So I grew up in an abusive household. Not the “my dad gets drunk and smashes a lamp over my mother’s head” kind of abusive, but the “Dad thinks Mom, siblings and I are imbeciles and repeatedly tells us so in thought and deed” kind of abusive. Emotionally abusive, in other words, though the other kind happened on occasion too. My mother taught us how to deal with these insults: Stare straight ahead, keep your mouth shut, let Daddy say whatever he wanted to say to get it out of his system, do whatever he wants you to do, and then avoid him for a while. Basically, we learned to be doormats at our mother’s knee. If we didn’t do this … well, that’s when the other kind of abuse would occur.
Anyway, I never saw the difference between being treated badly by my father and being treated badly by other people. As I got older, through high school, college and the work force, I quickly gained the reputation for being the “nice” person that everyone dumped on. Somehow, standing up for myself wasn’t the “nice” thing to do, so I never did it. It didn’t even occur to me. And I became everyone else’s doormat. Boyfriends, colleagues, friends, customer-service people — you name it. They mostly treated me well, but when they treated me badly it would haunt me for years: either that I had done something wrong to warrant their slights or that I didn’t say anything when I was clearly being insulted.
Recently, however, that tide has begun to turn. I began to see that the way people were treating me was wrong. I learned that I wouldn’t get popped in the mouth for speaking up. I began to recall situations where people had been rude or mean, and saw them as being rude or mean rather than just my being sensitive. And too, I began to stand up for myself. This is where my problem now lies. As I stand up for myself in situations where it is clearly warranted, it is somehow not enough to simply state my case and let reason carry the day. I end up getting aggressive, insistent, loud, bossy, angry and just plain rude when something doesn’t go my way. I flare my nostrils and hiss when I speak to the manager. I shout insults and then hang up the phone before the person on the other end can respond. In other words, I’ve become someone I hate, as if I’m trying to make up for years of swallowed pride with a few instances of over-the-top aggression. To top it off, as a woman, I’m afraid that I’m coming across as an angry feminist and it’s making things worse for my gender!
Earlier today, while I was at the supermarket, there was an argument that nearly came to blows at the self-checkout line. One man was clearly in the wrong — he had jumped in line, had too many items in the 15-items-or-less lane, and said the other guy was being a bad father in front of his small son. The clerk looked on and did nothing. The man got his way, checking out his too-many items and taking a parting shot at the father with his small son as he finished. I wound up screaming at the guy as he left — and it wasn’t even my fight! The whole situation made me realize that something is going on in my head. But I feel like I can’t just sit back and accept injustice anymore, even when it’s happening to other people who can take care of themselves. What am I supposed to do?
Going Overboard With the Assertiveness
Clearly, you need to settle down, bitch.
Ahahahaha, just kidding. That’s a little inside joke, since my significant other is always yelling at people in traffic/movie theaters/Babies R Us, and seems to hear “Settle down, bitch!” pretty frequently in response. This puts me in a unique position with regard to this quandary. The position is: I really shouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pole, but I can’t stop myself.
Dear Going Overboard,
Standing up for yourself and others is, in general, good. You just need to pick your battles (some are pointless and potentially dangerous) and know when to be diplomatic. Screaming a parting shot at a man someone else was arguing with is not going to teach him a lesson or right a grievous wrong; the main reason you’re doing it is to feel better about yourself. Which you obviously already know. So the next time you feel compelled to start yelling at a stranger, take a deep breath and spend five or ten seconds thinking through whether it will accomplish anything or help the world in any way. If you conclude that you’re just yelling because your righteous indignation and rageaholism need to be vented for the week, hold it in and instead go home and yell at your boyfriend who loves you.
Thanks for writing, Going.
previous advice: Part 1