Rifling around in my closet and going through some papers, I came upon a thank-you note from someone I treated long ago. Jack, a sensitive and accomplished 24-year-old, had secured a coveted job in a leading design firm right out of college. During his two years at the firm, Jack received excellent job evaluations — but then a new boss joined the company. She gave him a poor performance evaluation, and Jack was devastated. His self-esteem plummeted. We talked about it at length, and I suggested that Jack write a letter to her as a self-expression exercise that would never be sent. After processing raw emotion by writing, perhaps he would be better poised to manage the situation.
Writing can be used to get control of the inner narrative, psychologically speaking. Moving the story outside the mind — through the hand and onto the page — can create perspective. The following monologue from Jack is paraphrased and the details have been changed in the interest of his privacy.
“I wanted you to like me. I tried hard to impress you. But you did not see me, hear me, take the time to ask or find out what I was doing or why. It didn’t fit your style or notion of excellence. You didn’t get my work and you wrote a scathing review which hurt me. Here is what I will say to you. It was a gift. Because I understood you far better than you understood me. You are not able to give. You gave me the worst possible score and it decimated me. For a time.
“When I met you, I could feel the coarseness in you, the coldness, the smugness. I gave you the benefit of the doubt, worked even harder. But nothing was ever good enough. Your disdain was palpable. I started doubting myself. Maybe I really did do a bad job. Maybe I can’t do this work. I sat numb in the parking lot after you told me I was barely meeting expectations. My mind was fixed on that empty red bowl on your sleek, steel shelves. I wanted to hurl it like a frisbee. It was shallow like that. Would it fall on Fifth Avenue and break into pieces? Who would get hurt? That night, I drank a half bottle of bourbon and fought with my partner. Setting two alarms so I could get out of bed became necessary.
“I told a couple of people. They encouraged me. They said positive things; they said some critical things that made sense. I took a rigorous inventory of myself and after that, I decided I have stuff to learn and you have a serious problem. Later, I heard that this is your thing. This is what you do. Someone lost 10 pounds after working with you for a month. Someone felt suicidal. A once high-performing co-worker now does the minimal and daydreams in his cubicle.
“I wonder, do you see your slash-downs as a sign of strength? Good leadership? High standards? Does it thrill you? A wise person once told me that evaluations say more about the evaluator than the one being evaluated. Some people are emotionally generous, others are mean-spirited. I accept that there are people like you in the world.
“I’ve been reading up. I’ve been talking about it. I need to focus on true, good things and positives, people that get my work, things that I do well, until you are out of my mind. Or ousted by the company. I can’t change you, but I can change my reaction to you.”
Although they can improve performance, critical assessments can be tough to digest. Some negative evaluations are warranted, but now and again an evaluator is off base. Stanford researcher/psychologist Emma Seppala, Ph.D., indicates that morale, motivation, productivity and creativity can suffer. An untoward assessment can feel like a false accusation and conjure a sense of helplessness and anger.
If changing the circumstances via open communication or reassignment are not options, working on the inner life helps. Mindfulness practices, re-writing the narrative, intentional thought shifts or talking to a supportive person can quell reactivity and raise self-esteem.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Jack wrote a couple years later to let me know that all was well. He is now in a company that uses 360 Evaluations, wherein assessment goes both ways. Everyone has a voice.
- Baikie KA, Wilhelm K. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Aug 2005, 11 (5) 338-346)
- Pennebaker, James and Smyth, Joshua, Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain.