There’s a stereotype that us creative-types have monstrous egos that can crumble to dust if the right pebble hits a certain spot of weakness. This may be true. I confess that a large part of my 20’s and 30’s were spent learning the lesson of humility over and over again. Every time I would manage to climb atop the slightest elevation, proclaiming myself King of the Mountain, the Universe would thwack me on the head, point to a higher peak and yell, “The mountain’s over there, dummy!” before gingerly pushing me aside, causing me to tumble the scant few feet I had scaled. Back to the drawing board.
I often take pleasure in recounting my failures –but the latest is a bit more painful. Several months ago I stumbled across someone with a great deal of talent who was not attached to an active situation. My current project had a sturdy framework, but we needed something to dress it up. This person seemed to be a perfect fit. I reached out to her and she was interested in working with us. At the first meeting I still very much loved what she could do, but I felt uneasy with the personal interaction. Still, I’m the first to admit my lack of social skills and decided to shrug it off. My partner seemed taken with her.
We pressed on. In just a few more sessions I got a sense that she did not see me as an equal. She was the talent, I was the support – and this was actually the case for our intended audience, but I found myself having a hard time working within the dynamic. I saw myself as an integral part of the equation, why couldn’t she see it? I subconsciously began looking for chinks in her armor. Certainly she had deficits – rather glaring deficits that began to give my partner pause, particularly when we brought them to her attention in a kind manner, and she claimed no knowledge of what she had or had not done. The saving grace of the situation remained that when everything aligned it was amazing – mostly because of her.
After we achieved something of a milestone, I began to spiral off into a cycle of extreme jealousy followed by extreme guilt. Was I really so insecure? I had successfully worked with other talented people, but in all of those situations the hierarchy had been clear – it was their project and I was the support person. Additionally, they repeatedly expressed gratitude for my contribution, no matter how slight. It did not occur to me that it wasn’t her job to make me feel appreciated in my own project. The one expressing gratitude for the hard work should have been me. I’m not sure that would have made the balance of power manageable, but it’s what should have happened. My partner had already made this move and she was treating him with a great deal of respect. The one thing she was not doing was addressing the problems she was having – problems we wanted to work with her to solve.
I moved into a full-blown obsession. I talked about it to everyone and anyone who would listen – my husband, my friends, my partner, my therapist. I examined and re-examined my motives: my jealousy, my need for control, my need to feel acknowledged. I hated my needs. I began to actively hate her as well. After every meeting I would play back our interactions in my head and re-interpret all her words to mean only the worst. In truth, some of the things she said did have questionable intent. I told myself I was wasting too much energy on this and I would try to quiet myself. Then it was time for another meeting and it would all start up again.
My partner and I continued having difficulty getting her to work on the areas we felt were weak. We would tag team each other with our grievances. At times there seemed to be dissent from all parties. The process of working together was exhausting. The joy was draining out of us.
I hit bottom after we reached another milestone. I just wanted out. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” I reminded myself with a ridiculous amount of self-pity and melodrama. I told my partner I was bowing out – not just from this project but any and all work of this nature. Enough of the Universe thwacking me on the head and yelling “The mountain’s over there, dummy!” My revelation did not seem so obvious to my partner. He begged me to reconsider. He suggested we either cut her lose or have a serious talk with her.
I fantasized about texting the break up:
You are the perfect dress that only comes in the wrong size. I wish you well and far away.
At that point I had to recognize my needs and my limits. I really wanted to be a bigger person with a smaller ego. I wanted to be okay with being in a situation where I felt bad all the time. I’ve often mistaken denying my emotional needs as a sign of strength, but in truth it’s detrimental. Constantly depriving yourself of the very thing that sustains you will only stunt your growth – creatively, emotionally. There was no way I was ever going to fit into that perfect dress, which made it – not perfect.
We had our talk. It was illuminating and honest. She thought we wanted to work with her to showcase her talent – and so she wanted every aspect of the project to showcase her talent. In her mind it only made sense. She’s good. Why would we want her to do things that didn’t feature her at her best? We explained that we were also part of the project – our talent and work needed to be honored as well. We wanted it to show the group effort involved, not just what she could do.
Why had we not had this conversation sooner?
In the end we agreed to take a break from each other, not totally closing off the possibility of working together somewhere down the line now that we knew where everyone was coming from. I felt relieved, but also sad. If only we’d had better communication perhaps together we could have made it closer to that mountain … wearing the perfect dress.