A few weeks ago I wrote "Did you say Meaty Vagina? You're an Idiot" and had loads of private messages, thank-yous, and shared posts but not many women commented directly. I wrote about a scenario in which I was the only woman in a group of guys dehumanizing women, and I observed more than I spoke up. Generally I am not one afraid of confrontation and can create discomfort in others for speaking up, even sometimes creating quite the ruckus, but knowing this about myself, it is astonishing how often I do remain quiet to keep the peace or to not be labeled difficult or unruly. Sometimes I even freeze completely, cover and cower. I think the issue is that I am much more willing to speak up for others and share my own story when what I know I am doing is using my own experience to speak up for someone else too scared to share their own.
How often do you put up with inappropriate behavior? Instead of speaking up, how often do you stay quiet to avoid conflict or to protect another's feelings? The stories I could share about working as a nurse and the hostility we endure could fill volumes of books, to the extreme of gross criminal crimes acted upon towards both nurses and our patients. One of my mentors in Labor & Delivery was well-skilled, but easily intimidated, which made her prey to one of our alpha MFM-obstetricians. While she was tackling the challenging duties of a scrub nurse, she wasn't performing to the satisfaction of said-MFM so he turned over his needle driver, with needle still attached, and drove it into her palm. He should have faced attempted murder charges as he is well aware of the tenant that every client we care for has the potential for HIV, which he sunk into her own bloodstream. There were no ramifications for him whatsoever, just notes added to our training manual on how to better load a needle driver for this particular physician.
A multitude of times I faced exceedingly horrific circumstances while working as a nurse, much of which has caused a plethora of trauma that I continue to seek therapy for, but when I would approach my nursing manager, her response was always, "Yep, don't wanna hear about that." Nurses often laugh that off because what is the manager suppose to do anyway? She hasn't the power to improve staffing numbers. She hasn't the authority to create changed behavior in our physician colleagues. This culture is very differently played out than what would be acceptable outside the hospital walls. We push forward and hope for better. We remain silent, but keeping our mouths shut and swallowing dehumanizing behavior has serious and long-term consequences.
Even when the assault is simple compared to those moments above, small injustices, rude tones, lack of appreciation can erode friendships, dissolve marriages, and even destroy our health. Over the past few years, I've started to learn to pay close attention to the messages I get from my body, so I know when to take care of myself by speaking up. Admittedly, having gone from someone who always thought it was my parent's role, my partner's role, my employer's role, or my professional organization's role to protect me, it hadn't occurred to me that this person could be me... that now I more struggle with practicing restraint. Every injustice in my current relationship is shared. Every feeling is articulated. These warning signs are alarm bells which I am still learning to respond.
How about you? Do you recognize these messages from your body on when to speak up? Do you catch your breath, get tightness in your throat, or experience a flushed feeling in your face?
Your body is your ally and the more familiar you are with your body, the more you'll recognize these signals. Your barometer will tell you what is genuine and when the intentions of others are less than desirable. Consider the difference between knowing that a man is trying to charm you and knowing when a man is charming. Big difference.
Awareness can help you discern when an unsolicited criticism, a snide remark, or a sharp reprimand may need to be addressed.
What's your typical reaction to sarcasm, insensitive comments, or inappropriate behavior? Do you freeze up? Women in particular often have this response. When you get blindsided by a bully, are you stunned into silence? Later do you beat yourself up for not saying anything or spend hours thinking about how you could have responded better? Do you berate yourself for not thinking quickly enough?
My therapist recently told me that I can gaslight myself sometimes. As someone raised by a narcissist, who then married a man with autism which can resemble narcissism to partners, and then went on to endure two years of torture by yet another narcissist, her telling me that I gaslight myself was profound for me. I pride myself in being exceedingly honest, but she's right. When I am in these situations, I find myself asking, "Did he really just say that?" and "I can't imagine I heard her right?"
Here's the thing, it makes sense that we have a hard time quickly processing and reacting to a comment that goes so against our own nature.
When we #freeze many times this is the result of this experience being familiar and triggering an old response. In other words, if you had a parent or caretaker who had a tendency toward sudden outbursts, sarcasm, or humiliating you in front of others, you may have learned not to react in order to stay safe.
