enough Twitter followers to be a successful author, that I am not a serious writer. In one way or another they’ve tried to tell me I’m beneath them, nothing.

My inbox is not flooded with these emails all the time. But they take up space.

Luckily, though, at least literally, the nice emails take up even more.

Like this one, from Sarah, the Harvard-educated scientist I’ve written about a lot (she has become an important mentor for me when it comes to what it means to be both ambitious and sensitive). During the phone-a-friend stage, I’d emailed her asking about her experiences dealing with condescending and hurtful emails from positional superiors.

She said this: “I don’t know that there’s really a foolproof shield against feeling hurt by condescending language in an email—being vulnerable and emotionally present in interactions is a wonderful, important and scientifically valuable quality, but it does mean that others can hurt us. I treat those moments kind of like I treat having a cold. I’d tell friends I’m not feeling well, I’d let them bring me chicken soup if they offer, and I’d give myself lots of rest and care.”

Then she proceeded to end the email with some chicken soup cooked just for me: “My sister and I used to watch Winnie the Pooh when we were little, and I still say to her what Pooh used to say in those movies when we were kids: ‘Be brave, little Piglet!’ Be brave, Isa!”

And so, it’s bravery that gets me to the sixth stage, the kind that is moving forward not when something doesn’t hurt, but when it does.

6. Email more people.

I open my computer again and send a new email, asking someone else for the help or advice or feedback or representation that was denied me by that person. I keep reaching out, connecting, working, growing, trying.

Somehow, I don’t give up.

Maybe it’s the cookies, or maybe it’s the generous words from people who believe in me even when I don’t believe in myself.

Isa Adney

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