How to get over a bad moment with a reporter
August 15, 2014 7:42 PM   Subscribe

A while back, a journalist witnessed me displaying a small lack of integrity. Now, I see his name everywhere and can't get over my shame and anger about what happened. How can I move past this?

It was several years ago. A journalist was shadowing a project I was running and witnessed a momentary lapse in my judgment/integrity. It was a relatively small event, and could have been interpreted by an observer as either completely fine or a bit shady, but ultimately, he saw what happened and judged it in the worst possible way. He almost wrote an article about it, but my manager stepped in and nothing was published. I was hurt and embarrassed. I naively thought that the reporter would only say the most positive things, because our project was so exciting and had such positive impact. I was embarrassed that my manager even found out about it and heard this outsider describe my actions in such a way. I was furious that he could have written something that would have had a negative impact on my career, all because he was looking for an interesting story instead of celebrating the awesome work he was witnessing.

This isn't even something I would be thinking about now...except that since then, this journalist has had a very successful career. I see articles he's written every few years pop up in newspapers and my facebook feed, and every time I see his name, I feel that double twinge of anger and shame. In the past year, he's been doing incredibly well. He's been published in bigger papers, and the book he wrote is coming out. I feel like I can't read something interesting without seeing his name, and feeling awful about what happened.

I want to get over this...I know these feelings are not really worth it. The book this guy wrote could very well be great, and I don't want my engagement with it to be limited by this negative association.

I know that all of us have done things we're embarrassed of, and it can be hard to get past them. This question has been helpful, and a good start, but I'm still struggling with this feeling of lack of integrity, and the way I keep having this guy's name pop up randomly while I read (otherwise very interesting) articles online. The logic of the situation (it was so long ago, I was young, it wasn't a big deal, probably no one remembers) isn't helping, maybe because this is so deeply rooted in my own values and emotions. I'm thinking doing something could make this better - stuff like writing him a letter and then throwing it out, or something like that...What else is there, some ritual or mantra that I could do or say, or any other ideas you have, that could help me get past this?
posted by violetish to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if this event was traumatic for you or if it's tapping into some other underlying trauma (small or large). It sounds like it was an awful thing to go through. In my case, I ran into a terrible situation regarding public speaking and every time I saw or thought about the judgey person who witnessed my failure, I went through many internal reactions. What worked for me was trauma therapy, especially EMDR. I targeted it in 1-2 sessions. I gained such relief that I have gone on to have many paid speaking roles and to actually turn public speaking into a strength for me. There is no way I would have thought this was possible before I targeted it in EMDR (which had sounded very quacky to me, but I was persuaded to try).

I'm sorry you are going through this.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:47 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

You gotta forgive yourself, and you gotta forgive this guy. What he did wasn't personal. What you did wasn't some sort of deeply ingrained personality flaw. You can move forward from this once you start viewing it from a more neutral place. CBT and EMDR therapy can help you unpack this stuff more efficiently.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:51 PM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

One day, I was setting up to sell soap at my place in Madison, Wisconsin, but somehow our usual place was gone and my partner at the time said, "Let's set up here." And I didn't agree. But he said, "the Manager said if no one is here by 8:00 a.m., we can set up in any spot."

Well then, the people who had been there for years, they came along, and they had words. I was there with my son and my partner was wanting to stand off with these people.

Then I remembered a phrase my friend had told me. The Universe is Unfolding as It should. I didn't know where it was from, at the time. But I huffed and I puffed and I walked away, and I said, "The Universe is unfolding as it should," about 50 times.

When I got back, they had all worked it out, and my son had a free t-shirt. I don't know if it will help you in your current situation, but it helped me.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:05 PM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

The mere fact that you feel such shame and anger at your slip shows that you are a person with a high standard of integrity.
posted by mono blanco at 8:09 PM on August 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

If it were me, I would consider writing him a brief thank you note (not throwing it out but actually sending it) for having the compassion for not writing about the event, you were young, etc, and how it has been bothering you since that you even did it. Also congratulate him on his career arc.

Dear Author,

I am writing to thank you for something you didn't do a while back, something you probably don't remember but has been bothering me ever since. Back in 2002, you covered a project I was working on. At one point, I had a youthful lapse in judgement and you chose to focus your article on the great things the project was doing rather than on my mistake. The mistake itself had been an internal source of embarrassment and angst for a while and I just want to thank you for recognizing that it was a one off youthful mistake.