My narcissistic father was very much like this. His mood could change in a second, and you'd have a funny, joking father trying to make you laugh, then a monster destroying you through hurtful words and harsh punishments. My former spouse who had autism was very easily overwhelmed, and typical to the disorder, could throw fits which were traumatizing to the children so I was always on guard for changes in mood or behavior, but even more so the energy in the room. His outbursts were often aimed at me or the children, but only because we were available, in the way - so the solution was to stay out of the way, be silent, becoming invisible, and never being a burden.
Coping for me was staying silent and letting the moment pass (#metoo).
There are few things though that will erode your self-esteem though, as staying silent. Your body needs you to protect it, to step up and speak up, to feel worthy. These moments imprint in your cell memory. Extreme self-care means using your voice.
Stop & Acknowledge what just Happened
Don't stuff your anger. Before you say anything though, give yourself a minute to take in what you've heard and if it feels right, take care of yourself by walking away without engaging the person at all so you can find someone safe to talk.
Take a Deep Breath & Share What You're Thinking
Use the word "I" and say what you need to say. You might need someone to stop or to draw a clear boundary. Your needs are valid. If you call someone out and they can't take accountability, that's on them, but now you know their position about your relationship. If you share your feelings and their response is not to better understand and work towards resolution, again, you now know this isn't a healthy relationship and no future investment would be honoring to yourself.
Maybe you need to articulate that "I will not accept your speaking to me in that tone, and I need you to understand it isn't okay." Maybe you need to stop someone from embarrassing you in pubic, "I am not willing to have this conversation with you here, and I am asking you to stop so we can find a private spot."
Don't Try to Change the Other Person
Stay on your side of the issue without trying to persuade the other person to see your side. There is no need to defend yourself. If they are empathetic and invested in you, they will put in the effort to understand and resolve this matter. You simply need to express your feelings, respectfully, and what you need to have happen in order to feel respected and safe. What they do with that information is a reflection of them, not you.
Walk Away if Necessary
When you first begin doing this, like me, you may be too abrupt at times. You might stumble through the words, over explain yourself, or say the wrong things entirely. Relax - you're human, but recognize that you are showing up for yourself.
If you self-evaluate and recognize you could have been more graceful, apologize. This is part of the learning process. The important thing is that no one has the right to unload his or her frustration, stress, or "bad day" on you. A simple response such as, "Please stop; that's not okay with me," is a fine way to start the process of protecting yourself.
Another point, I must make: if the poor treatment is limited to when someone is drunk, this isn't an excuse to endure abuse "because they were drunk and didn't know better." If your partner behaves this way drunk, that is their responsibility to rectify, even if that means they can't handle their liquor and need to avoid it to remain respectful and honoring to you. This is true too of autistic behavior. My former spouse really struggled, and while his intentions were largely not about undermining or attacking me and more so about his inability to really manage his own challenges, this doesn't mean I didn't suffer. While he may not have been a perpetrator, I absolutely was a victim.
Keeping Your Self-Respect Intact
Sometimes the circumstances warrant an immediate response, and sometimes you may surmise that the most appropriate response is a punch to the throat. I get it, but be keenly aware of when your response is about a trigger, is very emotional, and is maybe more exaggerated than appropriate to the circumstances. Not always is this super clear though, because these triggers can create fight-or-flight responses, but being aware means you can catch this early in this cascade and bring yourself out of it.
If you can't think clearly, restrain yourself. If you feel like screaming, you likely need to restrain from responding. If your emotional reaction is bigger than the current situation warrants, pull yourself back. If you feel anxiety and compelled to react, this is likely all emotions. Anger does show up for us when our boundaries are crossed, and I appreciate the awareness it gives me to assess those boundaries, but responding in this scenario often means I'll say something too harsh that I'll later regret.
Growth is in recognizing our ability to make better choices as we heal. Close your eyes and breathe. Practice mindfulness. Practice pranayama. Practice yoga. Find a safe place to vent. Don't choose people who fuel your drama. Get more information. Ask questions. Make sure you have the facts. Protect your relationships by stepping back, but also, this preserves your self-respect.
Share with me times you've spoken up. What steps have you taken to speak your voice?