Intense. Ambitious. Competitive. Aggressive. Bossy.
If I had a nickel for every time someone said this to me, I could retire basically… now. I really didn’t understand the ramifications of this, of course, when I was younger. These labels, I assumed were just who I was. And the real problem though was that I knew they were negative words. The way a teacher might say, “She’s too competitive,” after a classroom spelling bee. Or a boy might respond with a text after a fizzled relationship with, “You’re just intense.” Or a report card might come home with “Bossy” scratched into the notes section after a long list of As. And “ambition”? Well that might as well have been a four letter word.
For years and years I just assumed this was who I was. Intense, ambitious, competitive, aggressive, bossy… or more generally, unlikeable. And because girls are supposed to be likeable and nice and quiet and agreeable, this must mean there was something wrong with me. I was less than what I should be.
I carried around these thoughts with me wherever I went. The more I heard those words, the more I believed it. The labels became my identity, or so I thought.
Maybe it was age or maybe it was a lot of self-reflecting, but I started to discover that I wasn’t intense, I was passionate. I was ambitious, but that’s not a bad thing. I may be competitive, but I’m not cut-throat. I’m not aggressive, I’m vocal and firm in my beliefs. I’m not bossy, I’m a leader.
Once I changed my own mindset, I felt a lot more confident in who I was. I saw myself differently and it made me much happier in general. But that didn’t mean that other people weren’t on board and it didn’t mean that I wasn’t susceptible to returning to those feelings of unworthiness.
I’ve had, just like anyone else, a ton of ups and downs over the years… especially since graduation. The 20s are totally volatile (more on the later!). However, when I think about what moment that I felt the most vulnerable, the most insecure, and the most hurt? It was this summer at my old job. Frankly, I loved my job, but (like I would assume any job!) there were some things I didn’t like. Working at a startup was always filled with roller coasters of insane deadlines, strong personalities, and lots of brilliant people. Put all that together and sometimes it could cause serious riffs.
On one of those more stressful days, we had a team meeting with an advisor who had flown in from the west coast. This advisor was a woman and someone that I had heard so so so much about. My friend worked closely with her and I have to admit that I was jealous at times. I wished that I could work with her because everyone talked about how smart and great she was. I wanted to know her, work with her, and most importantly learn from her. Honestly, I had this brilliant picture of who she was painted in my head and I could hardly contain my excitement to meet her.
During the meeting, everyone was voicing concerns and opinions and thoughts about the current state of affairs. Was I vocal? Absolutely! What we were doing was really important to me!!! I wanted us to more than succeed, I wanted us to knock it out of the park. I was frustrated how… negative the conversation was getting. Yes, the situation would be a challenge, but it was such an amazing opportunity that I thought we could really nail if we were all together on it. At one point, the advisor, the woman who I looked up to and respected entirely turned to me and in an impolite tone curtly asked, “I’m going to interrupt you– has anyone ever told you that you’re really aggressive?” This was not a one-on-one conversation, it was in front of everyone on the team. It was inappropriate and rude. I felt my face and ears burn with frustration and simply responded, “Yes, I’ve heard that before.” Then I swallowed my anger and continued with my thought.
Somehow I held it together long enough to not cry in front of everyone, but my manager took me into an empty conference room after and I cried and cried. All of a sudden, I felt like I was that insecure fifteen year old afraid to speak up, afraid to show too much passion, afraid of being labeled in a way that girls shouldn’t be labeled. Over the next week, coworkers (some I was close with, some I wasn’t so close with) apologized to me for not saying something in the moment.
That one incident took me a really long time to recover from. I lost myself after it. I could hear this woman’s voice in my head with everything I did for months afterwards. “Don’t say anything,” she might whisper when in a meeting the next week. “Keep your mouth shut and just nod ‘yes,'” she might advise. “Your opinion doesn’t matter,” she informed me right before I would go to speak.
Slowly her voice was getting softer and I was finding my own voice again, but man oh man. I still get angry, upset, and emotional when I think back to that afternoon. I felt little and unimportant and “bad.”
I absolutely love
Lean In’s new campaign to “Ban Bossy.” (Cameo by Beyonce?! Awesome.)