Over the past several weeks, I’ve had conversations with four very different women, from four entirely different backgrounds, at four very different stages in their life journeys, all of whom, for very different reasons, regrettably found themselves confronted with virtually the same unfortunate predicament: Someone in their lives who professes (or once professed) to care about them either already is disparaging (or is threatening to disparage) them to others in their respective circle of friends or colleagues and, in one instance, in the eyes of the public, by vindictively spreading falsehoods about them, impugning their integrity or challenging their identity as person, mother, wife/ex-wife and business professional. Given their disparateness, I would have expected each of the women to have very different reactions to their situations. Oddly, however, they responded in virtually the same way. Initially, there was an almost paralyzing fear that the “audiences” to whom their respective tormentors were intent on presenting this distorted and, in some instances, blatantly false image of who the women were would actually believe the hate-filled messengers and either think less of or disassociate themselves from the women. That, in turn, engendered the second response: An all-consuming desire to strike back – to mount an aggressive “defense of self” directed first at the hate-speakers and, ultimately, at the “audience” of the hate-speak in order to “prove” that they were not the person others were intent on portraying them to be, that they were a good person, a good mother, a good wife/ex-wife, a good worker, etc., even if it meant getting down in the gutter with the venom-spewers and slinging a little (or a lot) of mud themselves.
The fear piece is easy enough to understand, I suppose. None of us want to be subjected to attack, especially when It gets personal, when it strikes at the essence of our identity, either personally or professionally or both. It’s hurtful. Over time, such attacks wear us down, play on our own insecurities, make us question ourselves and, ultimately, have the potential to heap even more shame and guilt on what too often already are shame-saturated and guilt-ridden souls. Believe me, the “haters” in these women’s lives (in all of our lives for that matter) know these things and use them to their advantage. They are consummate manipulators. They wield shame, guilt and fear like Thor wielded his hammer. The question, in my mind, is why do we “insist” on vesting others with so much power over us? Why do we do allow what others’ think about us, rightfully or wrongfully, to have such a profound impact on our view of ourselves? Why does what others do or say matter so much, let alone drive us right into the dirt with them – slingshots in hand? Moreover, what could possibly be gained by our striking back? What “standard” is there that will enable us to “prove” to others, let alone those predisposed to believing what they will, that we are a good mother/father, a good wife/husband (or ex-wife/ex-husband as the case may be), a desirable boyfriend/girlfriend, a competent, if not exceptionally talented, employee? And how will we measure whether our “defense of self campaign” has “succeeded”? The point is there is no such standard (at least none that I’m aware of), nor does any yardstick exist for measuring such “successes.”
What is the alternative? Here’s my suggestion: Take a deep breath and a big step back. Then, putting humility on the shelf for a moment, pick up a pen and a piece of paper and, under the heading “What I Know To Be True About Me,” take an honest inventory of all the positive attributes of your non-physical, authentic self. My inventory, for example, included the following: “I’m courageous. I’m honest. I’m sensitive and responsive to others’ needs. I care. I’m compassionate and empathetic. I have the ability to inspire and motivate others and to instill a sense of hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances. I’m resourceful and a good problem solver. I’m creative and a good writer. I have a good sense of humor and am able to see the humorous in life. I am faith in action. I’m bright. I’m a good dad. I have the capacity to be a good and loyal friend. I’m a good kisser (just had to throw that in there!?!). I’m passionate and persistent. I’ve become a good listener and more patient. I try not to be judgmental. I am other-centered and good at giving. I’m a little weird at times – and a lot more imperfect than I first realized (ouch! – not gonna lie, it wasn’t easy putting those last 9 words on paper!!!). I’m warm and unselfish.” Here’s the key: Those who know you best and love you most, know these things to be true about you – and that’s all that matters – that and that you know and believe them to be true and that you cling to them when you are under attack, whether it be by another person or an equally insidious and powerful adversary like addiction, an eating disorder, loneliness or depression. Because, chances are, you will never be able to prove them to those who are unwilling or unable to see the truth about you or, worse yet, who see it, but are commitment to obscuring or trying to destroy it.