Chapter 12: I am not green
We often find it difficult to believe compliments. Someone offers one and we make excuses or noises of embarrassed gratitude. A compliment to our clothing results in “This old thing?” A compliment to our hair produces a startled, “I didn’t do anything to it!” We brush it off. We don’t believe it. We don’t take it to heart.
On the other hand, someone throws a critical comment at us and it sticks like glue in our minds, often long after our critic has forgotten the off-handed remark. A casual “What happened to your hair today?” can make us want a haircut immediately. “Have you gained a little weight?” sends us spiraling into doubt and fear, and can even spark self-abusive weight loss cycles.
It’s not just our appearance that’s subject to such frightful scrutiny; our personalities are just as vulnerable. We get into an argument with a partner, and they spout a particularly hurtful comment. Suddenly, we’re hurt or angry; whatever we were feeling has been amplified. Doubt creeps in, and we think, “Am I really like that?”
The answer is simple: no, you’re not.
The person saying those hurtful words isn’t actually talking about you. They’re talking about their perception of you, filtered through their own issues, paradigm, and opinions. These opinions often fluctuate when anger takes control.
It’s like a little voodoo doll created to look vaguely like you. When that person says hurtful things, they’re not directly hurting you. They’re making statements about their concept of you, which is often very different from the actual you. They’re sticking pins in that voodoo doll and you’re saying “Ouch!” but it only hurts if you believe that the voodoo doll is actually you. For cases where the hurtful person doesn’t know what they’re talking about, you can break the chain of hurt by breaking the link between you and the voodoo doll.
Kyeli’s Story: Drawing Down the Lightning
When my friend Margaret was going through some major life changes, her brother Paul treated me badly. He was scared, felt like he was losing Margaret, and needed someone to foot the blame. He chose me to bear the brunt of his attacks because I was fiercely protecting her and was an easy target. I don’t actually remember the things he said, but I certainly remember the feelings his words inspired in me: fear, hurt, sorrow, self-doubt. I was letting him have power over me, letting his words control my emotions, even letting him affect my self-image!
Pace and I talked about this a lot. Pace said that Paul wasn’t actually attacking me; he was attacking a voodoo doll of me and I was saying “Ouch!” every time he stuck a pin in. That made sense, but was hard for me to fully understand. Later, another friend said that it was like Paul was saying I was green. However, I’m not actually green, and no amount of him saying so would make it true.
Suddenly, all the talk of voodoo dolls and weird colors sunk in — I am not green!
When Paul got angry, he needed to vent. I was loud and on the front line, like a lightning rod, so he got angry at me. He made me his scapegoat. I felt hurt and scared. I gave him power over me when I allowed his words to hurt me. Then I realized that what matters most is how we see ourselves. Having a strong sense of self enables us to avoid letting other people have power over us, in anger or in any situation.
When we get into arguments, tempers flare. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean, or our partner says things they don’t mean. Once something has been said, it’s not easy to let go or forget. We have a tendency to hold tightly to the hurtful things someone says about us long after the anger has dissipated. Sometimes, those insidious words will linger in our minds for a long time, months or even years, and can damage our self-esteem. For example, if someone says, “You can’t write worth a damn!” in the heat of an argument, the next time you sit down to write, you may think about that. Your ability to write may be affected by the harsh words of another person, even when those words are completely untrue!
Next time someone says hurtful things to you, imagine they’re saying you’re green or sticking pins in a voodoo doll made to look like you. Feel the separation between you — the actual you that you are — and your attacker’s perception of you. If you vividly imagine the person being insulted as someone other than your actual self (a voodoo doll, a green person, or something else clearly not you), it can help you feel that separation. Feeling the separation empowers you and enables you to avoid taking harsh words too personally. More than likely, it’s not even about you. As in Kyeli’s story, the other person is probably saying those words for their own reasons rather than because the words are true.