Monday, December 31, 2007

Who Told You That?

There was a thread in the comments this week that caused my friend, Phoebe, to ponder a thing or two and then share with me and a couple of friends whether some of our eccentricities and character traits aren't hard wired into us before birth. Further, she wondered whether our spirits don't continue to seek knowledge, then evolve and even change, in spite of what others might say or think about us, or what we allow ourselves to believe from others regarding ourselves. (Is anyone's head spinning yet, 'cause mine is? And did I capture that correctly, Phoebe? If not, let me know so I can dispense with the paraphrasing and just quote directly from you.)

Prior to that and a couple of weeks ago, I continued a conversation with another friend about behavior in corporate culture and why it seems the vultures continue to win while those of us who are just decent, hardworking, faithful employees (in the sense of believing in what it is we're doing and what our employers claim to espouse) continue to get shafted and treated like shit.

Our conversation turned to the influence we allow others to have on us and how their often-false and insecure assessments of our personhood impacts our own self-perception. Often, the result is far less than positive and our sense of self-worth and our ability to contribute effectively and positively is severely compromised.

I followed all of that up with last week's blog entry--pondered by the aforementioned friend, Phoebe--in which I contemplate my belly button and wonder about things like freedom from fear and risk-taking and futility. You know? All the fun existential questions.

I can't say I've concluded much just yet out of those three instances of illumination and conversation (I'm still noodling), but if you have the patience, read on.


Growing up, my mother has always made a point of reinforcing two facts in our lives: first, that she loves us and, second, that we are good people. It's a rare occasion when she talks to us on the phone or sends us an email or sees us in person that she doesn't tell us she thinks my brother, sister, and I are good people.

My mom hasn't always felt the same way about herself, though. As adults, my siblings and I make a point of often telling Mom we love her and we know she's a good person. It's nigh unto impossible for her to believe that because for as many years as she's been alive, she's believed what others have told her about herself. And it hasn't all been positive. She tends to hang on to the negative and often believes she is whatever others have told her.

This led to a conversation we had the other day in which she told me she'd realized after all these years how wrong it was to live her life that way--always a victim, always stuck, playing the martyr. She said to me, "I realized last night that what I've been told I am all these years is not who I am. And then I had to ask myself, 'Who told me that?'" She went on to say that deep in heart she knows the negative things aren't true and, in looking at herself as she believes God sees her, she realized God wasn't telling her she was all those negative things. Her conclusion was, she's no longer going to buy into the negativity (at least, to the best of her ability she's going to try) and when someone tells her she's fill-in-the-blank, she's going to question who the person is in her life who's telling her that, why they would say that, and whether it's even remotely true. She's no longer going to buy their criticism lock, stock, and barrel.

More importantly, she wanted to point out, when people--strangers, friends, family members, and employers--tell one of us we're something we know we're not, we must stop and ask ourselves, "Who told me that?"


I'll switch from we to I now, because I've been thinking about this. I don't always agree with my mom, but her insight (which I'm failing to articulate justly) gave me pause.

I have a former employer who hired me for my professionalism and attention to detail only to then belittle me by telling me it was incomprehensible how I could be so intelligent and not have the capacity to get 100% in my first three or four attempts on compiling and filing an expense report--none of which were ever exactly the same. Or how I could work in publishing for so many years and yet not be able to manage a staff person's calendar. (Of course, she only had to manage one calendar. I had six.) I could continue listing the negative feedback ad nauseum, but I'll stop because I'm sure you get the picture and because that particular job was one in which I intuitively knew I should not work for this particular person, but practicality won out over realism.

My point here is, I could have taken that feedback and interpreted it to mean I'm stupid. There were certainly days when I felt that way and when I believed that. And yet, deep down, I knew I was, and am, intelligent. I knew I was capable. I knew I was intellectually-detailed. And I knew that my value and sense of self-worth did not rest in unforgivable and ill-advised impressions of one person. Especially when that one person wouldn't survive a day doing the kind of work I've done in the past. That said, the same person is a brilliant administrator. Not everyone is cut out to be that, just as not everyone is cut out to be a policy wonk or an editor.

My bottom line point here is, each of us has within us a good person, and maybe even a better person, than what others see or want to believe. Sometimes, the greater hurdle is making sure we see and believe we are that good person.

Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 12/07


Anonymous said...

Loved this, T. I'm especially heartened about the insights your mom had -- that we should always question the source. It seems to me that I can often be judged by how well I fulfill people's needs. If their needs don't happen to be on my list of things to do, then I will be thought less of.

It has for a long time been important to me to be thought well of, and if fulfilling people's needs was the means to that end, so be it.

