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 and hurt.
A rude email sucker punched me a few weeks ago.
I was having a wonderful day, the kind where you’re just in flow. I was emailing people left and right, exploring new options, getting stuff done—overall, I was 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 and wonderful.
Then one wasn’t.
It was condescending, rude, uncalled for and nasty. It was the kind of email that makes you wish that person had just ignored you instead of taking the time to respond. “Why?” 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 instead. It’s the kind of thing an 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 effect and throw it in the trash before it ended up on the imposter syndrome’s dining room table.
6 stages of handling rude emails
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 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’s rude email is right.
Is this person is right? What if the way I’m being treated is what I deserve? What if I really am as small as they’re saying I am?
3. They’re definitely right.
Of course they’re right! I’m the worst and everyone else who was nice to me doesn’t know what they’re talking about. 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.
I need some milk.
5. Phone a friend about the rude email.
Hmm, maybe I should tell someone I love and respect about this and see what they think. Maybe I need to change. Do I need to improve? Maybe I need to do something better.
I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I am a sensitive person. I’m trying to let that be OK, and potentially even make it an asset. But it still makes rude emails like this much harder.
Sometimes when I get a rude email and it’s clear that the person is being unnecessarily offensive, I can move on relatively easily. Other times, 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!), they decided 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.
My inbox is not flooded with rude 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 and important 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, advice, feedback or representation that was denied me. I keep reaching out, connecting, working, growing and 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.
This article was published in November 2015 and has been updated. Photo by Shift Drive/Shutterstock