Good Self, Bad Self: How to Bounce Back from a Personal Crisis

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9781451650006: Good Self, Bad Self: How to Bounce Back from a Personal Crisis

From the real-life crisis expert who inspired ABC’s Scandal.

Everyone must learn to live with personal missteps. Whether you’ve put yourself in an awkward situation, or you find that you’ve unwittingly created a full-blown crisis, Judy Smith is here to teach you how to look within to diffuse, mitigate, and resolve issues at their root.

Good Self, Bad Self will teach you how to face and overcome potential problems before they send your life spinning out of control. Using the straightforward and incredibly effective POWER model—which incorporates the same strategies Judy uses with her high-profile clients—you can learn to master and expertly handle any sticky situation in your own life. Smith distills years of experience, sharing tools we all need to face our mistakes and overcome them.

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About the Author:

Judy Smith is one of the premier crisis management experts in the world and has become the go-to person for corporations, politicians, and celebrities in times of crisis. She has worked on the Iran Contra investigation, the impeachment process of President Clinton, as well as the Enron Congressional inquiry. She also served as a counselor to BellSouth, Starwood Hotels, Nextel, Federated Department Stores, United Healthcare, Wal-Mart, Deloitte & Touche, and AIG, among other companies.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Good Self Bad Self
 1. 

EGO

NEEDING TO BE THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM

He was considered a brilliant attorney: charismatic, good-looking, and with one of the best conviction rates in any major metropolitan area. He was considered a shoo-in to be the next State Attorney General and he was being groomed for much more, Governor, Senator, maybe even President. At least to hear him tell it. “You know what it is, Judy? Truthfully, a lot of people are jealous of my success. Did you know that I’ll be the youngest State Attorney General in history?” You haven’t been elected yet, I thought to myself, although I’m sure as far as he was concerned that was just a formality. He had no problem with confidence, which, along with his other assets, made him attractive to the public. Yet he had run into a glitch; he was being accused of having withheld evidence in a trial he received a lot of publicity for winning. “It’s absurd. With my conviction rate why would I need to cheat?” I could see that I would have to craft his media responses for him and insist that he adhere to them, but it was going to be an uphill battle because I could tell he thought he was always the smartest person in the room.

 

When people talk about someone who has an ego, it’s almost never meant as a compliment; it’s a three-letter dirty word, used interchangeably with “arrogance” or “pomposity,” and the word “big” usually precedes it. But ego isn’t inherently bad or good. It’s merely one quality among many that make up a human being. Back in the day, of course, Freud used the word to talk about the conscious mind—our amazing human ability to impose control on our wild id. Now, though, the word has fallen out of favor with psychiatrists, precisely because it means so many different things to different people.

We’re not looking at it in the Freudian sense, but rather how most of us use it colloquially. In this chapter, we’ll take a look at ego in both its positive and negative sense. Indeed, having a healthy ego is essential to a happy, successful life, and like the other aspects of the self we discuss in this book, you have to own the quality and make it work for you instead of against you.

First off, what’s good about having a healthy ego? Many, many things. A strong sense of self is essential to accomplishing anything in this world. Ego gives us that. We need to like ourselves, to think that we’re deserving of attention and our opinions and ideas are worthy of consideration. That isn’t arrogance; it’s the key to emotional health. “This is not a bragging or self-assertive liking,” wrote Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, in 1961’s On Becoming a Person. “It is a quiet pleasure in being one’s self.”

Embracing your healthy ego doesn’t mean being a domineering jerk or spending your days trying to make the world fit into an overblown conception of who you are. A strong ego can confer confidence, independence, leadership, as well as the strength to buck conventional wisdom and stand up for what you believe. A powerful sense of self can help you lead and give you the passion to sell your vision to others. Our country was built on the values of self-reliance, confidence, drive, and bootstrapping your way to success, and there’s no question that the men and women who founded it had generous egos under their powdered wigs. But there is a fine line between encouraging a strong sense of self with high expectations and creating an atmosphere of arrogance and self-importance. It is important that aiming high does not turn into stomping on others on your way to the top. Arrogance is not an admirable quality. We’ve all encountered self-promoters who are eager to tell us how fantastic they are rather than let us figure that out by ourselves—this is just one example of how off-putting it can be when ego is used for ill rather than for good.

