Freeing Speech and the Not-So-Trivial Pursuit of Happiness

A busy work schedule, new routines, maintaining friendships, and a powerful need for sleep…all of these things have prevented me from doing any writing, both online and off. However, as I’m currently sitting in the car dealership so auto mechanics can manhandle my Cavalier, I find myself with a rare opportunity to bang out a blog post!

So, in my last entry, I was transitioning rather quickly from one job to another. The past couple of months have been filled with reflection, realization, and change, mostly on an internal, personal scale. The incident at my former job was a catalyst of sorts. My intense emotional reaction caught me off-guard in a big way, and belied how profoundly I had allowed these people into my head. It took some time to process how I had become complicit in this subtle worship of convention, including the “necessity” of shaming the deviant. I, of course, was the deviant.

The entire situation led me to reflect on other instances in my life where I have given others unwarranted access, to influence my feelings of self-worth, my goals, and ultimately my autonomy. As a writer, I try to examine episodes of subtle (or not-so-subtle) manipulation in terms of motivation. What is this person trying to gain? Are they acting with malicious intent? Is this just the way they were socialized? The answers vary by incident and by person. It is my tendency to distance myself from the manipulation, however, which acquiesces to the behavior. I dislike being confrontational, and in the moments of greatest tension, my inclination is to flee. While I would like to say that my passive examination of the behavior is derived purely from an intellectual desire to understand, it is also a useful mechanism to soften and depersonalize its impact. So the behavior is never addressed, and over time I internalize the messages I’m receiving.

Does that seem tedious enough for you? Yeah, me too.

Somewhere along the way, I found my voice. I can’t tell you exactly which variables came together for me or why, but something clicked. Some internal Berlin Wall came down, and I started talking. There was a week or two where I literally made the rounds, without any premeditation, and confronted certain people about their impacts on my life, on my thoughts, and the emotional fallout I was experiencing as a result. I was suddenly able to speak openly about my insecurities, about my emotional scars, and, on the flip side, about how much certain people mean to me. A pretty big change from my typically stoic, sarcastic demeanor.

Besides some obvious shock, surprise, and awkwardness, the overall result of this free-flowing communication has been an amazing sense of relief and happiness. I’ve managed to set up solid boundaries with certain people who drain my energy, I’ve gotten closer with the people who mean the most to me, and I’ve relinquished the sense of ownership I’ve felt over the misdeeds of others. I’m giving myself permission to say “no” and express my opinions openly.

The biggest deal for me, though, is that I am starting to let go of the shame that I’ve held onto for not fitting into the hetero-normative conventional mold. At twenty-seven, I really thought I had moved past that high-school-esque desire to belong to the mainstream. It isn’t as if I have any desire to live out a sort of quintessential American dream, with a successful businessman husband, 2.5 children, and a white picket fence. That just isn’t something I’ve ever really desired. What really bothers me, I think, is the sense of exclusion. Many people, even people in my own family, see me as less valuable because I don’t have a conventional lifestyle. I have less to offer as a tattooed, queer, Buddhist woman, with a pansexual, agnostic, transgendered boyfriend; because I don’t want to get married until it becomes a truly equal and free institution; because I don’t want to work a 40-hour-per-week 9-to-5 job for the next forty-five years (as if those jobs existed anymore) unless it’s for a company or a cause of which I could truly be proud…

The biggest deal for me….is that I’m finding my differences to be empowering, and beautiful. And I don’t fit in…I have chosen an alternative path, and it can be very hard at times, especially in the face of the social enforcers, who would like me to believe that I’m just a freak. Learning to keep those external voices out of my head is giving me more than a little peace of mind.

Mind Over Meta

Human communication is filled with nuances. Many are difficult to control, if not entirely involuntary: pupil dilation, facial expressions, those annoying variations in pitch that I have been trying to unlearn for over a decade. Others are obvious and easily mastered: word choice, willingness to listen, overall tone. Depending on how the various elements are put together, one can make the intended audience of a statement feel respected and at ease, or attacked and extremely uncomfortable. This past Friday, I experienced the latter. Let me tell you: it wasn’t pleasant.

