Wednesday, January 21, 2015

To the One Who Called Me "Poison"

I received a letter via email on February 27, 2009 from a member of my former circle of friends. In the past couple of months, I've thought a lot about creating a response to this letter to help me organize my thoughts and finally put all of them to rest. I needed peace. Here is what I came up with. I know it's a novel. But if you would like to leave comments, I would really appreciate them. Thanks for reading. 

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To the One Who Called Me "Poison,"

I’ve thought about you and your letter at least once per week for the past six years since I received it. I even thought about it every day for the first couple of years afterward, actually. I’ve thought for a long time about what I would want to say to respond to that letter—the letter that said “I have no confidence that what I tell you will actually sink in,” because of my ego and “thick head.” Here we are, after six years of “sinking in.” I’m sure that the thought I’ve given to the words in that letter disprove the very notion of my having a thick head, or an ego, but I want to say some things anyway. I hope when I’m done it will come out somewhat coherently.

There’s that cute little saying about sticks and stones. But words have always hurt me the most. I think it says a lot about me that I always remember the negative things people have said, the insults, the criticisms, much more than the positive things. That’s probably why my stomach turns every time I go back to read that letter.

I feel I’ve taken every possible approach with the words I received. I have been defensive. I have been receptive, trying to identify truths within it. I have tried to be objective, evaluating how valid this person’s claims could be based on the depth of our interactions. I would like to think I’ve come to some balanced conclusions—ones that are neither too lenient nor too harsh on myself.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to say that the words in the letter were ugly. When I read back through it, I see ugliness and hate, in words like problem, miserable, grumpy, impossible, crazy, hypersensitive, negative, wench, and annoyed. I then think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I don’t think that anyone reading this letter could find light or love within.

I have to remain balanced, however, and remind myself of the intentions. You see, a few days before receiving the letter, the writer instant messaged me to ask if we could talk about some things. The sender said it would be about suggestions for improvement for me. These seemed like good intentions. At the time, however, I was not in a good place emotionally and mentally. I was already in a place of self-loathing, and felt that more criticism might be too much for me to handle. In my own insecurity, I tearfully sought guidance from my best friend. I had told her about the conversation and wanted to see what she would say about it. After listening to her, I had intended to hear what he had to say. But I never got the chance. Word got back to the writer, and he was frustrated that I had talked to her. This, he said, was “juvenile behavior,” made me look “two-faced,” and that it “forced [his] hand,” to write the letter.

So were his intentions to provide constructive criticism? I’m not sure. That may have been the original intent. But that’s not what I ended up receiving, as there’s nothing constructive (no light or love) in the letter.

Secondly, I’ve thought about the circumstances under which I would feel the need to criticize somebody in this way. I can think of only a few circumstances, and how particular I would be in those circumstances. For example, if my family members needed major correcting, I’d say what I needed to say. I might even talk to a close friend, and it would be out of concern. If I truly cared about the people I was trying to criticize, I would try to do so in a loving way. I would amplify the positives, to tell them where they’re succeeding. I would give suggestions for course corrections. I would try not to use hateful words. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t written a mean letter from time to time. But these types of letters have rarely seen their intended audience. People are frustrating. That is a fact of life. But we should still treat them kindly.

But that leads me to my third point, which is something I learned from this letter. People are not all bad or all good. I feel like people are such a mixture of things. I may be impatient, but I apologize if I’ve been rude to people. I might be stubborn, but I am not hard headed. It may not seem like I am listening, but I remember so many things people say or teach me years later. I take things to heart and truly digest them. I may have a negative attitude sometimes, but my prayers are full of genuine gratitude. I’ve sought to be better about my negativity and feel I’ve come a long way (in part thanks to the letter). I am a hard worker. I am honest. I am dedicated. I am consistent. I am spiritual. I am thoughtful. I’m good at gift giving. I’m good at saving money. I’m organized. I am lots of good things. And I feel sorry that the letter writer didn’t see those things about me.

This connects to my fourth conclusion, and that is that if he couldn’t see anything good about me, he hadn’t spent enough time with me. I can say with 100% accuracy and honesty that this person and I never hung out one-on-one. It was always with a group. I don’t know how you truly get to know somebody in situations like that. I’ve always been more of a one-on-one person, because that’s how I truly get personal and close with people. He accuses me in his letter of dismissing him with, “What right does [name] have telling me all of this?” And maybe that is the case, but not with that attitude. Rather with the understanding that emotionally intimate interactions don’t happen in groups. I think that is a valid conclusion.