I just saw you were about to release a new book, and I want to congratulate you as well as recognize your career growth. Whenever I see your byline, I think to myself that the public will never get to see one of your best career works, one that you never wrote about.


posted by 724A at 8:13 PM on August 15, 2014 [15 favorites]

Also, I have been a member of the press and have family members in the press, and you should not give them a second thought. Writing and/or getting the story is their job. And since they didn't publish your embarrassing story, well, phew. Don't give them a second thought, because I assure you, they won't give you one.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:14 PM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you need a way to re-frame it, you might think of him as the person who has helped you realize, on deeper levels, why integrity in the profession is important. If you know that you've taken the lesson to heart, he was someone who came into your life at the right time and was a benefit to you. Sometimes correction is difficult, and it is true that not everyone corrects us in the best or most gracious way possible. However, you can take solace in the fact that 1) we all have times that we've blown it, and 2) if we are lucky, those times that we blow it are gracious enough to allow us to keep going such that we can improve and become a better person.

Although you probably don't feel as if you are in his good graces and this causes you some discomfort, I would at least think of him as a catalyst for doing better work and a strong reason why you wouldn't cross a particular boundary again. It allows you to move forward with a clear conscience. It might be that you can never look at him without feeling a twinge of regret. Those time, though, can be a strength for us. Just get rid of the shame of it, as you don't need to carry it. Carrying some regret, though, can make us better people.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:17 PM on August 15, 2014 [20 favorites]

You have to accept that it happened, that you got lucky it wasn't publicized, and think of yourself as someone who can be prone to lapses in judgement so you can be vigilant knowing that it's a part of your personality. We all make mistakes, but the key is not to say, "well that's not who I am" and leave yourself open to ignoring the possibility of it happening again, because it will unless you think of yourself as someone capable of acting that way.
posted by rhizome at 8:30 PM on August 15, 2014

Why bother with his book, or anything he writes? There are hundreds of interesting people writing interesting things, just practice thinking "I wish him the best," (or some other positive but not all that significant phrase) every time you come across his by-line and keep going.

It sounds like part of your feelings with this guy are feeling misjudged by him - that part of your desire here is to have him understand that really, you weren't being a bad person, it was just a small error/lapse.

He doesn't care.

Reminding him of this long-ago incident will do you nothing good. You know you did something which you consider a lapse (even though you said some others might view it as neutral), just don't do it again. You need to accept what you did and forgive yourself. You don't need someone from the outside.
posted by arnicae at 8:31 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If they didn't publish anything and didn't fight enough that it became some big case, then I guarantee the journalist has forgotten about it by now. And from what I can tell it's not something anyone else latched onto, so the only person going after you is yourself. The best thing you can do now when you see his name is to be grateful. Not to him, but to the world at large for not making a minor slip into something more than it needed to be. You had an understandable human moment like everyone of us has and it could have caused problems, but ultimately things worked out OK. Don't relive the moment that could have been something bad. Be grateful that you made it through.
posted by downtohisturtles at 8:33 PM on August 15, 2014

That incident transformed you into someone who can truly have empathy for other people. We all have the capacity to err like this, given the right circumstances (circumstances past and present). More importantly, you can truly understand that people can change, regret past actions, and grow into better people. This is very important! So much dialogue in the world seems predicated on the idea that certain people are worse than others, that sorting people into groups is the only way to proceed. You know better. I hope you can forgive yourself and begin a new day.
posted by amtho at 8:35 PM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't want my engagement with it to be limited by this negative association.
This is why you should get back in touch with him, as suggested above. If you're still doing exciting things within his journalistic purview, let him know about it. Bring more datapoints associated with him into your mind. If you want to acknowledge the favor he did by not publishing his story, you can, but you really only need to know that this is a person who exists on the same observational and critical wavelength as yourself.
Honestly, the most gratifying relationships and memories I have from the early stages of my career are with those people and mentors who knowingly watched me fuck up, but kept trusting and pulling for me regardless. He sounds like a candidate for that. If he doesn't respond or responds negatively then well hey, he's an asshole after all and fuck him.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:36 PM on August 15, 2014

Would you feel better if you confessed and made amends in a significant way? How could you do that meaningfully for yourself? You could write an essay - or a letter to the editor of his paper - or a letter and an anonymous donation to the organization or individual involved. But I don't think you've really forgiven yourself for this action, and maybe you need to take action in order to do that.
posted by bq at 8:39 PM on August 15, 2014

You gotta forgive yourself, and you gotta forgive this guy. What he did wasn't personal.