I had a sinking feeling before I even arrived at work on Friday. A meeting with both of my managers was scheduled on my calendar, and no one would really talk to me until then. When the time finally came, I was so uncomfortable I had to make a joke. “I’ve never had my meeting in B-‘s office before; am I in trouble?” There were no laughs, only glares. Oh yes, I am, I thought.

K- took a seat at B-‘s desk, and I took the other, and then B- spoke about some “concerns” she had about my job performance. While no one likes to be criticized, I honestly welcome it. I can’t improve on something of which I’m unaware. She then proceeded to tell me that the position within the department for which I had applied was going to be filled by an outside applicant. Honestly, it had been so long since I did apply that I pretty much assumed that was the case, and probably would have declined it had it been offered.

She cited various reasons for this decision, some of which were well-founded. I seemed not to have a complete understanding of the systems and processes: of course I don’t. The position I held was still new to me, and my training for it was borderline nonexistent. I lacked confidence in my job: see reason one. To boot, it seemed like every day I had messed up something new, and had heard nothing of what I was doing well. I would have to be downright cocky to feel confident if that was the only feedback I was receiving.

The other reasons varied from inconsistent to insulting. Apparently, more than a few of the e-mails I sent to K- were “less than respectful.” This shocked me. I have never been actively rude to anyone in years (except for one instance in which someone was physically abusive of a good friend of mine), and I would never display that sort of behavior in the workplace, regardless of the circumstances.

Now, I’m not formal, either, and I don’t kiss up to people. I don’t know what B- and K-‘s definition of “less than respectful” is, and even when asked they did not provide examples.

Nevertheless, I immediately delivered a sincere apology, which was summarily shrugged off. K- wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. The verbal onslaught continued, and I started to cry. I cried so hard, they had to cancel the meeting, but not before I was scolded for losing my composure.

In all of my working life, I have cried on the clock a handful of times: when I was having problems with my partner, that time I broke my foot, that other time I was having symptoms of stroke and had to go to the hospital. And I’ve been reprimanded at least once before, and criticized on various occasions–they’ve never brought me to tears. Not until Friday. My meeting was at one. I cried until I left at five (and well after). I took all of my things with me in case I decided not to return, which I have.

What really struck me about this whole interaction was not what was said verbally. Any part of this would have been manageable at face value. Misunderstandings–especially in written communication–happen all of the time. Work performance cannot improve without critique. Explaining the reasons behind not being considered for a job can help avoid feelings of being brushed off. The meta communication, however, conveyed that none of these things were the goal of this meeting.

B- seemed eager in her criticisms. Her eyes were bright and focused. Her tone was accusatory and uncompromising. As I expressed surprise, regret, or anxiety, she seemed increasingly excited. Her excitement turned to irritation as my crying became less controllable. She seemed to jump on the opportunity to tell me how my crying was impeding our communication, as if what was going on was a dialogue.

K- was passive. She wouldn’t look at me, not even when I apologized to her for offending her. She would only speak to B- and not to me. She slouched in her chair. She was fidgeting and seemed agitated.

The messages I was receiving were that I wasn’t showing enough deference (sorry, Your Highness), that I needed to be kept in my place (which cheek should I kiss?), and that I was generally unwanted in the department (well f- you, too!). After the meeting was over, both B- and K- seemed at least partially satisfied. Smug, even. They had finally brought me down as low as they could.

My communication style is very direct. If I have an issue, I bring it up, in a respectful but matter-of-fact way. Only in extreme circumstances do I lay accusations, and in the vast majority of cases, I also listen. I seek resolutions to conflicts. I communicate how situations make me feel without assuming intentions. I take accountability for my actions and their consequences. Now, I’m no expert in sociology, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, and I’m pretty sure that is what adult communication is all about.

Needless to say, with my pride and dignity so badly injured, I left work with very little inclination to return. Five minutes after leaving work–as if the universe was trying to tell me something–I got a job offer. Who am I to say no to the universe? I got home and wrote out my resignation letter–bursting at the seams with meta communication–and e-mailed it to both B- and K-. Whether or not that was their intended result, that was the desire they communicated to me.

So say what you mean, and mind your meta, because people are listening.