I’ve read a couple of articles recently that inspired me to be a little introspective today. Growing up, my parents were constantly spewing advice and world views that I thought was bat-shit crazy half the time. I made great efforts to try to ignore them and by the age of 13, I decided I knew it all and didn’t need their advice. Nonetheless, there were some things that stuck and had a lasting impact. I wondered to myself…what are the things that people said to me over the years that actually made an impression? I actually have a horrible memory and people often retell stories that I’ve been part of and I have little memory of them until they go into a crazy amount of granular detail of the event. Then sometimes I get a foggy recollection of what transpired. As an aside, my husband thinks that’s the secret to our good marriage, because I don’t remember fights. At any rate, if I do have a vivid memory of something, it means that I reviewed it in my head many times or it was a turning point in my life in some way.
On Getting Along with Family
As wonderful a person my mom is now, she was equally annoying during my childhood. She had little parenting skills or time to devote to child rearing, so her methods of raising me were far from ideal. Her 3 modes of parenting included: Harsh Criticism of my looks and actions, Nagging, and Mocking my emotions. That coupled with the constant need to talk made living with her almost unbearable as a teen. It became almost a joke with my friends about how constant the criticism was. I could not enter or leave the house without her telling me something that was wrong with my hair, makeup or clothes. I used to work at this leather store in high school and I had this 3/4 length brown leather coat that my mom just abhorred. She nagged me about how horrible and ugly I looked every time I put it on and told me I would be better off wearing a potato sack. Anyway, one day, she finally wore me down to the point where I got fed up and I gave the coat to one of my close friends. She loved the coat too, so she began wearing it immediately. About a week later, my friend shows up at my house in the coat, and no lie, my mom starts complimenting her on how nice it looked and what a beautiful jacket it was. I just looked at my friend who knew my plight with these eyes that said “unbelievable.” She didn’t even realize it was the same garment. So, at this point in high school I decided that she just had a need to constantly criticize me and no matter how hard I tried, or what I wore, it wouldn’t stop the frequency or intensity of the insults.
I’m embarrassed to say that by the end of college, the two of us had regular screaming matches with each other. I just wanted her to leave me alone and she refused. I had enough self esteem issues without her compounding them by telling me every day that I looked ugly. Thanks mom, I think you’re fat and ugly too. To top it off, her fashion advice was at least 40 years out of date. No mom, for the 1000th time, I’m not going to cut my hair short and get a perm and you best keep that fluorescent pink old lady lipstick away from me as well.
Then one day, my godparents came to town for my college graduation. Desperately seeking an ally, I turn to my godmother every time my mom says something cruel or idiotic to me. She doesn’t deny the cruelty, but just says to me: LET IT GO. JUST AGREE WITH HER. Now my godmother would never admit to this, but she also lived with her elderly mom and I’m sure a good bit of “advice” was dispensed to her as well. She learned over the years how to listen without taking things to heart or let it upset her. It was then I realized that moms just want to help and that my defiance just made her want to “help more” ie, nag and criticize.
The funny thing is that the less I battled her about her “advice”, the less frequently it was dispensed. I’d even say that now, I listen to the batty things she says and often get something useful out of those lessons. Somehow she learned not to target me but to talk about life in general. It no longer was a personal attack but her own narrative on life and living. At the end of the day, all my mom wanted was for me to listen to her. Perhaps the attacks on my looks were the only thing I actually responded to, so she latched onto that topic for good or bad.
On Being Alone
When I was about 11 years old, I used to babysit for a next door neighbor. She had a friend who she hung out with who was a garbageman. He was probably in his late 20’s, single and he was always in a happy mood. On one perfect summer day, I was laying out in the yard next door and as he was leaving her place, he asked me if I wanted to tag along. I asked who he was going with and he said no-one, unless I wanted to go too. I kept flashing back to that table for 1 scene from the Jerk because I then said “You’d go to the lake ALONE?” He responded, “Of course. If I waited until I had someone to do stuff with 100% of the time, I’d miss out on a lot of life.” I did end up going to the lake with him that day and it was a great day. I don’t recall any other meaningful stuff that was said, but that statement forever burned into my memory. I think this guy must have been what the garbageman character from Dilbert was based off of.
Thank you Mr. Garbageman. Sorry I don’t remember your name but because of you, I’ve experienced countless things I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you. Going to the Movies, hiking, biking, shopping or having a nice dinner alone does not make you a loser. Since most of my jobs required and still require that I do overnight stays, that often becomes my “me” time and I try to get out and do things while I’m alone because I don’t have a ton of time to do them otherwise.
