Self-Defense, Verbal and Otherwise

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Photo by Marg, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

For much of my life I had problems defending myself. Partly because I didn’t quite know how to and partly because when under pressure I would become paralyzed and/or mute. People just did whatever they wanted to me.

One incident happened when I was in grade one (just to clarify, I’m Canadian; we call it grade one, not first grade). I was outside the school during lunch hour and some teachers came hurrying towards me and firmly told me that I needed to come to the principal’s office.

Apparently, I was being accused of breaking a window. I didn’t know why. I was not aware of having broken any window. But adults were saying I did, and I was completely trusting of adults, so I believed them. I believed that I had somehow broken that window without realizing it. As if maybe I had been running along and accidentally kicked up rocks from my shoes with such force that a window was broken. That sounds really implausible now, but it was the only explanation I could think of at the time.

Not that I expressed such thoughts. I couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth. I sat there silent, bewildered, and waiting to see what would happen.

By some miracle, my name was cleared without me having to do or say anything. I don’t quite remember what happened, but I think the real culprit confessed. I was free to go.

Flash forward 10 years. A bully girl attacked me and proceeded to beat me up really badly. By then I had learned to use my words. I kept saying, “If you have a problem with me, can’t we talk about it? Let’s work this out.” But she just yelled, “Shut up, loser!” The beating continued until an elderly couple came out of a nearby house and yelled that they were going to call the police. She left and the couple took me into their house and talked to me. “Why didn’t you do anything?” the man asked. “Why did you just let her do that to you?” I had no answer.

The problem was, despite having been able to find my words, I was not able to bring myself to physically fight back. I thought about it. I tried to envision it. But my body wouldn’t move. Other kids were cheering on the fight but there was no fight. There was no struggle. It was just one person pounding the other to a pulp. I suppose I looked like a coward but I wasn’t really afraid, just confused, sad, overwhelmed, and inexplicably paralyzed. I didn’t know why, so I couldn’t explain it.

Fortunately, once I was an adult people stopped inflicting violence on me. But I continued to find myself in situations where I was taken advantage of, misunderstood, or falsely accused, and I continued to be really bad at doing anything about it. I did try, but was horribly ineffective. Many times I was told, “You need to learn to stand up for yourself!”

Finally in my thirties I went through a year of counseling, and my counselor and I talked about strategies for standing up for myself if the need arose.

Then when I was 40 years old, one day at work, someone made a false accusation against me which was brought to my attention by my angry boss. I managed to stay calm and I explained to him why I was not guilty. He remained skeptical, as the person who made the accusation was highly regarded. He ended the conversation with, “I just want to get to the bottom of this!”

I knew it would not be difficult to prove my innocence. I compiled documents and e-mail exchanges that did get to the very bottom of the situation and revealed exactly what had happened. Basically, the whole mess was the result of someone requesting to book the facility for a certain date, me rightfully denying the booking because the facility was unavailable on that date, and them showing up anyway, leading to a whole shitstorm of consequences. It was 100% not my fault and the documents I provided proved it.

The following week was my 6-month performance review. I was told that while my work was of a consistently high quality and while I had always demonstrated a conscientious attitude, a courteous demeanor, and a high ethical standard, I was too defensive and had an unhealthy need for vindication. I told my boss that if he was referring to the incident of the previous week, perhaps I had misunderstood, but he’d said he wanted to get to the bottom of the situation. Since I had in my possession everything that could show him exactly what had transpired and why, I thought he would want to be made aware of it. My words only proved his point that I was defensive and he told me this was an area where I needed personal growth. I then made the mistake of blurting out that for much of my life I’d never defended myself, but I’d gotten counseling to learn how, and the fact that I could do so now meant I had achieved personal growth. He just stared at me. Then he made up a reason why I was fired.

It seems that I can’t quite get it right. I’m supposed to stand up for myself, but I’m not supposed to be defensive. I don’t know where the line is, and I still don’t know what I did wrong in the work situation (other than the part where I admitted that I’d had past issues that had required counseling, but things had already gone terribly awry by that point anyway). I know I am socially awkward, but I can’t imagine anyone not defending themselves or providing documents that proved a false accusation false. I’ve observed that most other people in the workplace are not pushovers and do not take any crap. But it seems like when other people do it, it’s accepted, and when I do it, I get it slightly wrong somehow, and it’s not accepted. I would be willing to change, but I’m never sure exactly where I’m going wrong.

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