But Miranda pointed me to a Wiki Web site "How to Stop Being a People Pleaser" that gave me some things to think about. If I'm trying to please people, I'm not going to get much respect, which is what I ultimately want. It starts out like this:

"Do you habitually give in to other people because you just can't stand the thought of upsetting them? Do you put your needs to one side because you get a buzz from someone else's happiness, only to find that he or she is not a bit grateful? If so, you are a classic "people pleaser," and you are, in all probability, not getting what you want out of life. It's time to shift the focus from others to yourself, and stop being a martyr."

The advice from #4 was especially eye-opening:

"Consider the source. Many people pleasers were raised in environments wherein their needs and feelings were pushed aside/not considered. Were you always expected to anticipate, and to mold yourself to, everyone else's needs? Did you learn that the only way to receive a positive response was to do what others wanted you to do? If so, here's a newsflash: Not all the world wants a pushover. By focusing on pleasing others, you open yourself up to manipulation and abuse. You will never reach your potential as an individual if you constantly hide behind others' expectations."

This post is exciting, Tewks! Thanks.

- Phoebe

Phoenix Touch said...


Abgue here again. I must say... I believe I am addicted to a good thing here. You really get my brain flowing. What a way to start my morning. Thank you...

I am appreciating your share regarding your mother. I could have written that, word for word, about my mother - aside from the awakening realization your mother experienced. I was touched to hear your explanation of your mother's experience of life and was able to realize my own mother in there. Thank you for that.

With love,

Good lord... something about your blog makes me misspell my name!!! LOL Yes! It IS all your fault. :)

Cele said...

I find it so interesting that "we" can dispense good advice, and yet just like your mother we don't heed that advise ourselves. I am glad your mother saw the light but I also know it will take her a while to actually apply the actions to herself.

I am amazed that you can call you former employer a good administrator when "they" apparently have no people building skills. To me it is essential, if you tell a person they are caca constantly they will become to believe they are caca if they hear it too long. I am so glad you are much stronger than that. We need your strenght, your contributions to this world, our lives, and blogdom.

Cheers 2008 you can't get here fast enough.

Di said...

I agree with Cele to a certain extent. How people perceive and treat you WILL impact how you see yourself, or at least how you behave. Even the strongest person requires a much higher energy investment to overcome a very negative environment. Granted, some very strong people do it well, some of us mere humans survive it to some extent. Maintaining confidence and self-worth in such an environment is sometimes excruciatingly difficult.

I just watched a wonderful film called "Snow Cake" (I highly recommend it). There was a character in the film who was portrayed as a somewhat two-dimensional semi-bad guy. Then he was talking to one our our main characters, who said to him, "Who told you you're so special?" (And you're a bit like, "Yeah! What she said!")

Then he says in return, "Who told you you weren't?"


I love being surprised like that.

My problem is that I'm not a people pleaser much. I never have been. I used to be a mindless rebel (theoretically the photo negative of people-pleasing, so clearly related in some ways) and now I seem to have become a people annoyer. I am a "victim" in the sense that somewhere along the line, I made it okay for bullies to smell me from a mile away. But it's not because I was trying to please them.

I'm still working it out. Clearly.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Oh, I love all of these comments! There's so much meat here. Phoebe, Abgue, Cele, and Di... I'm going to shut down my 'puter and go to bed now, but tomorrow morning, I'm coming back to these to ponder some more and respond.

Love to you all! And HNY!

xo -Jay

Anonymous said...

I, too, wish I could have liked myself better.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

It seems to me that I can often be judged by how well I fulfill other people's needs.

Whoa! That stopped me dead in my tracks. Wow. That one sentence alone just blew away the fog that's been in my mind and my work ethic for the last five years. I've gone along thinking I'm doing what it is others want and will be pleased with, but, in fact, I've often failed to fulfill their needs.... I think I'm going to be sick to my stomach. Truly.

The word that sticks for me is: judged. I've been judged. We've all been judged. Right? And not very fairly at times, I might add. In fact, I've done myself a disservice by buying into those judgments--positive and negative. I'm at a place now where, if someone gushes and says, "Oh, we just have to have you on our team" or "You're so intelligent! You'd be a great contributor to our organization" or whatever, I'm leery of that for two reasons. First, because people bullshit and I'm susceptible to that, I now realize. And, second, because I cannot live up to or sustain that level of expectation based on a brief encounter in an interview or one or two meetings.

That said, it seems that the length of time which one has to prove oneself in jobs these days is considerably shorter than it once was. The norm use to be 9-12 months, but since people aren't sticking with companies as long as they use to, the learning curve period is accelerated. The result is, time periods for judgment are compressed, too.

