The other day right as taekwondo class ended I let a seven-year-old get under my skin. We were collecting our shoes and water bottles after a hard cardio workout when she remarked with wonder, “Wow, we didn’t take a break at all.”
“I know,” I said, “But we can handle it. We’re tough. We’re bo dans after all.”
She paused for a moment and said, “Bo dahns” matter-of-factly and trotted off to meet her mother.
“Don’t correct me!” I spat at her half jokingly but also half menacingly. A surprising rush of anger flared up in my neck. How dare that little brat correct me in front of other people? How dare that bossy child who whines and complains and fidgets and doesn’t remember any of her forms or one-steps tell ME what’s up in the dojang? How dare she be so bold and confident and sure….how dare she be all the things that I am not.
I thought about if for several hours afterwards. I wasn’t really angry at her. She’s just a kid, and her life sucks way more than mine does. I mean, I never have to listen to boring schoolteachers ever again, I can have cookies for dinner if I want, and I can stay up as late as I please. Being a grown up is AWESOME.
I was angry at what her words and (in my perception) tactless disrespectful attitude represented to me. I feel like people have been walking all over me, humiliating me and taunting me my entire life. I was angry because I don’t do that to people. I’m nice and considerate, and dammit, everyone else should be too and fuck you if you’re not! I was angry because I just sat back and took it. I attracted it and I let it happen over and over and over again. I never just walked away and removed myself from the situation.
In that moment I was reminded of all the times I was corrected, blamed, scolded and condescended to like…well, like a child. When people do that I feel worthless and small. I feel insignificant and powerless. I feel like I don’t deserve any better.
It’s been said that the people around us are a mirror of our reality. They treat us the way we allow ourselves to be treated. If we let people treat us like crap, then perhaps it’s because we don’t think we deserve more than crappy treatment. Some form of attention or interaction–even if it’s dysfunctional–is better than none at all in this twisted worldview. Too often I have allowed myself to feel inferior in the presence of another’s overwhelming (if not sometimes misguided) confidence.
In a flash I remembered an old boyfriend who would constantly pick at my words, looking for loopholes that would peg me as a hypocrite. He used to correct my grammar and pronunciation in three different languages (yes, really). I let the corrections in his native language slide, but I finally had to tell him to back the hell off when it came to my native language….which makes me wonder if perhaps I do mangle my own language, but then I remember which one of us has an actual college degree in ENGLISH. Most of the time I just stuttered and wept silently and endured all the put-downs and patronizing.
I remembered a toxic bitchy ex-friend who had a habit of repeating my name every two or three sentences as if I were a dog and she was trying to hold my attention. I’d like to say that I told her to get her anorexic crybaby spoiled ass out of my life, but I simply stopped speaking to her, and as if by telepathy she did the same.
I have been targeted, bullied, harassed, cheated on, lied to, abused, and very worst of all, I continued to let it happen. Since childhood I seemed to attract a plethora of insecure but alluring bullies: domineering female friends and overbearing boyfriends who seemed fun and confident and protective at first, but once they got a taste of what beating me down felt like they became thirsty for blood and I willingly opened my veins. It’s caused me to shy away from friendships, especially with women, and as for matters in the romantic department, I let the tension build until I explode with venom. To protect myself I’ve become more and more isolated and guarded.
But I can’t blame my little classmate for reminding me of someone else because she’s not responsible for how I feel or what memories of the past I associate with the present. It seems like we’re always making the people in our present atone for the sins of people in our past. What I was really angry about was that I had let this pattern build up in my life and I had tolerated behavior that my accusers, abusers, and attackers certainly wouldn’t have tolerated if the tables were turned. I really wish I had their blind foolish confidence….or that I were some kind of sociopathic narcissist, whatever’s easier.
Punishing the present for the hurts of the past can take a toll on one’s spirit. In a former relationship I spent the first few months trying to convince my partner that I was not in fact the evil doppelgänger of a conniving ex-wife or crazy ex-girlfriend or volatile mother. I worked very hard to be nice and sweet and loving and attentive and pretty much the best girlfriend ever. I was racked with anxiety over vague threats floated my way that I reminded him of them. If I dared show any fear or doubt or God forbid, anxiety, it was tossed cruelly back in my face. (Try having a pleasant dinner after your boo says they “really question your mental stability.”)
The heavy responsibility of the ghosts of his past was placed on my shoulders when it never should have been my burden. At the time I wasn’t brave enough to say that. I just ducked my head and towed the line because I didn’t want to know what was at the other end of “or else.”
As I continued to contemplate my little compatriot’s comment I realized that in a way I was jealous of her. I was envious that I couldn’t speak my mind or argue that I was right no matter whether I really was or not. I’d rather be polite and know when to pick and choose my battles, but perhaps I need to seek a healthier balance between being outspoken and being silent.
Ironically right after that my instructor told me that a couple and their daughter watching our class told him they liked me and thought I was “very aggressive.” It’s kind of sad that the only place I am truly bold and aggressive (in a positive healthy way of course) is in the dojang…and more frequently in the conference room with my tight-knit team of male colleagues. I wonder what would happen if I were really in a fight. Would I be cool and confident and trust my training or would I fly into a blind indignant rage at the fact that someone with poor manners decided to humiliate and pick on me like it was their God-given right? That’s just rude! I wouldn’t mug somebody because I’m POLITE, and dammit, they should be too!
The next time you find yourself getting angry because someone hurt your feelings or “made” you feel bad, pause and dig a little deeper. What is it about their behavior that really gets to you? Go beyond “It’s wrong!” or “It’s mean!” What specifically bothers you? What memories does it conjure up? What feelings do you have, and are they the same as what you felt in similar moments from your past? Is there anything you can do to stop that downward spiral of yucky feelings?
Is there something about that person’s behavior that shines a bright mirror on something you were afraid to show? Are they actually pointing out something that you want to change about yourself? We like to say that bullies lash out because they are insecure. That’s true, but one could also argue that we might uncover some of our own insecurity in the way we interpret and respond to the situation. Two insecure people with perpetually broken hearts and nasty tempers can be a very dangerous combination.
The good news is that YOU are in control of your feelings and responses. No one can “make” you feel insignificant or unworthy–only you can do that. So what can you do to make yourself feel better? If you do want to change something, do it. No one’s stopping you but the person in the mirror. Want to try a different response? Go for it. Want to walk away? Please, let me get the door for you. I’ll help you carry your baggage. The really good news is that you have my permission to kick the other person’s ass because they probably were really being rude anyway.