I still feel weird saying it all these years later, but that person did me a favor.
I was in my twenties, living in Los Angeles, and sitting around a table with some friends. We were planning what we would do that weekend. Before I’d arrived, the group had already decided where we would eat that night.
I felt a strong defensive reaction in my gut, a dull pain, a pattern that repeated often in my younger life. They’d made this decision without me! Didn’t they like me? Why didn’t they care what I thought? Didn’t they want to be my friends anymore? Why hadn’t anyone asked me?!?
So I spoke up. “Why didn’t anyone consult me about this?”
Melanie, a friend I really liked and respected, laughed. “Oh, Amy,” she said, smiling. “You’re such a victim.”
It felt as if she’d slapped my face. I could sense the redness spreading across my cheeks. The floor seemed to drop out from under me as if I were on a roller coaster about to speed down a hill. The pain in my gut sharpened and I was ready to speak.
No I’m not! Why would you say that? I don’t act like a victim!
That’s what was on the tip of my tongue when a sudden revelation hit me. I don’t know if I was just old enough for my brain development to consider a more mature response; I don’t know if, in this moment, I’d suddenly understood the difference between a reaction and a response.
What I wanted to say was a reaction. But another option revealed itself to me: maybe she was right.
Oh, man, that was tough to consider. In my world, given the way I was raised, to be acting like a “victim” was to be bad. A bad person. A bad friend. Just generally bad.
I was deeply embarrassed, and I knew I had a chance here to choose my response, to break my pattern of defensiveness. And all of this was churning through my brain during a total of five seconds.
And my next thought is what really got me. Crap. I’m acting like my mother. This is exactly what she’d do.
I was taking a normal conversation between friends, potentially creating drama over a non-event, and making the moment about me. And I knew why: for some reason, making a decision without me made me feel abandoned. Unwanted. Unfriended if you will.
It would be years before I could unpack exactly why I felt this way, but I instinctively realized that it wasn’t true. They were being normal and I was reacting dysfunctionally.
So I chose to respond. I kept my mouth shut and let the conversation proceed. And I don’t mind saying that this is one of the hardest things I ever did in my young life–to sit with that feeling of abandonment and contemplate it, realize it was my problem and not my friends’ problem, and shut down my defensiveness.
It is often tough to speak the truth to someone. It is especially difficult to speak the truth to someone you care about. My friend Melanie told me the truth and somehow it stuck. Maybe it’s because her tone was joking and not accusatory. Or maybe I was just ready to hear it.
Something clicked in my brain. I was determined not to follow in my mother’s emotional path. I began to change that pattern of behavior immediately, now that I could see it, name it, and realize that I had choices in how I responded to the people around me. Especially people who were important to me. Because, to paraphrase Billy Joel, when someone tells me something that’s hard to hear, they may be wrong, but for all I know, they may be right.
This is why I’ve started this blog: to identify those moments that I’ve had sudden breakthroughs in the way I think or see the world or in how I treat people or how I treat myself. Moments that were points of no return. Once the revelation hit me, I was altered forever.