I remember a girl from Junior High. Gail. She was picked on, had no real friends. “Bullied” would maybe be the term we’d use now, but back then she was blamed: mocked, alienated. Gail invited me over a couple times. I went because I knew she was lonely. She was angry and negative, spoke badly about everyone. It was hard to be around her for very long. At the time, I wondered if she had always been that way or if she had become that way because of how others treated her.
I’ve only experienced social isolation twice in my lifetime. Neither experience was great, but the first was definitely the worst. I was 22 and working at a bank. My supervisor, Connie, decided she didn’t like me. She was a bully, the kind whose behaviour is tolerated because of familiarity and fear. She’s had a hard life. That’s just her way. I was the new girl, great at investment banking and terrible at balancing the till. My weakness was her target. Every day, I’d watch the sun set while I tried to find that missing 10 cents. Every day, I’d be out again. Nobody helped and Connie never relented. A university education and you can’t even count! Sneering comments were whispered about me, angry orders yelled at me. I remember going home one day and sitting in front of my mom, breaking down. What do I do? She had no answer. So, I’d walk to work each morning feeling like I was going to throw up. And I’d walk home every night filled with self-loathing, the un-balanced till repeating itself day after day. It didn’t matter if I sold a record amount of RRSPs in a week. The till – and Connie – mocked me. Eventually, I started to believe what was said to me – I am dumb, I always make mistakes, I can’t do anything right.
What saved me in that situation was a mentor. Martha. She and I would meet every week for coffee and conversation. She’d teach me about life and relationships and the things that really mattered. One day, I told her what was happening. So, she gave me a tool: Take a small agenda with me to work (this was before we had cell phones), write sayings that I could look at when the day got too much, and keep the agenda at my work station. Some of my favourite scrawled mantras were – This too shall pass…You are loved…You are smart enough and strong enough. Every time I was attacked, I’d go to my agenda and read those words. The words gave me confidence, a little bit re-gained every day. I began to stand up for myself, to take the hits and respond with calmness and confidence. I got better at my job, it became harder for her to find flaws. I still struggled with that damn till but I’d learned ways to succeed even in an area of obvious weakness. In the end, I moved on to a job that was a better fit. A new manager eventually joined the bank and cleaned house. Connie and her gang of fearful followers were let go.
As a young adult, that experience could have shaped my life – my beliefs about who I was and what I was capable of. What saved me was what I let myself think each day: The conversations in my head about me and about my worth.
I went on for decades without ever having to deal with a situation like that again. I grew more and more into someone I am very proud of, facing other obstacles and overcoming them with strength and grace. Not that long ago, I was targeted again, different reasons, same tactics. Luckily, I had skills to manage the attacks, borne from resilience and experience. I knew that what people say to us and about us does not define us. I refused to let what was being said about me become the story in my head. And it all passed. As bullying always does when we don’t give it power over us. This too shall pass.
I have lived enough and learned enough to say – nobody does great things without somebody opposing you. And, this is important: There is always a grain of truth in every lie that you are told. That’s why the lie works. Maybe you like to make sure that what you organize has the stamp of excellence: To one, that is responsible leadership; to another, micro-management. Perhaps you are single-mindedly competitive, able to block out everything for your goal: To some, that is inspirational; to others, ruthless. Maybe you are an emotional person: For one, that is passion; for the other, rage. Every good thing is flawed, touched by imperfections. That doesn’t make you bad or wrong. It makes you human.
If you want to do great things, decide what your story will be. Decide which story about yourself that you will believe. Celebrate your gifts and acknowledge your flaws. Always control the story in your head about who you are, and – if you can – surround yourself with at least one person who gets you. Because we are all great. We are our own amazing tale. Even if nobody else sees it. Yet.
Dedicated to Martha and Todd.