Letting People Dictate Who We Are

3 Mar

I’m not someone you would think of as a people-pleaser or very easily swayed by other people’s opinions.

As a kid, I wasn’t particularly willful and disobedient.  I was, however, very stubborn and independent.  One anecdote shows that very clearly – since my Dad was a pastor when I was growing up, my parents made us memorize Bible verses.  I was 3 or 4 when I was given “Whatever is impossible with man is possible with God” to memorize.  Which I did.  With a slight twist.  I recited the following to my parents: “Whatever is impossible with man is possible with woman!”  I’d like to say it was a memorization glitch but I’ve always had a photographic memory. I think this was a deliberate case of very wrongfully substituting Lizology for theology.

My stubborn, independent, tenacious and competitive streak has stayed with me. Sometimes really helpful, sometimes detrimental. My general disregard for what people thought of me or whether they liked me was the same – sometimes helpful, sometimes detrimental.

And then, over the past few years, something changed.  Maybe it’s because I let my walls down enough to make good friendships.  And I saw how amazing other people are and wanted them to like me in return.  Maybe it’s because of a series of rejections I experienced in college that finally made me seek approval.  Whatever the linchpin, lately I’ve struggled with who I am – the person I think I am, the person I was brought up to be, or the person I’ve been accusing of becoming.

And I’ve let some people dictate who I am.

An irate employee this week told me quite an earful (I’ll try and relay his sentiments without the use of colorful and scatological language he used to describe me).  He said that I was mean.  That I don’t care about my employees (his example was that he came down on the last day of Open Enrollment and I only had two hours to speak with him.  Because there was a line of 15 other people outside my office…)  That I am the worst communicator he’s ever met (this is quite a travesty considering I work with 1500 engineers).  That my job is meaningless.  That my boss lied to him about some dates (he did not.  The IRS makes that easy for us.)  That NO ONE in the WHOLE building likes me or thinks I am doing a good job.  Then he almost hit me.

Typing it out makes it seem so hilariously wrong, doesn’t it? But at the time, it didn’t feel that way.  I felt hopeless and discouraged and under appreciated.  I started questioning who I am and why I do what I do and whether it matters.  In the past, I would have remained the same tenacious Liz on the surface but I would have begun rebuilding those walls – separating myself from anything that could hurt me.  This week, I chose not to.  The truth, at least part of it, is this: Sometimes I am blunt, but I am not mean.  Two hours helping with one person who didn’t bother to make an appointment or come to the information sessions is a very generous act on my part. If I was the worst communicator, than no one would rate our benefits as the best part of their work experience, my presentations as the most useful of their on-boarding, and my emails as the highlight of their day. If my job was meaningless, I wouldn’t have a job.  (Engineers are efficient and logical this way.) And if no one liked me, I wouldn’t be nominated for Customer Service Awards every year and receive stellar performance appraisals and bonuses.

Just as the hopeless feelings were fading, I had an exchange with an ex-boyfriend along the same lines.  The gist (once again, keeping it semi-appropriate) is that I am a horribly mean person who portrays him as a monster.  That I went to our bike cage (where there are security cameras) with a pocket-knife (would have to be stronger than my little Swiss Army Knife) and slashed his bike tires because I am vindictive because I am upset that I broke up with him years ago.  Yeah, not sure how that makes any logical sense.  Apparently, I am that person who breaks up with people and THEN seeks revenge 2 years later for (what exactly?).  He expressed both concern and delight that I will end up friendless because I am such a vicious person.

I threw up, I was so upset. Why?  I am not exactly sure.  The thought of someone hating me this much?  The thought of someone having twisted things so wrongly that I have to play the villain role to his martyr one (this gets exhausting after 2 years). The thought of having to see him and put up with this charade (I can’t win.  If I ignore him in hallways, I get yelled at for “acting childish” and if I am friendly, I get reminded that I am a monster.)  The thought that maybe there is some truth lodged deep in his statements?

The truth, as I see it, and I may be wrong here, is that all feedback must be analyzed before it is accepted. Take the words, hold them up to the light, don’t stuff them deep inside where they can begin to spread their virus. Take the words, bring them to a trusted friend, ask for their wisdom.  Take the words, sift them and shake them and “pan for gold” to see what settles at the bottom.  Accepting what we are told is both naive and illogical.  The magazines tell me that I’m not skinny enough, tall enough, political enough, wealthy enough, healthy enough.  Enough with the enoughs.  Those magazines don’t know me.  They certainly don’t know you.

Feedback that settles to the bottom as nuggets of gold must be acted upon.  Even if it involves some painful truths about ourselves (we are not always kind and noble and heroic and unselfish).  But the fool’s gold should be discarded.  Just like I’m purging myself of scar tissue, it’s time to purge myself of other people’s truths about me. I can never hope to have everyone like me because I can never stop being a maverick.  I can never hope to have everyone understand me because I can’t always understand myself.  And I can’t hope to have everyone like me because we all have freedom to choose that for ourselves.

But I can live on the Peak of Peace rather than the Depths of Despair.  My truth, rightly or wrongly, is this.  Last night I sat on a friend’s couch in sweats.  We ate spaghetti and meatballs and watched a movie and laughed and shared life.  We discussed struggles and triumphs and awkward moments. This is real.

And two nights ago I sat in a dark cozy bar with good friends.  The kind of moment when time slows down and you forget about schoolwork or your leg injury or that looming to do list and you sit back and relax and revel in watching distinct separate friendships merge as your friends meet each other and find new friendships.  Beer and burgers and banter; a plethora of laughs.

Gratitude for friendships – for people who know I am far from perfect but still not a monster – for people willing to experience life’s peaks and depths with me – is what is bringing me joy today.

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