Back in the day, I knew a girl who couldn’t stop talking about me. She gossiped about things I’d said and hadn’t actually said. She’d pepper me with questions about things she felt “competitive” towards me about: SAT scores, college applications, dance (um, I’m not a good dancer, for the record…).
How did I deal with this? I kept quiet. When she whispered as I walked by, I kept quiet. She was “friends of friends” — so I kept quiet. When I got into the college of her dreams (and she didn’t), I kept quiet. When she made racist comments to me about that — jealousy brings out the deeply-buried sides to people, y’all!…. you got it right…. I kept quiet.
The other day, I suddenly had a flashback to this forgotten person. Brief interactions spark memories that’ve been gone for YEARS. I mean…. MANY years.
The first time I have a flashback, I feel like I’m right there, re-living the moment. It takes that moment to pass so I can step back and say, “Wait…. I am smarter than that now.” And I realized– I’ve learned so much in the past 10+ years — it’s wonderful!
Looking back, I see: Back then, I didn’t do anything wrong. But I could have dealt with this person in a more self-honoring way.
And this is what I would have done differently:
Tip 1 to my Old Self. When Dealing with a Petty Person who is Obsessed with Ruining Your Reputation, Speak Your Virtues. Do it Gracefully and Loudly.
At the wise age of 17, I was proud that I never once tried to retaliate or speak ill of this girl. I saw her attempts to compete with me as “pathetic” and refused to participate. I recognized that her obsession with me bordered on a compliment– why spend so much time talking about someone you “hate”?
UNFORTUNATELY, this girl was so effective in spreading rumors about me that my efforts to “stay out of it” went completely unnoticed. Acquaintances began to believe her rumors — began to believe that I was vicious towards her, never realizing I’d never, ever lifted a word against her.
Even years later, a friend once said to me, “I didn’t know which one of you I should believe.” Huh? I hadn’t even said anything for anyone TO believe!
And this was my mistake: silence.
I was raised to value traits that don’t get you far in this society: listen to others before talking about myself, be honest rather than lie to achieve “status,” and act humbly.
In my efforts to be the “better person” by “staying out of it,” I had allowed my voice to be replaced entirely by someone else’s. It was like those studies where psychologists create false memories in kids through telling them repeatedly how something happened. She had created false memories in our acquaintances…. and I’d stayed quiet through the whole thing.
Thus, I had erased my own experience from the perception of others.
Today, as an adult, I’ve experienced company lay-offs twice. The first time, I didn’t speak up for myself and lost my job. The second time, I escaped. The difference? Airing the great, wonderful things I was doing. It went against everything I’d learned as a child, but it worked. Here are some sample monologues I’d recommend to myself, now, as an adult:
Example 1: “Why is this person talking about me so negatively? I’ve never said anything bad about them in my life.”
Example 2: “Did I mention I got full funding for a five-week research program? I can’t wait to do this with in my personal time. I think it’ll really help my job performance.”
It’s not “being fake” if you are being honest.
Tip 2 to my Old Self. Avoid “Friends” who Love Gossip -aka- Passive Onlookers.
I suspect that part of the reason some of my acquaintances never stopped this person’s gossip was because they enjoyed the drama.
It’s akin to rubber-necking at a car crash. Why do people love to see others’ car wrecks? It gives us something to talk about. Something to “fill the void” of an otherwise mundane life.
(“Oh my gosh, did you hear what so-and-so said? I can’t believe that happened. Who do you think is right? Don’t tell her about it, OK? I don’t want her to get mad. Oh, and don’t tell anyone else.”)
As an adult, I’ve learned to pick and choose my friends better. The older I get, the better I am at figuring out the difference between (A) who I am befriending for their own qualities, and (B) who I have befriended out of circumstantial convenience.
While friend (B) can evolve into friend (A), the bottom line is: I wish to have quality friends who support me, communicate with me, and are honest with me.
And, although I trip up sometimes, I am grateful to know the difference now.
Tip 3 to my Old Self. You Deserve Better…. Sometimes “Better” is “Being Alone.”
Sometimes I can’t walk away from the Petty Person. But when I can, I do.
I am lucky that I have built up, over time, a strong, trusting community of people I can reach out to. I wish for everyone to have the same.
I even wish for this girl, this former (I hope) Petty Person, to have the same. Perhaps she has learned how to be at peace by now.
It’s so funny how old experiences can stick with us. Writing this, I recall the frustration of being trapped in a story I hadn’t written, and in the absence of support I had, mostly due to my own failure.
At the same time, I remember my confusion and effort to understand this person. Why was I the center of this girl’s obsession? Why would you devote so much time to tearing someone down, if they are so obviously disengaged with you? The unhappiness of someone who does this must be overwhelming.
Years later, I now get what I didn’t, back then: believing someone is unhappy doesn’t “excuse” a Petty Person’s behavior. I can empathize with you. AND, if you treat me badly, I can ALSO walk away from you.
You know, the media that trashes “getting older” is crazy. Being able to look back and see how I’ve grown? I wouldn’t trade anything for this knowledge and power I have gained.
After all, why have a “frenemy” when you can have a “friend”?
PS: Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.