One of the things middle age is teaching me is to have really strong boundaries. It’s important to be kind and loving, but it’s also important to remember that this starts by being kind and loving to myself.
But I let my guard down yesterday and found myself interacting with a pair of people who have proven themselves to be dangerous to my sense of self in the past.
In the course of just an hour, these people, who know me well, managed to attack:
- The value of the work I do each day
- How I parent my children
- My core beliefs about accepting others
- The quality of my education/my intelligence
- The economic lifestyle my family lives
- My ability to teach others
- Whether I have earned the good things that have come my way
Honestly, the only thing they didn’t seem to attack about me and my life is my appearance. I have to assume they just forgot to hit this point, but I will be working very hard not to give them the opportunity to pile on this criticism in the future!
Yesterday, I was proud of myself. I handled the situation with more calm and gracefulness than I would have in my twenties or thirties, when I would have met their behavior with a string of crying hysterics and screaming, followed by hours of arguing with myself about my self-worth.
But this morning, I woke up feeling pounded. I honestly felt like a death had occurred, and I knew I needed to take some steps to work through the pain I had experienced. If I ignored it, it would surface later in more negative ways.
I talked to a couple of trusted people about what had happened, trying to keep my story succinct and not to dwell too much on the awfulness of specific attacks. I took a walk with my dog when the sun unexpectedly broke through outside. I ate some cheese and some Cocoa Krispies (don’t worry, not at the same time, and not to excess).
Then, as I began to feel better, I shifted to asking myself: What do I do with this? What can I learn and how can this negative experience, which has the potential to absolutely throttle me, help me to be and do better? How do I take the bad and turn it into good?
Here, for your viewing pleasure, is what I came up with:
- Remember the power of words and honor that power. The people who attacked me are not healthy people. They choose to use their words to tear down and hurt. How I choose to use my words matters and there are consequences that come with my decisions. I have so many opportunities each day to use my words for good – in the work that I do, in the young people that cross my path through my children, and also through my writing. I will be intentional and use my words to uplift others. This will be a legacy for me – the positive seeds that I plant in other people will outlive me.
- Be especially mindful of the words that I say to my family. In the teen years, it is tempting to think that children sometimes need blunter, harsher words in order to help them see a point. This, of course, is not true. Teenagers need kind words. They need to be uplifted, as they continue the hard work of developing their own sense of self. I will speak those words to my family, and especially my teenagers.
- Resist the urge to choose isolation over connection. Now that I am in my forties, I am starting to see people around me choose isolation at times when they would benefit from choosing to connect with others. In this age, it is tempting to feel frustrated with the failings of others. We wonder if we should, instead, protect ourselves by pulling back from friends, family and society as a whole. An isolated life can seem safer. After all, if we don’t trust in others, we will never be disappointed in them. The people who spewed their anger at me yesterday are isolated, lonely people. This is the life they have chosen for themselves. And it is a jaw-dropping cautionary tale. I will choose connection, even when isolation might initially feel tempting to an introvert like me.
- Choose acceptance. The people who railed against me yesterday did so because they want me to conform to their views and their attitudes. Oddly, they would likely be kinder to me if I mirrored their misery. My life doesn’t look like theirs – it’s more abundant in opportunity, in connection and in the work that I do. I do not operate from fear as they do. I don’t say this in arrogance, but simply to recognize the mindset they were likely in when they spoke their hurtful words. I don’t like what they said, obviously. I will make decisions going forward to try to prevent these people from being in situations where they can speak such words to me again. But I also accept them, where they are. They will not change – in fact, odds are excellent that their behavior will escalate even more than it already has. I accept that for what it is. I do not get to be surprised that they are the people they have repeatedly shown me they are. I accept them, just as they are.
This morning, I felt completely exhausted because of the verbal assault I experienced yesterday. But now, I am beginning to feel renewed – like I can take the negative and learn from it, using it as fuel to do better and be better. If every day was an easy one, we would likely never learn.
What have you learned from toxic people?