I stood cowering in the middle of the mall, as my fifty-five year-old chain-smoking boss spoke harshly, angrily, an inch from my face. Her blue eyes turned to ice and narrowed, she hissed threats, her hot, tobacco-and-death-reeking breath penetrating my nose. Humiliated, scared and disgusted, I took it, without taking a step back or saying a single word. I was shaken and upset the rest of my shift at the MAC Cosmetics counter, and I cried my eyes out the moment I got home.
“What am I missing here?” the woman of the house, a fearsome, formidable New York Jew demanded of me. I was her household manager, employed to drive her youngest to his sports practices, cook dinner, do laundry and other chores five days a week. Their dryer was broken, blowing cold air, making it impossible for me to get through more than one load of laundry per shift. The implication was that I was showing up late, trying to jam all responsibilities into a short amount of time and rip her off for the full amount. Frozen with fear, I managed to stammer out that maybe something was wrong with the dryer, eyes averted, heart pounding. We went through this kind of song-and-dance frequently, she and I. I would make a mistake and she would skewer me in that unabashed east coast style while I trembled and took it. I cried and raged a lot about her at home.
“So…even though I had a great time with you last weekend, I’m going for someone else. Sorry.” Crushed by this news after a fantastic date that had concluded with the most intense sexual chemistry of my life up to then, I projected an insouciant reserve. “Feel better now?” I asked lightly. Relieved he’d got off so easily, we hung up after a few minutes of small talk. Sick with the knowledge I wouldn’t be getting anymore of him, I paced restlessly for the rest of the afternoon. How could I have let him slip away without so much as a word?
This is how I lived. Anyone could do or say anything to me and I would take it without protest, without reaction, most of the time. I would not stand up for myself. I would not speak up for myself. I seemed to be physically unable to speak when faced with conflict or confrontation, and frozen emotionally for sure. Sometimes I believed I deserved it. Sometimes I reacted too slowly to engage. All of the time I believed everyone else’s thoughts, opinions and feelings mattered more than my own.
Friends left me because of it, feeling a lack of connection to me because of my inability (or was it stubborn unwillingness?) to show emotion. Others took advantage of it, using me as an emotional punching bag, or treating me with a lack of regard. And why wouldn’t they? I was never going to say anything, challenge or question anything.
During my upbringing, I learned that silent reserve held power, that emotions meant lack of control, and the riskiest of all states, vulnerability. The vulnerable people got picked on by mean girls like me at school. The openly emotional people were chewed up and spit out, revealing much that could be used against them. And besides, when you had feelings, how could you avoid being totally consumed by them? It was be overcome by emotion and get creamed by peers or feel nothing and enter the safest state of all–a smooth, reflective surface. There was no nuance, and I had little understanding. Just, crisis or blankness.
It didn’t work, of course. Refusing to engage isolated me from others and tore me apart inside my head. I would replay every moment of every conversation of every day in my mind, picking it apart for fuck-ups on my part, castigating myself for my myriad flaws and missteps. I would access the words and sentiments later, much later, that could have helped me navigate conflict, but never try them in real time. It drove my boyfriend insane. “Would you just at least say one word in your own defense?” he would beg. “I can’t,” I would reply, head down. Total, self-protective bullshit.
I’m different now. In fact, those who didn’t know me back in my doormat days are shocked I ever was one. I’m forthright and direct. People who aren’t from the east coast think I am. I’m assertive, and I make my expectations known. I make eye contact and I ask for clarification. I challenge what I don’t agree with, and I force myself to say the difficult things, to take the risk. My self-confidence has increased dramatically, and my sense of self has started to crystallize. The more I stand up, the safer and more connected I feel. My footing feels solid, which creates a sense of trust in my perceptions and reactions.
You see, power and control turned out to be meaningless in isolation. They became twin prisons that held me captive, apart from others. Eventually, a stunning lack of trust revealed itself to be the root cause of my troubles.
Taking a combined beginner’s kung-fu/self-defense class empowered me to take the first steps toward trust in myself. It made me feel strong and aware of my physical personhood. It helped me develop a set of conflict-resolution skills, both physical and verbal.
I started hanging out with a new friend who spoke her mind directly, in a refreshingly unvarnished yet self-composed way. I took notes. I tried out some of her language and it worked. People listened, and made room for my perceptions.
I got a job in an office with highly-educated intellectuals, who displayed a dispassionate, scientific approach to conflict–everyone threw out their ideas, and argued without emotion for their point of view. I engaged, and was surprised to find open discussion with space for all voices.
These experiences were gorgeously concurrent and taught me how to elevate myself from doormat to person.
A drunk man stepped up to us at a show, leering as he made a proposition–dance with him and his wife would fuck him good tonight. I waved my hand dismissively in his face. Snarling how dare I, he advanced…and was met halfway by my full 5’2 frame, eyes-blazing, challenge issued: “How dare you walk up to us and say such inappropriate things! Walk away right now.” *Poof*, he was gone.
A member of the executive team couldn’t seem to stop criticizing my clothing to my face or behind my back. Twenty years my senior, she devolved to ringleader of the office mean girls, me her main target. Catching a passive-agressive email she’d sent about my clothing not meant for me, I walked right into her office and asked what gives. When she leveled her gaze on me and accused me of lack of professionalism as evidenced by my hemlines, I asserted that on my current salary I wouldn’t be splurging on new work wear. In fact, if it was so required, why didn’t she spring for my wardrobe makeover? A week later we were at the mall together, me in the role of dress-up doll, her wallet open.
“You’re attacking my character,” I wrote, “and if that’s who you think I am, you have no business being friends with me.” I was responding to a blindsiding, vicious attack email I’d received from a close friend. My first instinct was to apologize and validate her feelings, and thereby subsume her perceptions into my self-image. But that was old, and I’d moved on. I told her we’d have to step out of the electronic communication bubble and into face-to-face engagement. She refused, and I saw there a flash of the pain of being a doormat, and felt a surge of gratitude that I’d leapt out into the risk, into trust and life.
This is how it looks now, and I’m never going back.