…being on the receiving end of a public critique can, for me, trigger my inner critic to go on a binge of negative self-talk. From “I’m not good enough” my thoughts can go to “Maybe I shouldn’t write anymore” or into the depths of “What’s the point of it all, anyway?” Fortunately, I’ve got the tools to take my inner critic out for a walk in the forest to deal with those unpleasant thoughts. The place for my critic is editing manuscripts, not making me feel bad. Many people don’t have these tools though, so a single comment could jump-start someone into having a really rotten day, or worse. Some people have felt so bad over bullying and other online taunting that they’ve killed themselves.
As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Avanti Centrae. Avanti is a former Silicon Valley IT executive turned thriller author. Before turning to writing, she worked for ALCOA, Texas Instruments, Hughes Aircraft, IBM, and Hewlett Packard. Avanti’s debut novel, VanOps: The Lost Power, won a Genre Grand Prize blue ribbon at the Chanticleer International Book awards and took home an honorable mention at last year’s Hollywood Book Festival. Her blend of intrigue, history, science, and mystery has been getting rave reviews. Readers can check out the first six chapter for free on her website.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Thank you! I’m looking forward to sharing some of the secrets of my success with your readers.
After a childhood filled with reading, sports, adventures, and some school-yard bullying, I headed off to Purdue University, where I and graduated with a degree in computer technology, but didn’t know a thing about managing my own emotions. My first three jobs were all pre-internet. I remember interoffice mail via a mailman, and traveled the world without a smartphone. In the nineties, the internet revolutionized the way we worked and played. It’s also changed the way authors interact with fans, who are not always kind. The world is at our fingertips now, for worse and for better.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of my favorite sayings when I was an executive was, “Start with the end in mind.” As I transitioned to my new writing career, I used that lesson and thought about the cover of my first book. I visualized it with a quote from James Rollins. Why Rollins? His thrillers consistently hit the New York Times bestseller list and my work has similar unusual, but science-based, threats. But how to get that blurb? I emailed him before I even had an agent, and he suggested I write back later. When later came, he suggested my agent and publisher write his agent. I did that, and didn’t hear back. Still, I could see that cover in my mind’s eye. Having a blurb from a #1 NYT bestselling author is an amazing sales booster, so I didn’t give up. I signed up for his newsletter and one day last Christmas an email popped up. He was promoting his new book, Crucible, and would be signing at a local bookstore. Guess who waited in line for almost two hours to ask him, in person, for a quote? My persistence paid off, as he gave me a fantastic blurb.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Sure, this one always makes me laugh. As an executive, my writing style was brief and business-like. Although I’d always wanted to be a published author, and had studied the craft for decades, when I hit fifty I decided it was now or never. My biggest adjustment was to learn how to be appropriately descriptive. My fifteen-year-old cousin is a writer, and we decided to trade manuscript critiques. I expected her writing to be reflective of her age, but it turned out she was quite talented and not at all afraid to beat me up on my bad writing habits. Her comments were hilarious: “No, you DO NOT need to tell the reader that Maddy nodded her head. Of course, it was her head! Do people nod their foot?” You get the picture. I learned a strong writing technique, but I also learned not to judge someone’s work based on their age.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m still jumping up and down with excitement that my dream of writing is coming true. My debut, The Lost Power, first in the VanOps series, will be released by my publisher on November 9th. The second book in the series is with my agent, and I’m outlining the third book. The thirty-year-old protagonist, Maddy Marshall, is an independent truth-seeker with special martial arts abilities.
Regarding helping people, I think humans learn through stories. This is a highly entertaining series. I’m pleased that the first novel won an award and that James Rollins called it, “Full of action and suspense.” And it’s receiving other critical acclaim. But it also deals with deeper themes, such as the role of non-violence in a violent world, and overcoming fear. Now that I have a handle on managing my own emotions, I feel qualified to write about my character’s inner struggles. People can learn a little bit about history, science, and emotional acumen while they’re sitting on the edge of their seats and holding their breath.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?
Yes, I have. I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember but it took decades to drum up the courage to go for it. Now that I have, I’m proud of what I’ve created. Still, it puts my work out there for the world to criticize. I feel vulnerable and worry that I’ve missed a typo, or that it will be panned by a critic. Someone recently gave the book a one-star rating. No explanation, no reasoning, just one lonely star. It was a fear come true and I felt embarrassed and angry, thinking that this person didn’t even think enough of the work to offer constructive criticism. I’d put five years into the book, and I know you can’t please everyone, but I have to tell you, that one-star rating stung like a scorpion bite.