I'm not offering that up as an excuse as much as I'm making a realistic observation. What I have to learn is, who to perform in a manner that allows me to be judged well and realistically.

As for the material on WikiHow, wow! That was also very spot-on. I think I unlearned some of that bad behavior in therapy, but some how, I've regressed or believed the judgments of others such that I've reverted back to wanting to be a people-pleaser.

Somehow, I have to learn to distinguish the difference between being a people pleaser and being judged well.

Thank you for your comments, Phoebe. You've given me a lot more to think about.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Like I mentioned, I don't always agree with my mom, but on this one, she was spot on. The most touching part was, after telling me this, she said to me, "I just want you to know, if I've ever said anything to you that made you feel less than you know you are, I'm sorry for that." For those who know me and know my story, they'll tell you that's a huge thing coming from my mom.

As for my blog exuding bad spelling karma, I don't know what's up with that. I'll have a talk with it tonight, though, and tell it it needs to be nice to new people. We don't want to scare them away! ;-)

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

I hear you! I hope my mom can sustain this knowledge and make it into action in her life. I hope that, going forward, when she hears my brother or sister or I say we know she's a good person, she'll believe that and own it!

As for my strength, I don't always feel that strong. I mean, I know I'm a good person, but I'm reaching the end of my rope when it comes to evil behavior and flat out lack of consideration. In that respect, I'm not so much strong as I'm impatient leaning toward bitch. I suppose I should work on that, huh?

Oh, and about my former boss, all I can say is s/he managed the VP's calendar very well and kept him/her on top of things. Otherwise, s/he was a crappy people manager. In fact, I think the worst bosses, frankly, are the ones who want to be your buddy rather than your boss. S/he was more concerned about gossip and being pals than about collaboration or professionalism. I remember the first time I ever went out for drinks with my first boss, I'd been with the company three years. She was a very personable and really cared about her people, but she was also the boss. We certainly had our moments, but I'd go to hell and back again for her. I can't say the same for two of the three bosses I've had in this town.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

I totally agree with you. I found in my last job that the less my boss believed in me and the more s/he put me down, the harder it was to not make mistakes. I'd bugger up things that a five year-old could get right. But I'd bugger 'em up because I was unnerved by his/her constant looking over my shoulder. In my case, I think I merely survived. And yes, maintaining confidence and self-worth in that environment is extremely difficult. Yet, I'd still get up each morning and know I was a good person and even though I'd come home defeated and deflated at night, deep down I remembered I am a good person. It doesn't solve anything or make it better, but I do think it was the only thing that kept me from going postal.

I'm adding Snow Cake to my Netflix queue. That quote has been running through my head all day.

"Who told you you were special?"

"Who told you you weren't?"

Beautiful... Thank you.

As for the difference between being a people-pleaser and being a people-annoyer: is it possible that those are the opposite ends of the same spectrum? Somehow, we have to find the middle point, because in your case and mine, the bad dogs can smell us comin' for miles and for totally opposite reasons...

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

I hope 2008 brings you a year full of discoveries about all of the qualities you possess that are good.

Even though I haven't guessed who you are, you're a good person and I like you!

Please come back often.

Phoenix Touch said...


I am SO impressed with your comment-reply ability! You blow me away. I look forward to getting to know and read you more as the years go by!

With love,

Hey! Look at that! Didn't even have to backspace to get my name right this time. Your little talk with your blog must have paid off... at least for me. :)

Terri@SteelMagnolia said...

What a great post.

I am the most insecure person I know. It's weird, I don't know why really.

I fear rejection like nobody's business. It crushes me if someone is mad or irritated w/ me.

You know.. I'm such a mess, that I'll just stop here.

But this was a very thought provoking post.

hm-uk said...

hI stopped fearing rejection the moment that I learned how to easily let the words 'Fuck off' slip off my tongue. I don't always say them aloud, but I do say it a lot in my head.

I have a really good bullshit detector and when someone says to me that I am valuable and worthy it sends those bullshit buzzers and lights blaring and flashing. I don't know why, but I rarely ever trust people after they say that - especially if they don't know me as a person. It's like the lull right before a massacre, in a horror flick. You get the 'value and worth' pep talk a lot less in British culture because it's far more difficult to give people the sack here, IMO, and you tend to save your sentiments for special occasions, not just a pre-probationary period spiel.

I've seen 'Snow Cake' - pretty good flick, I thought. I'd recommend it, but don't go in expecting to be lulled.

Just wondering, do you reckon that poor self worth/esteem is simply a matter of being too gullible - believing what EVERYONE says, good or bad, until a person cannot distinguish what he/she thinks of him/herself from what everyone else says he/she is?

