Today, I am much smaller than I was as a child.
I was born with a really high self-esteem that carried me well into my childhood. The message that I was a “cool girl” was front and center when I looked in the mirror or thought about myself. I was fun, intelligent, and kind – desirable things to be in the 1970s. An abundance of confidence kept me focused on a bright future created by super cool me. I didn’t think that I was better than anyone else, but I believed as a child that I was just as good as everyone else and could, therefore, accomplish anything I set my mind to. I wasn’t aware of any personal flaws that could possibly hold me back from reaching all of my goals.
Then, when I was in elementary school, people started feeling it was necessary to tell me what was wrong with me – physically, and with my personality. Those powerful words that were delivered took chunks out of me and were etched into my self-esteem. I don’t know what the motivation of these people was: cruelty, stupidity, miscommunication . . . or maybe just a need to cut mighty me down to the same size as them?
In front of my third grade classmates, I was pulled out of my homeroom by my school’s speech therapist and escorted to her office. She sat me in front of a mirror next to two of the developmentally disabled boys in my school. She told all of us to look at ourselves as we said a list of words that started with “S” and “Z”. She told us we looked wrong when we talked. For the rest of the school year she repeatedly used Sally’s seashells and Sammy’s six sodas to undo my wrongness. I graduated from speech class that year, but failed to undo the “wrongness” that I see and hear when I speak.
During my middle school years I loved playing basketball. I was able to run faster and jump higher than anyone on my team. My coach felt it necessary at each practice to call attention to the fact that I was the shortest person on the team. I couldn’t handle the negative attention, so I quit the team and continued believing that my lack of stature mattered to other people.
Throughout my high school experience, teachers told me I was too creative. They didn’t appreciate that I had a unique way of processing and presenting information. My responses always seemed to land outside the lines, much to the delight of my classmates who seemed to appreciate the deviation from a dull routine that I provided. I never intended to be disruptive or mess with teachers’ lesson plans; I was just really passionate about sharing new ways of looking at things – and I also had a weird sense of humor that was easily triggered. Some teachers said I lacked the substance I needed to accomplish what was required of me. Today, I still really haven’t accomplished anything significant according to society’s standards. And yes, I am still too creative (if there is such a thing).
In college, and well into adulthood, I was told by a variety of people that nobody respects me. These comments would be delivered out of the blue like an unexpected slap in the face. I wasn’t even engaged in heated conversation at the time where someone might feel compelled to lob that comment at me to gain control in an argument. I would be minding my own business and people would pull me aside and say something like, “I need to let you know that nobody respects you.” I would think, Really? Do you need to, or does that salacious grin on your face indicate that you want to? But I would invite them to continue with their critique of me by just saying, “Okay?” And then I would be delivered a list of reasons concerning why I’m not worthy of respect. I would thank them for sharing their thoughts with me and then I would go cry in private. One time I was told that nobody respected me while I was recovering from a head injury I received in a car accident (that wasn’t my fault). The timing of the messages made no sense to me, but a common theme emerged concerning why I was supposedly unrespectable: I had my own opinions that didn’t agree with those of the people around me – or at least with the people who felt compelled to deliver me those cruel global statements.
Despite my painful history, I continued to be the kind of person that put myself out there, boldly making public statements that I felt I needed/wanted to make. Actually, I never viewed it as bold at the time. I just felt compelled to publicly share my thoughts on certain topics. When my kids were in school, I frequently stated that I thought gifted children had the right to also learn something while they’re being forced to spend time in a classroom where they’ve already mastered the material. I would find out after sharing my opinions that other people were talking negatively behind my back because they perceived my statements as “ridiculous,” “demanding,” and “bold.” It took me a while, but I finally understand now that opening my mind, then opening my mouth – or my notebook, or word.doc – makes me an easy target for people who have a built up arsenal of negative words designed to shut down an independent thinker. I am well aware that being open comes with a price to pay when you dwell among closed-minded people. But I just wasn’t designed to live in a closed box for others to put their stamp of approval on as a reward for not being disruptive to their way of thinking. My spirit would suffocate inside of a box and I don’t know how other people survive inside of theirs.
