From the time I entered first grade, my goal was to excel in school. I did whatever it took to “be the best.” In second grade, it was the Bee Chart. With the Bee Chart you received a star for each activity you completed in math, spelling and reading. I remember my pride in filling up that chart with stars by the end of the school year!
This continued throughout school. In sixth grade my best friend called me teacher’s pet, telling me that if it weren’t for this one teacher I wouldn’t be getting straight A’s. When he left mid-year and I continued my perfect grades, there was not much she could say.
Straight A’s came at a cost. My strategy was to figure out what the teacher wanted, and perform to those expectations. It all was so easy. Or so I thought. What did I give up with my compliance? An investigation into what was best for me. A clear understanding of what I wanted for my life, and who I really was. Maybe this happens in some way for all teenagers. But not so good when I carried it through into my adult life. Not to say that I was completely oblivious. When issues rise to the point of personal crisis, I stand up, speak out. But also turn and run. Or hide myself away – bury myself down under – so that no one can see the scared little me.
How do I respond to others when I feel overwhelmed or inadequate or unheard or invisible? I remember a time back in high school when my best friend Janet told me that some people perceived me as cold and aloof. Better than others. This was from the popular girls. The popular girls! I was devastated because I really felt so alone, and “less than.” How could this be?
Back in July, my work world began to unravel. Decisions were made that had a significant impact on my department, my working relationships, and my personal life. Through the next seven months, I could not understand what was happening to me. Why people were sarcastic to me, snapped at me, ignored me, would not talk directly to me about issues they were having with the transition process I was leading. I was doing the best I could, and trying to improve the process and support people as we moved along. However, I lived in fear of making even the slightest mistake – afraid I would be called on the carpet, punished, once again. Every day of going to work was a torture that I thought I was living through quietly.
During a recent performance review, my boss asked me to look at my communications in the midst of interpersonal conflict, and my anger – how I created barriers to interpersonal communication, and withdrew my support from others. That is how some people I worked with perceived me. Over-asserting myself. He termed it as “dismissive” while I saw it as “providing information.” He thought I was probably pretty skilled at staying out of conflict situations.
There was something in his words that took me back to that high school conversation with my friend. How I protect myself. How I keep myself safe. And how that does affect other people. My power. My shadow side. Hmmmm. That I do have power. We always do, whether we see it or not. I am not sure about the anger part. Perhaps it manifests as frustration because I feel I am not being seen, heard, understood. Over-asserting is my small, hopeful self saying, “I matter too,” when I feel no one cares.
One thing about this work process. Through all the difficulties, I did practice standing up for myself. Speaking up about what I needed. Looking at how to balance personal and work needs. So there was a lot of conflict during that time. I was not seen as the A+ student of the past. My performance review certainly was not stellar. And this has been a dark time in my life. However, this has also been a period of growth and discovery. A time for me to stretch my vocal chords and see how that feels. A time to sing my own song, and challenge what I see as a narrow band of acceptable behaviors.
Where will this take me? I don’t know. I can’t see into my future, but I will settle for living the moment as close to authentic as I can muster. Sometimes we squeak. Sometimes we roar. And sometimes we just have to take a moment to breathe.