Exactly. Are you more upset that you made the mistake, or that this guy almost wrote about it?

It's not his job to point out your every slip up and humiliate you in front of the world, but neither is it his job to be anyone's personal fan club.

I think drilling down to exactly why this upsets you would help you start moving on.
posted by Chutzler at 8:40 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

It may be that you had such a high-adrenaline response to the original incident that you have neurobiological PTSDish responses to reminders now.

Sometimes you can exorcise this kind of ghost by invoking the absolute worst of the panicky feelings and sitting with them, letting yourself experience them in full and then...letting them go. In the end, it wasn't an interesting enough story to be worth the ill will it would have manifested. Hell, in the end, he was *kind* to you. Try to reframe this as Younger You not being as experienced and savvy as you are now and this person did you a favor. Dig down and find gratitude that he made the choice he did and let go of the self-flagellation.

If you really can't let it go, half a dozen sessions with a therapist can probably give you tools to use to minimize these painful feelings.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:46 PM on August 15, 2014

I don't know if this helps, but in this guy's history this probably happened an awful lot. For him, deciding to write about maybe-shady and definitely shady actions and what to write about it is business as usual. It's kinda his job to notice and interpret these things. And he has certainly had interviewees with a lot more to fear from being outed than you. Unless your manager intervened with his boss to stop him, or threatened him, he probably doesn't think about you at all.
There is no connection between you and him anymore.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:32 AM on August 16, 2014

The thing is, reporters don't only write about positive things. I was once asked to cover an event (a conference). I wrote a summary of the conference and my editor (who had also attended) asked me to, instead of just writing a boring summary, to write a more critical assessment of the event itself. He was happy with the rewrite. Months later, the event organizer sent us an email making irrelevant ad hominem attacks, simply because it wasn't a 100% rosy summary of the event. Instead of attacking the reporter for the piece he wrote about you (the piece that was never published, btw!), you are attacking yourself.

You need to find the center between these two reactions. You didn't do anything majorly wrong, and the reporter didn't do anything majorly wrong either. He was doing his job, and you were doing your job and had a lapse in judgement. So instead of being angry at him (which you're not) and being angry at yourself (which you are), think of it as a lesson learned. Now you know that reporters are not only going to write about things in the best possible light and will keep that in mind when dealing with reporters in the future, and you also know not to do [thing]. While not exactly a ritual or mantra, when you start feeling angry/ashamed, instead, consciously decide to think of the fact that you weren't doing anything intentionally wrong, he wasn't doing anything intentionally wrong, and there was no lasting damage. Literally, think "I wasn't doing anything wrong. He wasn't doing anything wrong. There was no lasting damage."

Also, yes to

Carrying some regret, though, can make us better people. A thousand times.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 4:06 AM on August 16, 2014

Ok, thought about it some more. This is the vibe I get from your question:
"I did something that was maybe a bit dumb but surely excusable. And this guy unfairly took advantage of that and threatened my entire livelihood, reputation and sense of self as a good person! It was horrible and I was powerless against it. Because it was horrible he must be a horrible person. Surely it can't be right to act that horribly? Now I see him getting public recognition. And every time he receives an accolade it is like the public is saying that he was right in treating me this way and I am wrong. Everytime it is like Our case is being judged anew and because he is being lauded it must mean I am being judged wrong and worthless. And I am powerless against this, too, yet again."

Well, maybe so. Sometimes journalists get a good reputation because they are ruthless bastards and sacrifice their grandma for a story. But even if this is so, it has no bearing on your worth as a professional, and further, no one who lauds him now has any opinion on what happened back then. What happens to him now does not touch you any longer.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:17 AM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

When you see his name, do you really think about what you did or do you try to suppress the memory and just feel the shame and embarrassment you associate with it? You can really empower negative memories by suppressing them and trying desperately not to think of them.

If you think this might be true, what you can do instead is to fully think through the memory when you see his name or think about him. At least once, just think through the whole event (trying not to judge too much). It seems crazy, like you're going to dwell on it and make your feelings worse, but your feelings are already very painful. The goal is just to look at the full event again and see if it's really so terrible and worth suppressing.

I've had several instances where I felt like I lacked integrity and they used to haunt me until I allowed myself to just remember them when they came up and didn't try to press them down. It's like a beach ball in the water--the more you press down, the more it bobs up. If you stop struggling, it will just float quietly on the surface and maybe float away. I've found that my shame about those events has diminished over time when I stopped trying to suppress them. I don't like them, but they don't define me and I don't have to hide from them.
posted by parkerjackson at 4:43 AM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wish I could find the study but am in a bit in a rush. I read recently that we tend to judge our mistakes much more harshly than others judge them. Basically, we tend to grant to others the right to make mistakes, but struggle to apply the same empathy to ourselves.

