There was a time when I had some people in my life who seemed intent on making me feel less than. In particular, they questioned my intelligence. A couple merely told me that I didn’t understand things or belittled every opinion I had. “People don’t like that.” The other was more aggressive in his campaign. His favorite description of me was “stupid as hell.” He would ask with disdain, “Did you even go to college?” I often rolled my eyes and walked away. Once in awhile I would turn sarcastic (which a counselor mentioned seems to be my go-to) and would answer, “No. They let me teach because I’m so cute.” (FYI – not all that cute) If we were in public and I started to recount some event, he would interrupt and tell me I had the details wrong or that I left something out. Finally one night I embarrassed him by not finishing the story. In front of others he said that I should continue, and I answered, “No. You obviously know my story better than I do. You finish it.” That was the closest I ever came to actually confronting him, but I felt horrible because I made other people uncomfortable.
I remember once saying that the business we opened should be purchasing the truck needed rather than financing it and owning it ourselves. I was told I was “stupid as hell” and didn’t understand anything about business. A week later, one of his business advisors said that the truck should be financed through the store because it was a business expense. He came home and told me “David says…” and “isn’t that a good idea?” I began to think that maybe it was because I couldn’t fully understand things – what with not having a penis…
Eventually, I believed. I succumbed to their ideas and comments. I took them in and they became part of who I was. They altered my soul, my heart, and my mind. I wouldn’t express my opinion, especially around these people, because it was probably wrong. I didn’t venture an idea. When I did, it got shot down. I remember my mother having a theory that some abused women like being treated that way. Why else would they stay? But I came to understand exactly why they stayed. Their spirit had been beaten down first. If anyone had ever hit me, it would have been easier. I know I would have walked out for good. As my father taught me – “Hit me once, shame on you. Hit me twice, shame on me.” I didn’t know how to deal with the hits that came verbally. No one ever taught me to expect respect.
Now, you need to understand that these were people who were very close to me — family and my husband. These were the people who were supposed to love me, support me, have my back. They altered my soul, my heart, and my mind. When my husband left, I had people who told me that they never understood why the two of us were together because it was so obvious that I was much smarter than him. The first time I heard that, I kind of scoffed it off. But after hearing it from a few others, I had to really spend some time with it and think about it. These people also altered my soul, my heart, and my mind but it wasn’t as profoundly because it hadn’t been drilled into me for years.
I came to see that I had allowed what happened. I had to bear the responsibility as much as they did. I never should have let the first occasion go by unchallenged. I should have demanded to be treated with respect. If that wasn’t something people could offer, I now knew I needed to walk away and leave them behind.
And so I over-compensated. You should take pity on people who talked to me like I was stupid or made some insinuation that I couldn’t possible know and understand. I just about tap-danced on their heads as I stood up for myself in very forceful terms. And it didn’t matter who it was, I wasn’t tolerating it. There was a new assistant superintendent who, on our first meeting, sneered at me and very derisively asked, “And how would you know that?” I saw red and went off on him. By the time I got back to the high school and realized what I had actually done, I went to the principal to tell him about it. I walked in and he said, “I heard.” It’s a wonder I didn’t lose my job. (I was right, by the way. But not very politic in my manner.)
Over the years I have thought long and hard about how I got pulled into that downward spiral. I understand it now. I understand what there is about me that led me to accept those words. I have also been thinking about my vehement reactions to assure this wouldn’t keep happening. It’s been over thirty years now so I should be able to find the middle ground.
And if any of you know where that middle ground is, I would sure love to know. My stomach is churning this evening and I am berating myself. In an effort not to start an argument or cause others to be uncomfortable, I allowed someone to talk to me that way again. He was saying something to which I nodded and said, “I know.” I was quite taken back when he snarled, “No, you don’t know.” Well, yes. Yes, I did know that fact he was talking about. I had learned it from his wife some thirty years ago before he was even in the picture. A short time later he pointed at two of us at the table and said something about how things are the way are because “people like you” don’t care about people learning English. We were both English teachers for all of our careers so I don’t know how he came to that conclusion. And so I said…nothing. Nothing to either statement.
In an effort to keep the peace, I swallowed the feelings and busied myself with something else. I know that my usual fury was not called for so it was good that I didn’t do that. But I hate that I allowed someone to speak to me that way without a response. There was no calmly saying, “you are wrong” or “please, don’t speak to me that way.” (the tone was even worse than the words in the “you don’t know” – the tone as well as the words are triggers for me.) I maintain I get angry, outraged, furious over being treated that way. However, I have a counselor who has made me see that it comes out as anger, but it really comes from a place of hurt, vulnerability, and my sense of self.
Tonight I am upset with myself. I know that I shouldn’t allow myself to be triggered by something like this. I know that I need to break this pattern, but in the moment, I am still not able to find the ground between silence and rage. I know I shouldn’t let someone’s attitude, words, or opinions reduce me. I know all of this, and yet I sit here with the stomach churning, my monkey-mind in full, high speed chatter, and nursing wounds that no one even knows exist.
This is my battle to fight and I’m fighting it against some demons inside of me. Some days I lose the fight. Some days I hold my own. And some days I win.
I may not have won the war yet, but I know what advice I have for others — even if it’s a matter of do as I say, not as I do. If you have people in your life who have made you feel less than, stupid, unwanted and unwelcome, useless, or whatever — don’t allow it. Put a halt to it the first time it occurs, and if you already missed that time, put a halt to it the next time. Be polite but firm. Draw boundaries and maintain them. Dr. Phil says we teach people how to treat us. Will people be angry with you? Yes, but at least you will come to be surrounded by people who respect you, and you will be happy with yourself. As my friend René from the blog Black Girl, Lost Keys says, guard your yes. Guard what you are willing to do or put up with. Live by your rules.