Few things in life (ahem – relationships!) work when you apply an all or nothing mindset. We try to do the right thing, as we should, and we give people chance after chance after chance.
Only when patterns of red-flag behavior become impossible to ignore do we find our backbone, define our boundaries, and say enough is enough.
On the lighthearted side, you’ll recognize these themes in countless TV and film tropes, because they set up the redemptive story arc so perfectly.
It just wouldn’t be as satisfying to see Marty McFly stand up to Biff if he hadn’t been a fumbling, groveling shell of a person for the first two thirds of the story, would it?
Nor would we feel that same “Yasss girl!” reaction when Andi delivers her parting words to Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada (book version), after enduring months of humiliation, condescension and abuse.
Take it all the way back to the powersuit shoulder pads of the 1980s and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. She took Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker at face value until the latter revealed her true colors. Then, it was on.
Hence the point of this letter. I would never want to send you out into the world striving for anything less than to meet and treat those in your path with respect and kindness. But the story does not end there. And I spent far too many years of my own life being overly accommodating when I shouldn’t have.
As a Recovering People Pleaser, let me make a few points abundantly clear.
Kindness is not weakness. Kindness is not going along to get along. Kindness is not neutering your own opinions because it makes others feel uncomfortable.
Kind people have boundaries. Kind people say ‘no.’ Kind people do not bend over backwards for those whose actions are selfish, manipulative, harmful or cruel.
Early in my career, I found myself in such a scenario, though it was hardly my first rodeo with the privileged princess type.
I was the new hire and got the impression pretty darn quickly that I hadn’t passed her sniff test. Having learned early on that it’s better to out-maneuver a work bully than to engage in any office sabotage (don’t do this ever – it’s a lose-lose for all involved and a career-limiting move – more on this in another blog post), I played the Kill Them with Kindness card like my life depended on it.
She did not thaw.
In an ironic Parent Trap-y kind of twist, we ended up traveling together a lot – like upwards of 10-15 trade shows a year, sometimes gone from home for as much as a week at a time. You really get to know people when you travel, and I figured this would be my chance to bond with her and smooth over any “I’m still sizing you up” vibes.
Except it didn’t have a Parent Trap-y outcome. She loathed me, and I could feel it.
Still, I slapped a smile on my face, and without being an overeager little Labrador begging for her to accept me, I tried to be the most helpful coworker and fun to be around person I could be.
Ever the gossip, when she wasn’t talking down to me like I was a complete idiot or torpedo-ing any attempt at friendly conversation I’d make when we were in a larger group, Miss Mouth of the South would hold court.
From her sorority chapter room drama at Auburn to the seven-figure insurance policy ensuring her future, I heard it all. Much to my chagrin, her shallow drivel knew no end. In related news, my poker face became Oscar-worthy during this time.
A few years later, we sat in a conference room with a few of our colleagues, this woman again talking at us all without bothering to notice how disinterested we all were.
After spouting off how it was time for a change, how underpaid she was, and how she had an upcoming interview for a big pharma company (one where she would be making triple her current salary, she was clear to tell us on repeat), she deigned to talk in my general direction.
“Hey, don’t you have a friend who works there?”
“And your dad is a doctor, right? Does he have any connections he could use to help me?”
I would not lift my pinky finger to help you, I thought, even though not’s exactly what I said.
Instead, this is what came out, and only because we were in mixed company and my mama raised me right.
“I’ll give that some thought.”
Later, she found me in the break room.
“Hey, I would really appreciate you helping me with the interview and reaching out to your contact.”
I just looked at her.
I remembered her shaming me in front of our other colleague for not knowing how to set up the electricity at our trade show booth – “Do you really not remember this? I showed you once already.” Making fun of me in an email (that I was copied on) for not being super comfortable with how to use the Nextel cell phone they’d given me. Talking to me only if she absolutely had to on the countless taxicab rides we shared (when it was just the two of us), and how she would turn on the charm when others were present.
Well, I thought, it’s now or never.
“I’m sorry, but no. I’m not comfortable doing that.”
In that instant, her faux sweet demeanor evaporated.
“Why not?”, hand on her hip, eyebrow arched as if to dare me not to yield to her request. I could almost see the flashing sign above her head: “No one says ‘no’ to me.”
“Um, because I don’t want to. You haven’t been very nice to me and I don’t think it’s right that you’re asking me to do this.”
Sorry not sorry, ya big ole spoiled brat!
That was in my twenties. 44-year-old me probably would’ve helped her, but I also would have framed it differently.
“You know, I will make the introduction, but I have something I need to say to you first.
You have been awful to me, and I don’t know why. Please treat people better in the future.
Remember that I am doing something nice for you here, even though you’ve given me every reason not to. You don’t get to go through life dumping on people and then having the audacity to ask them for favors.”
Maybe life has softened her a bit too. Maybe not (the cynic in me says a leopard doesn’t change its spots). Either way, as my friend Ginny would say, good riddance to bad rubbish.
My parting message for you in this letter is to feel your way through how you respond to difficult personalities. You’ll encounter them everywhere, and there is no hard and fast rule for how to handle them.
The Golden Rule is never wrong, so start there.
If someone is just truly heinous to you and when you self-reflect, you can honestly find no cause, then have conviction in standing your ground.
I try to give people lots of grace, because I need lots of grace. And I still believe that at their core, most people are good.
For the ones who aren’t so much, just don’t ever mistake the value of being kind with enabling their unacceptable behavior.