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Living between ‘Jesus, take the wheel’ and ‘Bitch, I wish you would.’

[Editor’s note: The title of this column isn’t original to me. Props to one of my favorite YouTubers, Jaime Primak Sullivan of “coffeetawk,” for her creative wording, which I remembered when trying to express my attitude on this. The gist is, “Don’t be mean, but keep your boundaries firm.”]

Have you ever listened to a motivational/inspirational/self-help speaker and felt an instant connection with the topic and the person? That was me on the way to work this morning, listening to life coach Lisa A. Romano’s talk on social bullies (embedded video below).

And then I did what I often do: Imagine myself in that conversation with just such a social bully. Endlessly. Over and over in my head until I’ve clarified my view, backed up when an approach wasn’t working or was vulnerable, and argued different ways until I pinpointed what I thought and how to communicate it most effectively. (It’s not like this is my actual strategy: I’m just explaining what I do naturally when I feel an “Oh, HELL no” trembling on my lips.)

This topic made me think of an unpleasant and socially awkward woman who was talking to me years ago, back when my children were little, early one evening before our knitting club meeting began. We were mentioning an annual local event that she helps to organize and that I often enjoy. I made the casual comment that my husband often buys the ticket for me as a birthday gift but I was forgoing it this year for something else. I said that someday I might even like to volunteer, although definitely not immediately with my time so limited. She leapt on that and told me when the next meeting was. I said whoa-whoa-whoa and clarified that I was talking about the distant future, when I had fewer obligations. The convention would still be around in years to come when my life was less demanding.

But she launched into a comment about another woman who helps organize the event, who leads a Brownie troop, works full time, is involved in her church, and has several children, and “SHE can handle it.” And then she looked at me smugly — leaning in almost hungrily — as if she had just done an end run around my argument and she “had” me.

I shuffled through several possible responses in my head while I looked at her with a pitying glance. You can tell how irritated I was by the hostile, dismissive and passive-aggressive responses that flashed through my mind. For example:

  • “You may expect me to stammer and make excuses, but that would presume that I owed you an excuse or even an explanation. You’re  imposing on my good nature by trying to shame me into participating.”
  • (A bark of lightly scornful laughter) “Oh, really. Does that usually work for you,” (making a little circle in the air toward her), “your hamhanded attempt at shame and manipulation? Try again with someone else, sister. Good luck with your little ‘event.'”
  • “You’re correct that I could do it. And I’m correct in explaining to you that I’m choosing not to at this time in my life. Is any part of that unclear to you now?”
  • “Where do you work, by the way?” (After listening to her response, then … ) “Oh, I just wondered. People who don’t understand social conventions and who aggressively pursue their agendas with other people way past the point of politeness are often highly frustrated people who are in low-lying positions.” (MEOW!)
  • “Expressing casual interest isn’t quite the same thing as sticking your foot in a bear trap, dear. You don’t have me in a death grip of commitment.”
  • “Yes, I’m very tempted. I imagine you’re a … joy … to work with. But I think not.”
  • “Well that may be, but that’s her choice and not mine. We all make decisions for our own lives, don’t we.” (Followed by a polite, distant smile that doesn’t quite reach my eyes.)

What I settled on was to chuckle (nicely, as if I felt a good humor I didn’t actually feel) and say something like this. “Well, bully for her, then. But she’s not me. And I decide how I spend my time. Maybe with your convention someday, but not soon. Good luck with it this year.” And I smiled and wandered away.

She just gaped at me long after that, standing rooted in one spot. And she kept looking at me oddly throughout the meeting that followed. (Seriously? Has no one ever told her no firmly and directly before?)  The gaping felt just as manipulative as her words. I wonder what kind of snit she would have thrown if I’d expressed the actual depth of my irritation toward her. But I chose not to give her the satisfaction of goading me.

I also had some thoughtful moments back at home later that night, ruminating about the hostility I felt and why this woman was so annoying to me. My emotions were honest; she really was attacking my walls. And I’m glad I was able to fake a good nature while presenting my genuine boundaries. But I realized I needed to work toward letting go of the bristly feelings when intrusive people do their thing.

Boy, I had to put THAT encounter out of mind about a million times. I’ve mentally reduced her to dust more than once, never quite feeling like I got actual resolution. Just a stalemate.

I’ve mentally polished that particular stone for a long time since then.

So what do you do when someone speaks to you disrespectfully, attempts to manipulate you, or tries to bully you in a social situation? How do you handle it? And do you ruminate afterward? How do you make mental peace with yourself and others afterwards? Tell me in the comments!





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