Have you talked to a loved one about this? How did they respond? Can you give yourself the same kind of empathetic self-talk?
posted by Milau at 6:37 AM on August 16, 2014

Maybe you need to fully admit that what you did was wrong and that you are a person who can do bad things. (As can we all.)

Your post is constantly trying to minimize whatever it was. "it was so long ago, I was young, it wasn't a big deal, probably no one remembers," but clearly you don't believe that or your actions wouldn't still be bothering you this long afterwards.
posted by MsMolly at 7:15 AM on August 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

So what did you do?
posted by ReeMonster at 8:32 AM on August 16, 2014

Thanks, team! As usual, so much interesting stuff here for me to think about that goes above and beyond what I was expecting and what I thought I was looking for. Including, but not limited to: (1) realizing that this really clearly relates to my overconcern about what people think of me, (2) the value of reframing this as a lesson learned, but not just about "not acting like an idiot in front of a journalist," rather a lesson about how much I value integrity, and (3) as much as I know logically the thing that happened was not a big deal, and there's no reason anyone involved would remember it now, clearly I'm not believing that if I'm still harping on it right now.

While I will not be contacting this person in any direct way (I currently have zero trust in him as a journalist and worry about what he'd do with anything I said/wrote...part of why I left the details of this whole situation so vague) I do wonder if engaging in more conversations with friends and colleagues about his work would be helpful. If I could replace my memory of interactions with the guy with new memories that are indirectly related to him that don't leave me feeling awful, that could definitely be a good start in getting over this.
posted by violetish at 10:29 AM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the follow-up response. It sounds like you are really on the right track. I can relate to worrying about what other people think about me at times, and it can leak into the way that we process other things.

One thing that I've found helpful as well is to tell the story of personal failure to other people if it's relevant to their life situation and can be helpful. Not only does it do something redemptive with the situation, but by sharing it (strategically, not everyone can be trusted of course) it internalizes a commitment not to do it again, and it also feels contrite and transparent and not being secretive about it with other people who can, in some way, benefit from our situation but also affirm us as valuable persons despite our faults. It would certainly be up to you in terms of if/whether/and with whom you might do this, but it's perhaps a key way of moving past shame to feeling as if you have internalized something tangible about it. It sort of creates a confession vibe that's good for the soul. It's our secret faults that sometimes stay with us for way longer than they should.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:31 AM on August 16, 2014

Hey, I have an idea. You know how some people use passwords to prompt them to do certain things? Like "textmom" or "drinkwater" or whatever. You could use each instance where you see his name somewhere for self improvement. So instead of thinking "ugh that guy again I am so bitter" you'd automatically be prompted to do something that helps people, or improves your work performance etc.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:37 AM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just to follow up quickly on what Omnomnom said, I think putting feet on an internal commitment to change is probably key towards getting past lingering feelings of shame and self-loathing.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:41 AM on August 16, 2014

Milau is talking about the Fundamental Attribution Error, which I also thought of when I read this...the demonstration study from the Wikipedia article is even about journalism. (Note that it doesn't mean he was acting due to outside forces, it's totally possible he was just a dick--but you have no way of knowing, and most people are a complicated mixture of internal and external forces.)

Another thing that may help is remembering that there are no role points in real life. At one point, I played this game where we role played different characters, and if you stepped out of role you lost points. So if your character had an emotional reaction, that almost always trumped the logical reaction. Same as how characters on TV behave--they do dumb emotion-driven things even when there is an obvious, logical, better thing to do. It makes good TV, but bad real life. Reminding myself I don't have to have some kind of pre-scripted consistency helps me step back and take the analytical better path, even though it is emotionally difficult. In this case, doing the calculation of harm done = none, likely hood that he remembers you = close to zero, and giving yourself permission to just move on.
posted by anaelith at 9:46 PM on August 16, 2014

I would at least take comfort in knowing he's probably a better reporter now than he was several years ago. Young reporters often are very overzealous in finding a story and viewing everything in the worst possible way. At some point, they start to realize what is really worth blowing up and what isn't. Young reporters do dumb shit.

Just as you learned a lesson in integrity, he probably learned his own lesson that he needs to get a full story before running with something that looks a certain way. So you both learned something from it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:32 AM on August 17, 2014

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