I’ve had to be careful not to let this lack of interaction completely nullify and void everything he said. I feel like if someone is going to be fair and balanced in their assessment of someone, they should have spent a considerable amount of time with them. On the other hand, sometimes the observations of strangers are some of the most accurate.  So I considered the things he said. Let’s talk about a few of those things (because talking about all of them might take too long).

In the letter, he lists a couple of different occasions where I was admittedly bratty. He said I blew little things out of proportion, was dramatic, got mad, and held grudges. He didn’t give examples for these. I can say though, that if you read The Color Code, you’ll see that the author makes mention of this kind of stuff about blue personalities. While I don’t believe I’ve ever actually been quick to anger, I definitely remember the things that people have done to hurt me. My reactions have come from hurt, not anger, and I am sorry for any time I was dramatic. That wasn’t my intention. I’ve tried to overcome my grudge-holding and forgive, even if it’s basically impossible for me to forget. Mind you, it’s also hard for me to forgive myself, so it’s not like an unfair thing. More on that later.

One example he mentioned was that on Halloween, I complained about his music choice. I remember it was Katy Perry’s song “I Kissed a Girl.” In my rather abrasive, teasing way, I gave him a hard time about listening to that awful song (because really?). I’m not sure what else I did that night to bother him, but I feel bad that it ruined his night and made him so resolute not to be around me and would like to apologize for that if I had the chance. I feel like those close to me know that I often play rough, teasing about things like terrible song choices or silly habits; I think (I hope) that they know I’m being playful and don’t take it too personally. But this example from his letter has made me more aware of it so that I could take my sarcasm down a few notches because it’s pretty unproductive.

Another example he gave of my shortcomings was how badly I had handled my relationship with my ex fiancĂ©e. I will be the first to admit that things got really ugly, but this was on both sides. Stories were actually explained rather unfairly, incompletely, and out of context, making my actions look even worse. Still, if I could change some of my actions, I would. However, I’m happy to say I’ve learned from my mistakes and have tried to improve my interactions (and terminations) of each relationship I’ve had. Unfortunately, it was a rough road, and I hurt and disappointed some people in the process. I’d like to hope that we don’t get judged for how we act in the worst of circumstances, as everyone has rough spots. I try to give people some slack, largely because I wasn’t given much at all.

As I’ve tried to be fair in evaluating these criticisms of me, I feel I’ve done a pretty good job taking responsibility for my actions, and learning from them. But in the letter, I was also accused of not taking responsibility for my actions and placing the blame elsewhere. I have to say this is completely and entirely inaccurate about me. I am the kind of person who takes responsibility for things I didn’t even do. I often look for my fault in situations in which I have been the victim. I still feel guilt for things I said and did as a child and teen—things I haven’t forgiven myself for. I try to recognize my shortcomings and failures before people, at church, at work, and in my interpersonal relationships. I’ve been a perfectionist most of my life, and hold myself accountable to a sometimes insane degree. So to say I place blame elsewhere or don’t take responsibility just isn’t accurate. I will not own that.

In the end, I’m sad that this person didn’t know me well enough, thinking I couldn’t “set aside my ego and make some changes.” I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who is always trying to be better. For example…

I’ve texted my friends a lot recently to check on them and see how they’re doing; that’s something I’m working on. I’ve tried to push myself harder in my workouts lately. I’ve tried to give more positive reinforcement to my students. I try to acknowledge and appreciate the things my man does for me. I voluntarily go to classes to become a better teacher. I’ve read mostly self-help books in the past several years. Of all of the things I have never liked, stagnancy is one of the biggest. I don’t like feeling like I’m not moving forward.

I may have been in a rut when all of these things went down. I may have had a long way to go. I may have needed to focus more on how I presented myself. I really have tried to improve my resting face so I don’t look so unpleasant (but seriously, it’s just my face; it’s just the way my face looks. The struggle is real.). I’ve evaluated how my actions and composure affect those around me, and that’s probably the best thing the sender gave me in this letter—a greater awareness of myself and the ripples I create.

While I don’t feel sad that I don’t have this person’s acceptance or approval, and while I don’t feel like my self-esteem is tied to the way others see me, I would like to have a positive impact on people. I don’t want to bring people down, on purpose or on accident. Am I a better person today than I was when I got this letter six years ago? I’d like to think so. But there were good things about me before, too. If nothing else, this letter has made me want to find the good in other people, since someone couldn’t find any good in me.

Thank you, sir, for tearing me down. It made me more determined to build others up.

With Love and Light,
The Admittedly Imperfect

Janae