On Success and Having Arrived

Success
During a session on Thursday, one of my clients was talking about his feeling that he had “arrived” in his profession. In his mid-30s, he’s well-established now in a competitive field, earning an excellent income and finding himself respected and sought-after as an expert. As I listened to him, I recognized that I had never felt that way, not fully. By just about any standard, I’m successful, leading a comfortable life; I’m valued by my clients and respected by my peers. I’ve written and self-published a book on psychological defense mechanisms that has sold far better than I expected. But I have not felt that I’ve truly arrived, not yet.

Arrival, to me, has always meant being accepted by the New York publishing world as a serious writer. As much as I love my work as a therapist, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, first and foremost. For me, arrival would mean finding a first-rate literary agent and then securing a book contract with one of the Big Six. This is my definition of success and I’ve been trying very hard for a long time to achieve it. Despite what I wrote in my post about precocity and impatience, around the time I sold Why Do I Do That?, my contract with New Harbinger Publications didn’t really give me that feeling of having arrived, not fully. New Harbinger is a small specialty house based in Oakland, California. And then, I had such an unhappy experience working with their editorial team, who tried to shove me into the cognitive-behavioral box, whatever satisfaction I felt didn’t last.

I’ve mentioned here on the site that I’ve been working on a book about narcissism for a while now. In October, I sent my proposal out to A-list literary agents and actually got to choose between several very good ones who wanted to represent me. Together, my superb new agent Gillian MacKenzie and I worked hard to craft my first draft into the strongest proposal we could devise. I had some excellent and crucial assistance from my friend Emily Heckman, a freelance editor. As always, I had the weekly support and critical feedback of my writer’s group: Laurel Goldman, Angela Davis-Gardner, Peter Filene, Christina Askounis and Peggy Payne. Earlier this month, Gillian finally sent out my book proposal to New York publishers. There was a lot of interest. Bids were due by noon yesterday — the day following the session with my client who felt he had at last arrived. I wanted so much to feel the same way.

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On Pessimism

Pessimism I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been focused on my book about narcissism, plus I just completed another article for The Atlantic, which you can find here. It’s about bullying as a kind of narcissistic behavior, linking the Richie Incognito story with the suicide of Rebecca Sedgwick and further thoughts on Lance Armstrong. Anyway, I’ve now emerged from my research-and-proposal-writing cocoon; it feels good returning to the “outside” world!

So in my practice, I’ve lately been thinking about pessimism as a character trait. Selena, the client I described in my post about the importance of joy in psychotherapy, tends to be very pessimistic about her future. She believes that she blew her opportunity to launch a career right after college and that nobody will want to hire her now because newly-minted college graduates will be applying for the same positions. Not long after she graduated, Selena was fired from a job that didn’t particularly suit her, and she found the experience painfully humiliating. Most of us would feel the same way, but Selena has had a hard time recovering and moving on. She feels that getting fired has “tainted” her. Pessimism about her future keeps her immobilized.

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Another Everyday Narcissist — Me

Painful WristA number of site visitors took issue with one of my recent posts, largely because of the way I used the word narcissist. Most people use it as a synonym for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so it’s understandable that those visitors heard me calling Ellen a bad name. But I use narcissistic in a descriptive sense to cover a wide range of behaviors, not all of them pathological; an Everyday Narcissist such as Ellen is in no way the same thing as a person who suffers from NPD.

In order to make this distinction clear, I’m going to describe another Everyday Narcisisist — me. Shortly after my return to North Carolina, I went for my first piano lesson after the long summer break. I’ve been studying with my teacher Pei Fen for more than four years; my oldest son William studied with her for two years before that, so I’ve known her for six or seven years now. She’s a friend as well as my teacher. In addition to the playing and instruction that goes on during our lessons, we also catch up and talk about our personal lives. I had a lot to tell her about my time in Colorado.

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