It reminded me of a time when I was in second grade. I went to a Catholic school and one day, the nun slapped my face in front of the entire class for no reason other than the girl who sat next to me shared my name. Apparently, Sister Agnes had called the other girl to the blackboard. I felt mortified. My face stung for a week.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
That’s a great question, Yitzi. In my twenties, I realized I had no clue how to deal with my emotions. And there were a lot of them! Anger, frustration, grief, and humiliation were all lurking in my psyche. I started meditating, practicing kundalini yoga, and explored personal growth techniques from brain-wave biofeedback to Avatar courses. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about shaking off negative feelings.
When I get upset, what works for me is to sit with the feeling until it passes. After getting the one-star rating, I stepped away from the computer, sat down outside on the porch swing, closed my eyes, and let myself experience that painful sting. There was a hollow, dark pit in my stomach. I pretended I was a spelunker, put on my headlamp and dove into the feeling. Down in the cave was a memory and a thought from a long time ago, that I wasn’t good enough. After a time, I brought that thought up to the light of day, and set it free. My stomach felt better, I opened my eyes and went back to writing another good story. Anyone can learn to do the same thing by allowing themselves to fully experience their emotions. There are so many tools to help. Culturally, we learn to avoid feelings, so there’s a learning curve to not resisting them. But like the eye of a hurricane, there’s peace inside the chaos.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
No, but like most people, I’ve been tempted.
Can you describe the evolution of your decisions?
My restraint developed over a long period of time. When I get caught up in a negative emotion, like the one I mentioned earlier, I want to lash out at the perceived threat. What I’ve learned over the years is that the trigger and the real threat are often two different things. In my example, the real threat was an outdated thought, about not being good enough. Once I deal with an obsolete thought, I no longer react to the trigger. Keeping an emotionally stable and calm state keeps me from doing things I might regret later.
When one reads the comments on YouTube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
Sure, being on the receiving end of a public critique can, for me, trigger my inner critic to go on a binge of negative self-talk. From “I’m not good enough” my thoughts can go to “Maybe I shouldn’t write anymore” or into the depths of “What’s the point of it all, anyway?” Fortunately, I’ve got the tools to take my inner critic out for a walk in the forest to deal with those unpleasant thoughts. The place for my critic is editing manuscripts, not making me feel bad. Many people don’t have these tools though, so a single comment could jump-start someone into having a really rotten day, or worse. Some people have felt so bad over bullying and other online taunting that they’ve killed themselves.
Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
I think both types of attacks are awful but in different ways. I was taunted as a child by another girl at school, thrown to the ground by the schoolyard bully down the street, and have been in a few notable confrontations as an adult. In a “real life” situation, I find myself dealing with any potential threat physically with a fight or flight response. My adrenaline gets up, my heart pounds and I move into action mode. Later, when my safety isn’t threatened, I’ll deal with the emotional ramifications. An online attack — again others might experience all this differently — but for me, there’s no immediate physical threat, so I have the emotional trigger to process and deal with.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
That’s another insightful question. People who have been shamed, bullied, or even defamed can have their careers and businesses destroyed with no warning. Depending on the situation, their financial future could be ruined, relationships lost, and suicide is not uncommon. Dealing with the emotional aspects can be overwhelming, as a victim can feel helpless, hopeless, and in fear of the next “shame bomb.”
According to an article by Katie Hurley, LCSW, recently published on Psycom.net, victims of online shaming who have tools, are emotionally resilient, or receive appropriate mental health care, can avoid long-term consequences. But without intervention, therapy, and/or tools, people are at risk for PTSD, depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, poor health, difficulty forming trusting relationships, self-harm, and suicide.
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
I’ve found that many people are ignorant of the consequences of harmful online behavior. They may think it’s funny, and since they don’t have immediate visual feedback or connection, they don’t see how hurtful their behavior really is.
Also, when a group of friends are involved, an individual might think the behavior is okay. So social pressure can play a big part.
It seems to me that when people are online, they feel anonymous, and that anonymity brings a sense of freedom. When bullies have the illusion that they won’t get caught and don’t have to face their victims to see their reactions, it requires less nerve.
The apparent lack of repercussions can lead people down many dangerous alleys, not only social media, but also the Dark Web, where they can buy drugs, child pornography, illegal weapons, etc. When people have access to freedom through anonymous browsing and bitcoin transactions, their moral compass can waiver.
It’s great fiction fodder, but can be devastating to live through.
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
Based on what my good guys learn along their adventures, here’s:
How to be a Social Media Superhero:
- NEVER FIGHT WHEN ANGRY — My heroine has to be calm and deliberate during a fight, or she could die. If something on the internet ticks you off, take time to cool off before you hit that send button. Go for a walk, take some deep breaths, work out, go to a yoga class, or simply sleep on it. When I was a kid, riding around town while Mom drove, she would count to ten if she got angry. It’s a great technique. If you’re drawn to using your keyboard as a sword, remember that many employers eliminate potential applicants from the hiring pool due to social media posting and poor behavior. Don’t post when you’re mad. You’ll regret it.
- YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU’LL NEED A FRIEND — When the heroes are on a quest in the second book in the series, they run across a street ruffian who steals a wallet. After getting the wallet back, one of the protagonists gives the kid twenty dollars and sends her on her way. The other character’s mouth falls open in shock, but that child gives them a life-saving tip later in the story. In your world, instead of just looking to see what your friends are up to, take thirty seconds to write a supportive comment or share that funny GIF. You’ll brighten someone’s day and put a smile on your own face. My bet is you’ll feel a lot better in the long run if you practice kindness. And who knows when you’ll need an ally?
- TURN THE ATTACKER’S ENERGY AGAINST THEM — My heroine uses the ancient martial art of aikido to ‘fight’ the enemy, but the contest is more about turning the energy of the attack against the attacker. When someone writes something negative about you, it’s tempting to hit back, but that opens you up to further damage. It’s likely that you’ll get pulled in deeper and have a hard time keeping your temper. To use this technique, put your attention on something beside the online attack and move on. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Let karma, God, or justice do the work for you. Don’t respond when attacked.
- TRUST BUT VERIFY — While trying to save the world, my heroes often run into what seem to be allies. Is the MI6 agent friend or foe? The protagonists learn to trust but verify, as even the best-intentioned friend can lead them inadvertently into danger. So, before you share that Facebook post, make sure it’s true. There are helpful sites where you can check on socially divisive issues. Fact check before you repost.
- EVEN THE BAD GUYS ARE HUMAN — Sometimes, in an unexpected plot twist, the character that appears to be a bad guy ends up saving the day. In the real world, a lot of intolerant speech is directed toward entire swaths of society because there’s a belief that a particular group is somehow inferior. Yet, we all put our pants on the same way. Everybody eats and everybody dies. Everybody feels happy sometimes, and sad other times. Where did your belief about that person or group originate? Your parents? A talk show? A blog or chat room? Decide if you really want to believe that or not. For instance, some of my family, when I was a child, used derogatory words when discussing African Americans. I decided that I didn’t want to have a racist belief system, and have, over the years, met many wonderful people of all skin colors. My life is richer as a result of deciding how I wanted to think. We all get to choose our thoughts and our emotions. Choose wisely.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
I think the best place to look for social media guidelines are the free speech interpretations from the Supreme Court that have developed over two hundred years. For instance, citizens can speak in the public square, but they can’t legally incite violence. Other areas where the courts have ruled to limit speech include obscenity, libel and slander, and child pornography. The courts have ruled that hate speech, however, is legal, unless it leads to imminent violence.
I agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy when he wrote:
“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.”
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
I’d like to note that Facebook already has a tool to report abusive behavior. Twitter has a ‘Report Tweet’ tool from the drop-down arrow by each tweet.
If I was CEO of one of those organizations, I’d want to promote the resources that exist for people who are victims of bullying and shaming, perhaps through a steep discount on advertising for non-profits that provide those resources. I’d also ensure that it’s easy to block users, as I recently needed to block an inappropriate fan, and didn’t find it a straightforward process.
I’d look at the reasons why people are mean and hurtful online and work to address the root causes. The inability to deal with one’s own negative emotions causes much of the trouble in the world, including social media. The tech giants have researched how to get us addicted to the dopamine high of “likes”, so if I were CEO, I’d have them research how to teach empathy and emotional intelligence. There are so many great tools these days, from float tanks and headband biofeedback units, to corporate trainings about befriending your emotions. I’d love to use Twitter and Facebook’s power for good.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Emotions are a superpower.”
Negative feelings can drive someone to suicide or mass-murder, and positive emotions can propel a person to the heights of joy and success. The ability to move through negative emotions helped me succeed in my career as an IT executive, and allowed me to deal with my fears enough to follow my dream of becoming an author. It’s helped in my relationships, as instead of blaming others for my emotions, I claim feelings as my own, and use the power of decision-making to decide how I want to think and feel. I share my emotional journey with others, instead of accusing others for my bad feelings.
Sure, a negative online review can affect me, but I’ve found that I’m more and more likely to ignore that comment and move on. Writing that next award-winning thriller awaits!
I hope that my success learning to manage my emotions inspires readers to find a path toward emotional intelligence that’s right for them. If I can do it, they can, too.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
The next time Oprah is in northern California, enjoying the vineyards of Napa Valley, or relaxing on a beach near Lake Tahoe, I’d love to buy her a fine meal. Her work to expand literacy and promote personal growth has given her angel wings. I’d like to thank her in person for making the entire world a kinder, gentler place. She’s a true hero.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
For more inspiration, readers can follow me on any of these platforms:
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
”MATAL v. TAM”. LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2017–08–13.
About the author:
Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder of Medium’s Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.