The balance that keeps someone with a healthy sense of self from becoming a self-involved, egocentric person is tipped when the ambitions of the self run roughshod over the needs of others. Because when the ego rampages unchecked, it stomps on good judgment, self-analysis, and self-control. An ego without limits is like a car with no brakes; if you can’t figure out how to regain control, you may well wind up driving right off a cliff. This chapter is about finding your own point of balance and making sure that your ego is a reliable copilot and not a carjacker taking you for a ride.

In this chapter, we’ll talk about different ways ego manifests and how it can get the best of you. We’ll look at entitlement; engaging in risky, provocative behavior; having a sense of self that depends on external validation; failing to consider the consequences of one’s actions; and refusing to admit you’ve made a mistake—all of which allow your ego to blind you to the landscape you inhabit. These are all both evidence and consequence of an ego run wild, and it’s easy to see how someone who is unaware of the effects of his ego can get embroiled in a crisis that feels impossible to get out of. This chapter is about finding the line between being motivated by ego and being consumed by it. If you can begin to recognize when your ego is taking over in a negative way and check it, you’ll be able to channel the positive aspects of ego—those that lead to business accomplishments, ethical leadership, and healthy relationships—to your benefit.

Ego Run Amok

As a crisis manager, I unfortunately tend to get called in when the balance between the good and bad aspects of some-one’s ego has already shifted way out of whack. I’ve heard celebrities wailing about the unfairness of the universe more times than I care to count—even when it’s clear to everyone around them that they alone are responsible for their downfall. To get out of their situations (or at least control the damage) they sometimes need to realize the problem is internal, as well as external. That can be a terribly difficult concept for egocentric people to wrap their minds around.

Take Kanye West, for example. The man is a brilliant hiphop artist, but most of his public missteps appear to stem from an inflated ego and a refusal to see his own role in each debacle. I hardly need to list the flubs: from his televised declaration during the benefit for Hurricane Katrina relief that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” to his comparing himself to Jesus Christ, to his predilection for awards-show outbursts—most notably cutting off the very young Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to say that Beyoncé should have won the award that Swift was in the middle of accepting. Even President Obama called him a “jackass.” West’s arrogance isn’t just cringe-worthy for those of us who watch him make similar mistakes again and again. It also affects his public image.

West, of course, is driven by passionate emotions, which is okay (necessary, even) for an artist whose job it is to express thoughts and feelings that we all can recognize. The recording studio is the ideal place for his ego to receive full expression, a forum for all his ideas and emotions that would serve to make his music even more affecting. But when he’s not in the studio, West sometimes appears to fail to analyze those emotions fully before they come flying out of his mouth, and context does matter. Everyone, from artists who are paid handsomely, precisely because of the way the expression of their emotions touches others, to parents whose ability to teach their children relies on appealing to their kids’ emotions at specific moments in their development, needs to remember that no one wants to see or hear you unfiltered all the time.

To me, the first step in reining in an ego that has run amok is taking an accurate read of your own emotions and their intensity; when you feel a burst of anger or aggression coming on, pause to consider those feelings. Often a strong emotional response is a sign that your ego is dominating rather than your objectivity. In West’s case, his strong emotional response at the show was a sign that his ego was caught up in the circumstances. So take a deep breath. You don’t have to respond to a perceived provocation right away. You cannot accurately make a rational assessment and come to a solid decision if you are acting from a place of unexamined, uncontrolled feeling.

There are two things you can do when you have an intense emotional response and suspect that your ego may be out of balance. First: Wait. Taking that deep breath will give you some time until your feelings are tempered. Second: Write an old-fashioned list of pros and cons for the possible responses you are considering. I am a big fan of lists. This will help you determine exactly what you are trying to accomplish by taking a particular course of action, and in the time it takes to write the list, your emotions will calm down, allowing your rational side to emerge. And if there are hidden egotistical motivations involved, you’ll soon uncover them.

West’s charging onstage wasn’t really about his need to defend Beyoncé’s art (and she certainly wasn’t asking for his intervention!). It seemed more about West’s need to declare himself the arbiter of taste, his need for his voice to be heard above all others that night, heedless of the context. Who won the award, of course, was not his decision to make. Many ego-driven people feel that no matter how they behave, they’re going to remain at the top of the heap through their own brilliance, cleverness, and indispensability.

Signs That You Need an Ego Check

It’s not hard to recognize someone who believes he’s above it all, is the center of the universe, or is obviously entitled. The stereotypical diva who swoops into a room with demands, expectations, and little patience for anything that doesn’t immediately support her view of herself as central to the universe is an obvious example of someone whose ego is off the charts. But most people with an ego problem don’t present that way. While not subtle, there are some less overt traits and behaviors I’ve noticed in my years of crisis management that are not thought of as being a sign that ego is running the show. They should be. Recognizing that the root of certain behaviors is an ego run amok is the only way to get back in a more productive ego balance.