Anyhoo, I've said a mouthful here.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Aitch: It's funny. I'm sure in this post I sound like I really, really, really, really, really care what people think of me. In truth, I do and I don't.

For example: my hair. I wear it short. Sometimes I wear it really short and spiky. I call it my "Fuck You" hair, meaning, if you can't get passed it or get over it and simply work with me, then fuck you. I guess I acquired that attitude working in SF where no one gave two seconds caring about how anyone looked. All they cared about was, could the person they were talking to/had hired do the job.

On the other hand, as I said, I've learned I'm susceptible to the b.s. But I've also discovered, after being bullshitted two or three times now, that my b.s. meter is stronger. I have some interviews next week and I've decided my tactics are going to be different if that meter goes off. No more getting sucked in for me.

Just wondering, do you reckon that poor self worth/esteem is simply a matter of being too gullible - believing what EVERYONE says, good or bad, until a person cannot distinguish what he/she thinks of him/herself from what everyone else says he/she is?

This is certainly a query for thought, but my initial reaction is to say I think you're absolutely on to something. And I think this is precisely what has happened to people like my mom. They've believe everything that they've been told for so long, they don't remember who they are anymore.

I certainly know I'm struggling with that professionally right now. Despite having a "fuck you" attitude for the most part, I've sunk into the mire of wondering, what the hell do I have to offer anymore? It's been pretty shattering on a lot of levels.

Thanks, Aitch, for adding more food for thought to this thread.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Fear of rejection and the need to please are very real emotions. I think HM_UK is on to something with her question about failing to remember who we are because we've become so wrapped up in what others have told us about who we are. Add to that Phoebe's observations about being people-pleasers and maybe there's something more there to contemplate.

I remember, many years ago, my mom telling me she didn't know who she was because she'd gone from being someone's daughter to someone's sister to someone's wife to someone's mother and she'd never had an opportunity to find out who she was just for her. (One of her arguments to us--her children--for why marrying young [she was 18] is a stupid idea and ought to be avoided at all costs.)

Perhaps you've had similar experiences where your identity is wrapped up in having been/being someone's wife, mother, and--in the case of little Matthew--caretaker to the exclusion of time to find out who you are for you.

Just some thoughts... If I'm way off, though, call me on it.

Di said...

I certainly know I'm struggling with that professionally right now. Despite having a "fuck you" attitude for the most part, I've sunk into the mire of wondering, what the hell do I have to offer anymore? It's been pretty shattering on a lot of levels.

I could've written this thought myself, as you know. Only I had the "fuck you" attitude ALL MY LIFE...until I didn't. WTF? And I'm still quite a bit shattered.

And I've also recognised that I'm quite gullible -- I believe what people tell me, because I know I'm telling them the truth. And because I was raised to believe that authority figures are TRUE and RIGHT. Even though I hate them and say FUCK YOU to them, somehow they are still TRUE and RIGHT.


J.M. Tewkesbury said...

And I've also recognised that I'm quite gullible -- I believe what people tell me, because I know I'm telling them the truth. And because I was raised to believe that authority figures are TRUE and RIGHT. Even though I hate them and say FUCK YOU to them, somehow they are still TRUE and RIGHT.

Di: Boy, that statement hit me right between the eyes like a Mac truck. Another product from our upbringing, for sure.

The line that really struck me especially was this: "I believe what people tell me, because I know I'm telling them the truth."

We were raised to believe our leaders were/are inspired and infallible and that they would never lie to us. We were raised to believe we should never question what they told us, because we'd been told they'd never lie to us. We believed it so much, we've carried it over into other arenas of our lives.

Whereas (and I can't believe I'm going to suggest this), maybe they (others) haven't been raised with that. Certainly from a religious standpoint it's probably relatively safe be that presumptuous? (Then again, I wasn't raised Catholic or Jewish or Hindi. Maybe they're also taught that their leaders are infallible.)

Honestly, a good example of this would be politicians. I know it's Pollyanna of me, but I'm still astonished that politician's lie. And, like you, I believe the people who are leading me professionally are truthful, upstanding people. Maybe they are and they're thinking maybe I'm not, so the result is two well-intended people undermined by their integrity and their fear?

More and more, though, I'm thinking, maybe they aren't. And maybe that's why we've struggled like we have: we continue to believe that if we're honest, everyone else must be/will be, too, and, in point of fact, they aren't and they don't want to be.

Everyone has an agenda. The problem is, ours has been to be good, upstanding, honest people, while theirs has been to look out only for themselves in a very narcissistic, territorial, fear-ridden manner. (Sorry for the sweeping generalization there.)

I'm thinking it's time to read Golding's Lord of the Flies again. I'm thinking there's a lesson there that I may have missed the last time I read it 15 years ago.