Bitter Words Can Leave Bite Marks

A number of years ago during a workshop an evaluator said that I was "tough to take." Being in my early twenties and unsure of my footing as a professional and a scholar (having just graduated college and was preparing for graduate school) I took this...badly. It certainly wasn't meant as a positive nor was it delivered in a helpful or constructive way. I remember being so consumed by this off the cuff remark that I replayed every conversation I had had with her (as well as other conversations to which she might have overheard) to try to figure out where that assessment of my personality might have originated. Was it my over-enthusiasm when talking with one of my favorite authors? Was it my being named the leader of a small group during a breakout session, a session no one really wanted to participate in but were obligated to-thus being leader was more by default than design?

Ready for the world? 
And this casually made but caustic remark followed me all through graduate school where I definitely "dialed it down," because I was afraid to be seen as..."tough to take." I slowly became less of me and more of who I believed others wanted me to be. I became less confident of my skills and abilities, and who I was started to fade and blur, barely noticeable perhaps, to anyone who hadn't known me for a long time, but it certainly happened nonetheless.

Now I have managed to navigate the last twenty some odd years with a healthy dose of self-confidence often tinted with a healthy dose of self-doubt. It's a delicate dance. When you have a success (or a series of successes) you are able to quiet those voices because you proved them wrong, right?

But as we all know, that voice isn't gone, it's just not as loud. It's a whisper that tickles your ear late at night. It whispers every time you write and submit an article that your work just isn't good enough and no one is interested in what you have to say. It whispers every time you apply for a job that your qualifications are not quality enough. It whispers that you aren't:
  • smart enough
  • funny enough
  • pretty enough
It is a whisper that only you can hear and that when you vocalize, others dismiss as "nonsense." But that "negative committee" makes you doubt yourself in business decisions, in friendships and relationships, in your abilities (for me) as a creative person on the planet. Even as I write this blog I think, is it good enough? will anyone really care? That thin, itchy cloak of self-doubt also makes one not be able to handle compliments and dismiss them as patronizing. In short, the whisper becomes a scream that silences all other voices. You become deaf to kindness and you find that you are shut off from the world. 

But (and thank goodness there is always a "but") despite the fact that you can't undo the damage that has been done, you can go forward from here and change the narrative. 

For instance, now that I am in my (inaudible-insert the age you imagine I am here-you are probably close) I don't see it as a the negative (which has lingered around me like a bad smell in one's backpack) which it was. Instead I embrace it. I don't think there is anything wrong in asking (sometimes quite vocally) for respect, to be treated with kindness and courtesy, and to be acknowledged for the work I do (and have done).

Being "tough to take" has personally:
  • taken me to DC where I've met with the President and elected leaders to talk about issues that I am passionately engaged with, such as increasing and creating positive family engagement opportunities in education;
  • has helped me to stay disciplined with weight loss goals and run and finish my first half-marathon, as well as make plans to run another in the fall; and
  • has helped me be recognized as a go to resource on issues concerning global vaccination (as a volunteer advocate with Shot@Life) and poverty reduction (as a staff member with RESULTS).
And it also has led me to this, presenting at the upcoming #140You conference in New York about all of this in some way. Certainly Jeff Keni Pulver's conference is a focus on staying focused on personal transformation (whether it is weight loss or taking better control and management of one's health) and the importance of connectivity and community as one travels on their journey. I will admit, as I look at the list of amazing and incredible speakers (Derek Flanzraich, AJ Jacobs, Holly Perkins, Ted Rubin, and Paul Williams) and the topics they will be speaking on, I am terribly nervous at my ability to share my story and hopefully help someone else share theirs. 

In the end, while I wasn't thankful at the time and can see how that bitterness left a bite mark, I also cannot help but actually be thankful for that bitter one-off remark all those years ago, because that remark while certainly painful, has helped me to understand this:

To some people you will not matter. 

That does not mean you do not matter. 

Because you do. 

If someone has been unkind, cruel even, because perhaps they think you are tough enough to handle being told you are "tough to take" you have a choice-you can let their bitterness make you become bitter towards others, or you can re- frame the conversation going forward. 

You should always ask yourself (and this isn't just in the context of speaking with someone, but with how to engage in any personal or professional relationship) what Shirdi Sai Baba has said "before you speak ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve upon the silence?"

There will be times when no matter how much importance and significance you give to a person they won't give you that same respect or connect with you in the same way. I suspect that the woman who so casually spoke those words to me has not thought once about me in the last twenty years, or has any idea that her words had such a deep impact. But it has made me more aware of the power of words and how they can frame the course of one's actions (or reactions). It has made me take pause at times and bite back what might be seen as bitter words that could leave bite marks. But it has also empowered me to be an advocate, for others and myself. To act and speak kindly and when necessary. To do my best to honor my truth. To recognize that silence is not rejection but can give time for reflection. Because at the end of everything, no matter what others say or do, you have a choice:

Be nice. No exceptions. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully stated. You are very easy to take :-)