In this three-part series, part of a special feature on resilience in the September issue of Health magazine, our writers share their personal experiences of overcoming adversity.
When I was fired at 22 after three weeks on the job, there was no gentle talk of "downsizing" or "the wrong fit." No, it was made blindingly clear to me that I was fired because I sucked with a capital SUCK.
I had been an assistant to a très Devil Wears Prada–type editor at a top fashion magazine—a lock-jawed, leopard-print-wearing woman who terrified me so that I screwed up the simplest tasks. It was my first real job out of college, my sparkly dream job at my sparkly dream publication. My failure was proof that I was ill-equipped to make it. "Do you think I'll ever work at another magazine in the company again?" I sobbed on the carpet of the HR person's office. "No, dear," she answered softly.
I was utterly flattened, ground into the pavement with my boss's pointy-toed shoe. There was really nothing left of me.
Nine years later, I was brought in as the number-two at that same magazine. It was what happened in the weeks after I was canned that made all the difference in this outcome. When I stopped crying, I told anyone who would listen what happened. I was mortified, but stronger than the embarrassment was a desire not to be controlled by it; putting it out in the universe let it dissipate.
Friends cracked up over my imitation of my former boss and helped me laugh at my imitation of my panicky self trying to fit in. My mom was particularly great. "You don't suck," she said. "We've known this for 22 years. How can someone you worked with for three weeks say you suck and that erases 22 years of not sucking?" It was an excellent point. Rays of perspective broke through my shame and sadness. It still stung, but the next week I was job-hunting again. I left my first position off my résumé.
One interview was at a tiny, low-budget, now-defunct TV magazine, not much more than a supermarket circular. But as I spoke with the woman who was to be my boss, I thought, "She and I could be friends." Not that I expected we'd be, but it dawned on me that working with someone I could be myself with was far more important in a job than how prestigious or glamorous it was. Within a few weeks, I felt valued. I can't say I'm grateful for being fired by the mean lady, but many good things came out of it, including a friendship with my second boss and a career working with mostly good, kind, decent people.
Setbacks happen, of course. Recently my marriage failed, horribly and painfully. Again I was down on the pavement, and the same essential technique is what scraped me off: surrounding myself with people who make me laugh at myself, which brings perspective, and combing back over where I didn't listen to my excellent instincts. Doing so makes it easier to not repeat the same mistakes again and again—and that gives me more time to make new ones that I can learn from.