In this world, many people will try to define you.
Your parents will ascribe certain qualities to you, reflections of who they are or who they hope they were. For many years, my parents called me shy – as it turns out, I am not shy, I was just trying to be who they told me they wanted me to be, by the example they set and what they taught me was “polite.”
Your peers will call you names, give you nicknames. Teachers will expect you to behave a certain way, another form of definition. One teacher asked my youngest sister whether she was going to be a brain like me (I don’t know who he was thinking of – I did well in school but was no brain) or a slacker like our middle sister (again, she is many things, slacker not one of them); my youngest sister replied, “Neither. I am going to be me.”
Even complete strangers will define you. I once spent a long, hot, crowded bus ride, seated next to a homeless man who muttered at me the entire time that I was an unloved failure and would die alone and miserable. Crazy people always know what will get under your skin and lack the boundaries to not use it against you.
The worst is when someone tries to define you on purpose, to get inside your brain and twist the knife. To gaslight you. I worked with a woman who was so angry at me one day that she told me I wasn’t as good a manager as I thought I was and that “everyone” knew it. (Tip: when “everyone” is invoked, you know it is a lie.) This was the peak of an argument which started with her accusing me of calling her a micromanager – which she was – and telling me she had heard it from “someone” who I thought was my friend and that I should question whether the people I thought were my friends were actually my friends. My response was that she should do the same because friends would not just tell you the negative things people were saying about you, they would also tell you the positive (and I had said quite a bit positive about her, as well, up to that point). There was a pause as she thought of the worst possible thing she could say about me, and then she insulted my management skills.
I don’t remember how I responded – I’d like to think that I laughed confidently and said that she was entitled to her opinion but I suspect my response wasn’t that strong. I do remember that she made an excuse to end the discussion quickly after that in a way that had me laughing out loud after I hung up. Part of me knew that she was twisting in the wind, that my management skills are strong, that my team got results, moved things forward. Part of me knew she had just been trying to hurt me because she felt hurt by the things her source had told her I was saying about her and her fear that her own skills were inadequate (which they were). Part of me had compassion for her that she so lacked management skills that she had to rely on terror and abuse to influence people. Part of me reflected that no matter how good you are at something like management, there is always room to grow, to learn; we are always all beginners. Part of me knew she was really just mad at me because one of my employees had let us both down in a big way and revealed herself to be deeply dysfunctional — one of my employees who was a favorite of hers; and she couldn’t be mad at this employee she liked and trusted so she had to be mad at me.
But the worm was there in my head. Every time I saw her, I remembered her words – and she knew it and used it against me. And she made it a point to be involved in every project I was working on; to be in charge, so she could question the quality of my work at every turn. Every mistake I made reinforced her definition of me; so I had to be perfect and the work that came out of my area had to be perfect. I stayed later, came in earlier, worked longer, drove my team unmercifully. At the same time, I focused on tasks instead of relationships because, according to her, my friends and colleagues at work were shaking their heads behind my back at my failures, and I was afraid she might be right.
I let her define me. And I felt the same cognitive dissonance that I had felt in high school, when I was myself at school and with my friends but was still the shy child defined by my parents and family when they were present. It was troubling; like being a fish flopping on the end of a line.
So how did I get out of this? Lots of meditation walking and writing. Taking action; looking for new opportunities to practice my management skills, to reinforce what I do and do well. By looking for opportunities to do things for others. By reconnecting with people, seeking out new friends and new colleagues. By doing things that reminded me of who I really am.
Because you can’t let others define you.
That way lies madness.