The most recent damaging word assault on me happened a few years ago. I was doing PR work for an organization and met with the board members for the first time. The Executive Director pulled me aside the following week and told me she needed to tell me something about myself. She told me that one of the board members thought I was an “exclamation mark.” It was, at the same time, the dumbest and most accurate thing anyone has ever said about me. I was about to thank the Executive Director for passing along the compliment when I realized that she was delivering the opinion of me as if she was breaking the news that I had cancer. I laughed. She didn’t. I asked if she was concerned about the board member’s assessment of me. She was very concerned – because she was one of those Directors who could not think for herself and relied on others to use that part of her brain. She said she was going to take his advice and not allow me to write articles or speak with reporters because I was too enthusiastic about the organization’s mission. Again, I was hired to do PR work for the organization, which typically requires an enthusiastic approach. I’m not surprised that I appeared to be an exclamation mark. When I was in the Board Room (a.k.a. Bored Room) among the members I felt like I was sitting in a box with a bunch of old baked potatoes (without the fun tinfoil around them), and it was clear why progress hadn’t been made in terms of getting the community to support the organization. I excitedly introduced some ideas that could take things in a healthy new direction. But, because of that one board member who felt comfortable talking negatively about me behind my back, all ideas were put on hold while I sat in a corner working on a newsletter that the Executive Director intended to edit to remove anything potentially interesting or exciting. After a few weeks, the Executive Director, who was apparently a baked potato with a bad memory, asked me why I wasn’t writing articles and interacting with the media. I just said, “I’ll get right on it.” My articles and media coverage were well received by the public and I got lots of feedback stating that it was nice to finally have a reason to be excited about the organization.
Over the years I’ve repeatedly made the mistake of taking to heart what my critics have said about me. Even though I’ve grown wise about human behavior and the tendency of weak people to tear down those who appear strong, unfortunately, I’ve allowed sharp words to whittle away at who I was designed to be. Words can be a mighty powerful tool for cutting people down to the level of their peers. I don’t blame other people for the injuries I’ve accepted or the current size of my self-esteem. I’m sure everyone has had to deal with hearing negative messages about themselves. It’s my own fault for placing so much value on the words of other people that I would allow them to destroy my desire to defend myself. When I was experiencing the media ban by the Executive Director and placed in a corner, despite the wisdom I had gained, I still allowed that experience to once again convince me that there was something wrong with me because I can’t think and behave like other people do. I’ve had enough distance from my time with that organization that I can finally look back on it and think: I seem to have a pattern of not fitting in with groups, but thank God I’m not an old baked potato that would have fit in with that group!!!!!!! (extra exclamation marks added to enthusiastically drive my point home)
This is it – my one shot at making the most of the life, the body, the mind I’ve been given. I feel fortunate that I was designed to be fun, intelligent, and kind. And I feel I have been fortunate to experience first-hand how incredibly damaging words can be. I have decided to feel gratitude for those seemingly awful experiences with other people’s words because of the resulting self-awareness they’ve provided me. I have made it my mission to use my words to encourage and build up other people whenever I have the opportunity – even when they have different opinions than I do. I believe that respecting others, no matter what they look like or what they think, is what it takes to be a truly respectable person.
Even though I know jagged words will probably continue to be thrown at me in an attempt to deflate my opinions, I intend to remain open and to continue sharing what I feel I want to put out there for public consumption. But, I do it now with an additional goal in mind: to continue building myself up, despite what anyone says, so that I can return to that grand size I once was as a child – when I believed I could accomplish anything!
I wish everyone could jump out of their boxes, dodge the words of critics, and land outside the lines feeling tall.
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© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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