A few months ago, I received an email from someone I had never met before. It was right in between Christmas and New Years’, and upon reading it, my experience of it went something like this:
The author of this email chose to reach out to me regarding my relationship between me and a good friend because they had some apparent issues with our friendship, which they seemed to believe had interfered with their relationship. In that email, I was called immature. I was called unprofessional and accused of lacking appropriate boundaries. I was made aware of ongoing concerns this individual had about me as a person.
Based on this individual’s impression of me, I sounded like a horrible person.
Oh man, I ruined the relationship between my friend and this other person. I feel awful. I feel guilty. I started sobbing. I deserve this mean email, don’t I? Clearly, I did something wrong and hurt this person. I deserve to let them hurt me in return; it’s only fair. They have to teach me a lesson, right?
But…this feels inappropriate. I stop crying. Does this really even have anything to do with me? I mean, I think they might be kind of out of line here…but it’s my job to discern what I can learn from this because there’s obviously something I’ve done to upset this person.
I feel blood rushing to my cheeks. Actually…I can’t believe this person sent this to me. What the hell? This feels uncalled for. I don’t even know how to respond. Maybe I just won’t. Maybe I’ll just suck it up and move on, just like I always have…
This is a rough recollection of my immediate thought process upon reading this email. It lasted, oh I don’t know, maybe ten minutes. If that.
As I read this email, I felt a well-known stomach-clenching sensation – that punched-in-the-gut feeling I experience every time someone accuses me of doing something wrong. Sometimes, the words hit so hard I feel physically nauseous, as if I had actually taken a blow to my core.
I was tempted to take a familiar track of response: recognize (half-heartedly) that their words have less to do with me and more to do with their own experiences and perspectives, then try to push it aside or stamp it down and move on, without standing up for myself.
… … …
It’s easier that way, isn’t it – to read something like that, say, “This is bullshit,” and just pretend like it didn’t happen? This way, I avoid confrontation and can move on before the other person has the chance to say any other hurtful words to me.
Or, on the other hand, it can feel satisfying to send an emotional and confrontational response to ‘put someone in their place’…although the few times I’ve done this, the satisfaction has been extremely short-lived and ultimately made things worse in the long run.
Consequently, I tend to choose the former option – moving on as quietly and subtly as possible.
But for every time I’ve silently let things go to avoid confrontation, not standing up for myself has actually had detrimental consequences: it ends up reinforcing the other person’s beliefs about me, leading me to internalize their messages as my own. Very rarely did anyone else stand up for me in these situations, so those negative and hurtful messages were the only social feedback I was receiving about myself.
I began to believe that: I am selfish. I am immature. I am too emotional. I am being unreasonable. I am a bad ally. I am a bad leader. I am a bad person.
I believed that I deserved every mean word, every punch to the gut, every moment of social isolation I endured; and I never stood up for myself because I didn’t believe I was justified in doing so. No one else seemed to think I was worthy of standing up for, so I must not be.
… … …
Let’s hop back to this recent email: you can imagine how ripe an opportunity this was for my own growth as I stared at that note two months ago. And I am all about opportunities for growth! As I contemplated if and how to respond, I looked at the well-worn path of my usual reaction. I already started hearing the distant echoes of those old painful voices, beckoning me to walk towards them in self-loathing. I felt my body grow heavier as I prepared to set off on this trail again.
But then, I saw a second option – a path I had never seen before, only revealed to me now because, for the first time in my life, I knew those messages I had internalized were not true. This time, equipped with a newfound self-love and self-confidence, I chose the path less traveled.
… … …
So now let me re-recount this note after adequately processing and seeking counsel and support from my parents, sisters, and close friends:
A few months ago, I received an email from someone I had never met before. This person chose to reach out to me regarding my relationship between me and a good friend, which had nothing to do with the author of this email; nonetheless, they had some apparent issues with our friendship, and seemed to be blaming me for challenges in their relationship with this mutual friend. In their email, I read accusations of immaturity, lack of professional boundaries, lack of courtesy, and selfishness – all coming from a person who has never met me.
I repeat: a person who has never met me.
I read an email from a person in deep pain, trying to figure out how to solve the issues in a relationship that clearly means a great deal to them. Sadly, one of their attempts to fix it was by recruiting me to take the blame for something that wasn’t my fault and had nothing to do with me.
I can see where this person is coming from, but I nonetheless experienced their email as infantilizing, disrespectful, and targeting. The things this person said about me were not true. They never asked for my perspective on the situation in question, but instead made assumptions about me, my character, and my intentions based solely on their own perception. I did not detect any desire to actually converse or resolve the issues at hand; rather, I felt like a punching bag, nothing more than a target for whatever feelings or challenges were arising in their life and relationship.
After spending two days regaining my stability and carefully crafting a response that was respectful yet firm, validating yet boundaried, I sent this person an email in return. I let them know that I heard them, what my perspective and experience were, and how I felt based on the words they said. I finished by asking them to please not contact me again.
And then, I walked away.
And you know what? I felt more empowered than I have ever felt before. I got to stand up for myself and focus on me and my experience of how someone else is treating me – something that I have only recently learned to do for myself.
Sending that email wasn’t about putting this person in their place or convincing them that I didn’t do anything wrong. It was actually about my reinforcing to myself that I am valuable, that the things they accused me of in their email weren’t true, and that I am worth standing up for!
I am worth stating my value to someone who tries to take it away from me. I am worth standing up for the truth of who I am to someone who tries to impose their perception onto me. I am worth standing up for that wounded little girl inside me to someone who tries to heap their pain onto her and make her carry their load.
Not every situation begs for me to stand up for myself; sometimes, it really is best to simply walk away. A few months before I received the email referenced above, I received a similar note from a different person I knew, also accusing me of things that were based on their perceptions of me and leaving no room for any resolution. In this particular instance, though, the best course of action was to take no action.
Just because someone is having a challenging experience doesn’t mean that it’s okay to use me as a punching bag. Even if I am somehow involved, sending me an email such as those I have described above is disrespectful and unfair because it doesn’t actually ask for resolution or leave room for any reciprocal conversation.
None of us are perfect, and we will all do things that hurt other people – I’m usually the first person to look for something to apologize for because I know I make mistakes! But when someone uses me for target practice, instead of looking for a path to resolution, I will not entertain their accusations. Alleging my intentions and deciding who I am as a person based on your perception of me is very different than letting me know how my actions have made you feel and asking for mutual resolution. The latter spreads love, reciprocity, and respect; the former creates division, power dynamics, and devaluation of those involved. I will sit and converse with the latter; I will respectfully put a boundary in place and walk away from the former.
My mission in life is to spread as much love and respect and inspiration as I can; standing up for myself has taught me how I can instill those qualities and values within myself. For most of my life, I had hoped someone would do this for me. Now, I have learned how to cultivate it in myself because I believe that I am worth standing up for.
And you are, too.
With love and gratitude,
(Cover image photo credit: Nico E. from Unsplash)