Ego-driven Tendency 1: Displaying an Overblown Sense of Entitlement

Entitlement is the overriding sense that you deserve certain things in life, regardless of whether you’ve earned them. I’ve come to believe that certain types of people are prone to egocentrism, and with it, an outsize concept of what they are entitled to. You would probably not be shocked to learn that a recent study by Celebrity Rehab host Dr. Drew Pinsky found that celebrities are significantly more narcissistic than the general population, after he had a sample of two hundred celebrities complete the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a test measuring self-absorption. What’s interesting is that the celebrities who had a talent (for example, musicians) tended to be less narcissistic than folks who were famous for simply being famous.

This squares with other research and my own experience: If you’re good at something and have worked at it, as opposed to getting acclaim for something you didn’t earn (inherited wealth, position, beauty, or having grown up with overindulgent parents), you’re less inclined to feel like a fake. Persevering to get where you are (in the case of a musician, playing in small clubs and dusty dives, gradually honing your art and paying your dues) makes you more likely to have a manageable ego than someone who has catapulted to prominence without developing meaningful skills.

I will always thank my parents for conveying to me that working hard is essential. My parents taught me to treat everyone the same: with respect. My mom was an administrative assistant who cleaned office buildings at night. Once when I was little she took me to work with her; I was annoyed and a little embarrassed that my mom was the one pushing the vacuum cleaner. She told me firmly, “There is no work you should not be proud of. If you’re earning an honest living and doing it well, there is no shame in any kind of work you do.” Thanks to their influence, I’ve never let my head get too swollen as my business has grown. I don’t feel entitled to my success. I had to earn it. I think I have a healthy ego about my work—I’m aware that I’m very good at what I do, but I’m also aware that I could lose it all if I don’t keep my head on straight.

Ego-driven Tendency 2: Foolishly Taking Risks

When you lose perspective, as ego-imbalanced people tend to, you forget that everything you’ve worked for can disappear in the blink of an eye. That’s what happened to a certain someone who wasn’t my client, Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Weiner was hugely popular among his constituents—he won seven terms and more than 58 percent of the vote every time. At twenty-seven, he’d been the youngest city councilman in New York City’s history. The ego that gave him confidence and allowed him to make a bid for office at such a young age (and defeat far better-known candidates) is the same ego that fueled his fiery, flamboyant demeanor and caused him to lose perspective.

As you would have to have been in a coma not to know, Weiner tweeted photos of himself in his underwear to at least one young woman. He was supposedly happily married, with a baby on the way. Nonetheless, Weiner had text or phone dalliances with at least five other women. Before owning up to the truth, he spent a week bobbing and weaving while late-night comedians had a field day at his expense (it didn’t help that his name is slang for the very part of his anatomy he photographed and then tweeted). Finally, when his reputation was thoroughly tarnished, he held a tearful press conference during which he owned up to sending the pictures. He admitted that it was “a very dumb thing to do” and added, “But if you are looking for some sort of deep explanation for it I don’t have one for you.”

Well, I do, at least in part. Some of us are simply hardwired to get off on risky behavior. Brian Knutson, a neuroscientist at Stanford, conducted a study in 2005 in which he put Wall Street traders into MRI machines. Then he scanned their brains as they evaluated whether to buy or sell certain stocks. The higher the risk entailed in the decisions the traders needed to make, the more activity was visible in the pleasure centers of their brains on the MRI. I believe that part of the appeal for people who are attracted to high-risk professions like gambling, trading stocks, or politics is feeling as though they’re superior to the people who aren’t taking the bold chances, that they know more and can juggle more. That leads to a certain sense that you are not subject to the same pitfalls as others, or that you are so good you will not get caught.

That is really a form of ego. Politics itself is a risky business, and you need a certain amount of healthy ego to believe you can serve others, put yourself out there, and get elected. Weiner’s ego took an unhealthy turn when it drove him toward the risky thrill of tweeting dirty pictures. The problem was that this same too-healthy ego blinded him to the fact that he would inevitably get caught and would lose everything as a result. He thought himself above risk (a form of denial we discuss in the next chapter). And losing everything is exactly what ended up happening.

Ego-driven Tendency 3: Doing Anything to Be Validated

“Fragile high self-esteem” is what social scientists call the need for perpetual validation and praise ...

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