On Getting Through Tough Times
College by far was the most stressful time in my life. I was way over my head academically (thanks crappy catholic school education) and I had to work 30+ hours a week to have the privilege to go there. My first two years playing catch up were very very difficult. It was a philosophy class that gave me the tag line that I needed to push through. Thank you Nietzsche for the phrase: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Although it was still a bit of a cliche back then, it was long before the days of the phrase turning into a pop hit on heavy rotation.
I repeated that statement over and over and told myself that this misery has a purpose and that I wasn’t just some masochist torturing myself for no reason. There was a carrot at the end of it and it was a degree, a good job and a better life. To top it off, it will make me a better person to boot because I have some perspective on what real hardship is like.
My dad was a gigantic a-hole racist and a die hard communist. Growing up, he would regularly tell me that Bill Cosby didn’t deserve to be a millionaire and what kind of country is this where a black man (edited to the cleaner version) could be rich and he was poor. Well, dad, first off, he works and you don’t. He’s educated and you’re not. He has passion and drive and you have bitterness and jealousy. He has goals and you gamble and drink. I’m almost glad that his racism was so over the top because it made it seem that much more ridiculous to me. The fact that someone’s origins were enough to disqualify them from deserving a better life was nonsensical to me. He felt the same way about my mom by the way. She wasn’t as good as him because she was a peasant farmer.
It was my dad that taught me that a feeling of entitlement to something you haven’t earned just leads to heartache. If you want something, then go get it. Don’t feel jilted for not having a certain kind of life…make the most of the life you have and be happy for it. He was miserable because he wanted so much more for himself but didn’t want to put in the work to get there. Either be happy with less work and a more humble existence or get off your ass, work hard and achieve those dreams. Complaining about his horrible life and horrible family from the comfort of his arm chair didn’t actually change anything. It’s one thing to vent, but feeling sorry for yourself while doing nothing about it achieves nothing but deeper despair.
On Self Esteem
Well, you may already know where some of my self esteem issues come from, which was my mother’s constant criticism of me. The other not so subtle thing that traumatized me as a child was forcing me to have short hair and dressing me like a boy. Apparently, when I was really little my mom used to dress me in the cutest little dresses but once I got older, she got more practical and dressed me like the tomboy I was. After years of hearing the phrase “are you a boy or a girl?” it had an effect on my sense of self. It wasn’t until I was taller than my mom and I could physically wrestle the scissors out of her hands that she finally relented and let me grow my hair long. At age 11, I started babysitting and bought my first pair of jeans and the rest was history..but there was a another key piece to the puzzle as well that involved a girl.
Right about the time I won the battle of growing my hair long and looking more girlish, an immigrant girl came to the US from Poland. Since I spoke Polish, the teacher had asked me to take her under my wing. We sat together. Man, she was about as stereotypical Polish as it got. She was overweight, she had a big round head, a dorky haircut and to top it off, she had a giant brown mole on her face. Maybe it was cruel, but I was like…finally someone dorkier than me. I was relieved I may get some respite from the teasing at school because now there was another dorky girl in class. As I saw her learn English and gain confidence, she quickly transformed. I was amazed by what I saw. After a short while, there were boys bringing her flowers. She had lots of friends. My god, she became popular! Meanwhile, I was still a dorky, gawky and unpopular wretch. So I started watching her. What was her secret? At first, I would imitate her. She was outgoing…I was not. She went out of her way to talk to people, I did not. What did I do? I forced myself to talk to people instead of receding into myself. She was confident, I was not. What did I do? I faked it. I pretended like I was worth something. I pretended that I was cute, confident and interesting. I looked people in the eyes instead of averting them. I didn’t want to go through life being a big loser and if I had the power to change it, I would. You know what? It frickin worked. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I transformed myself in the matter of months and that new sense of self has been with me ever since. I’m by no means saying you should be a phoney, but with self esteem issues, you often have to pretend like you can and will achieve something despite the fact that your brain is telling you the opposite is true. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone inevitably leads to growth. Faking it til you get there has worked well for me.
I still fake it til this day. Friends tell me how confident I seem. I’m still as self conscious as ever about some things, but I fake it until I build the confidence to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. I stress the things I’m good at and downplay my weaknesses and it works most of the time. The self deprecating behavior still comes out once in a while, but I’ve trained myself to ignore the negative talk as much as possible and you know what? I’m happier for it.
So, that’s all for today. Part 2 will be about things I’ve learned since starting my career. I’d love to hear your life changing moments and if you have a blog, please do a post on your own as well.