People can be exceptionally mean.
I had experienced this as a weird, gap-toothed and semi-bald kid growing up on the Danforth.
I experienced it again in middle school as the new girl with the stutter in King City.
Luckily though, I went to a much kinder high school. I took the experiences as those that ‘build character’. I learnt from them and imagined turning them into some form of ‘sage wisdom’ I could tell to other young girls dealing with the same horrors of adolescence. However, most memories of being bullied quickly faded away into the background like a foggy bad dream. I eventually left King City for Toronto where I went to University and naively thought that my days of being bullied were long behind me.
I was finishing up my degree, working in the hospitality industry on the side when I found myself working with a manipulative and nasty person. I didn’t know it right away, but this person was everything a bully represented.
I say that I didn’t know right away, because I wanted to make this co-worker someone I could call a friend, or at least a friendly colleague. Yet over time, and I began noticing and being at the receiving end of behaviour that quickly changed my perspective about them. This person was manipulative to the point of perfection. They judged excessively, but took criticism of any kind with intense distain. My bully was judgemental, ungenuine and petty. But most of all, my bully was insanely talented at using embarrassment as a tool to assert authority and control upon others.
At first, I tried to pass the behaviour off as abrasive, but otherwise harmless attributes of an assertive personality.
“They didn’t mean what they said.”
“They were just joking.”
“If I do better next time, they won’t treat me that way.”
This may seem strange, but it was incredibly cathartic when I realized (many months later) that my behaviour resembled someone in an abusive relationship. I would plainly lie to myself in order to rationalize someone else’s obviously inappropriate behaviour. When I do think back to those excuses, I get incredibly annoyed at myself for not realizing that my bully’s corrosive attitude was chipping away at my self worth and confidence.
Things came to a head when false rumours about me spread through work that eventually made its way to my bully’s ears. Manipulation quickly turned into flat out targeted insults, and petty sarcasm transformed into mean comments about my (lack of) beauty, (excess of) weight or my apparent incompetence at work.
I tried not to let it bother me, and I pretended that it didn’t because my past experiences with bullies as a kid taught me that passiveness is my best defence, but some comments really got to me. I found myself racing home and bursting into tears, I would let my mind wonder when I was with friends and family and what I once considered to be a great work environment became a hell hole I would get anxious and clammy about whenever I walked in the door.
If you’re reading this wondering where management was throughout all of this, they certainly knew, but I told them hesitantly, because as crazy as it sounds in retrospect, I didn’t want to bother my bosses with my problems. When management eventually did get involved, the harassment was kept at bay, but anyone who has been bullied knows very well that they often have a sneaky way of slithering around in the shadows and not in broad daylight where everyone can see.
After several months my bully eventually quit, and I felt intense relief. I felt as though a weight had been lifted, a weight that I had surrendered to, and was coming to terms with.
So…do I have any sage wisdom yet?
As irksome as it might be to hear, defining yourself really does come from your most challenging and trying experiences. I am more confident in my skills and potential now, and that goes far beyond the scope of my job. Most importantly, I will forever be grateful in myself that I never stooped to the level of my bully and fired back equally malicious or irrelevant insults.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to this person in over a year when last week they called and e-mailed my work using a fake identity trying to get me fired. Shame over the experience turned into a life lesson that I will be grateful for, and I could only feel embarrassment and pity for this person, for failing to move on and choosing to wallow in their imagined slights. It was a feeling of clarity that I won’t soon forget.
Mean people are an inevitability, and its highly improbable that you can get through life without coming across a few at least, but I can say with full confidence that it has been my experience that how you choose to deal with the them defines you as a professional and as an adult.