When we speak to others from our trauma, we set them on the wrong course in their attempts to right a wrong. It is very selfish of us to do so but so human and so default at the same time. It is a testament to one’s emotional maturity to speak from experience and learning, and not trauma and anger.
The other day someone approached me. She was ready to report behavior that she perceived as harassment and, instead of coming to her aid with the lessons that my 45 years of age have taught me, I allowed all of my bruises and past abuse to show and affect me, made it my battle and forgot that there are rules in this game we might hate but that have to be followed, or the very important message we have does not get across. Realizing this in hindsight, I tried to explain my change of mind and she canceled her trust in me. Instantly. With a bang. All she heard was “I am invalidating your pain and I am not supportive.” I get her reaction. I probably would have had a similar one way back when. And also … what I was going to say is hard to explain as the right path. It is a piece of truth that makes many women angry – me included. But still … truth.
The truth is that women cannot afford to react impulsively to misoginism, harassment and bad behavior. Not today, at least. Not in this country. This is something that, through repeated hit and miss I have learned to reluctantly accept. There are small steps being made to undo the inequalities, the disrespect and the very, very hurtful unfairness. But the reality remains painfully unfair – women continue to have to first educate about how behavior is perceived and then react, carefully minding that as well. The road to normalizing the idea that women might see things differently than men and react strongly remains painstakingly long.
In my thirty years working, alongside four employers and many collaborators, instances of abuse varied from being yelled and thrown things at, to the boss telling me that being groped by his business partner in an elevator is no big deal and that I should get used to it if I want to make it in business. Even though it has been twenty five years, I vividly remember being told that I will lose my job if I don’t go to a party with a certain gentleman, and later, that, even though I was the brain behind an idea or presentation, my boss was “the man” of the office and he needs to take the lead. (Spoiler: I did not make it in business and I did not escort that sucker to the party).
It is very, VERY hard, to face the macro and micro agressions of every single day – in traffic, at home, in your extended family, among friends or at work – and be emotionally balanced in the way you react. That is, be balanced enough to consider what the best way forward is so that what you are saying is heard and that something actually changes. And tame the urge to punch someone in the face.
When a woman wants to call out inappropriate behavior, she has to be thoughtful about how she does it in order for what she says not to be overshadowed by the perception of the way communicates. It should not be the case but it is. This should not matter, but it does. Because the truth is that when a woman reacts strongly, yells in frustration, pulls up regulations or pushes hard to show a situation and demands justice, she is “over the top”, “disturbed”, “emotionally unstable”, “too much”. When a man does that, he is assertive, tough and decisive. It is unfair and it sucks. But it is the truth of the days we live, the truth of our workplaces and many times of our homes. It reminds me of my childhood, as the oldest of four kids, when the phrase I hated with a passion and heard so often was “we expected more from you; come on, be smarter than that!” (While your insides are yelling noooo, I don’t want to be smarter, I just want to throw a tantrum or give up, like everyone else!)
When a woman decides to speak up about something she finds offensive and harmful to her body or spirit, the first advice she gets is to not carry into the present the ghosts of abuse past (is that even a possibility?). Again, deeply unfair but … it this is good advice. If possible, that is. We must understand just how incredibly hard this ask is. It is an oxymoronic situation: all of the abuse, the yelling, the pushing, the grabbing, the belittling never go away. They are all mini traumas waiting to be triggered by the slightest sign of abuse. We must never forget past abuse in order to be fueled to fight so that things change and, at the same time, we have to put aside past abuse in order to be emotionally balanced and find the best way to address the new issue. It’s like trying to extinguish fire with kerosene. Oxymoronic but still, the only way.
I dream of a time when such conversations will be met with more care especially because there is a common trauma women have shared for centuries and that most certainly exists now in our DNA. That not only women be told to “be the bigger person” but that all of us pay attention to the way we relate to each other in the first place. (Imagine all the peopleee ….)
The journey from I want to get even, from I want them to feel the pain I am feeling (default, human) to I want to make a true, lasting change is uphill and full of thorns. It is unfair that only some of us have to complete this journey to be heard and taken seriously and at times it seems our actions are in vain. And sometimes they are to the larger audience. Sometimes, the difference will be felt only in that place deep inside of ourselves. And it will have to be enough.