Dare: Kicking the Habit of the Uppity Victim
"No." I only knew that she responded because I saw her lips move before she turned away and stared out the window.
"It's obvious that something is wrong. Would you please tell me?" I asked, annoyance tightening my jaw.
After two more attempts to pull the source of her displeasure out for inspection, she relented. "You're so mean to people. You don't give them a chance."
"Why do you say that? Because I insisted that the grocery clerk call me 'Ms.' instead of 'Mrs.'? I'm sorry if that embarrasses you, but she made an assumption that is very offensive to me. If I didn't show her how offended I was, she would undoubtedly make that mistake again."
"It's not just that. You're always so loud when you ask people to get out of your way in the grocery store, and in the car you always yell and honk at other cars and people in the street, and..."
By the time she got to the commentary on my driving behavior, I was firmly planted in defensive outrage. On the one hand, I dread few things more than having my only child disapprove of my behavior, my philosophy of life, my moral code, or, for that matter, my choice of shoes. On the other hand, how dare she pass judgement on my assertiveness when she has no idea how many years I spent struggling to overcome being sweet and powerless?
What followed in the next grueling ten minutes was a temper tantrum -- mine -- such as this house hasn't witnessed in at least two years. Mallory went mute and teary-eyed, then retreated to her room, undoubtedly making a mental note that it's a bad idea to tell Mom the truth. When I had at last spent my anger, I discovered the hurt below. I shared that feeling with her, we both cried, hugged, and began to recover.
In the following days and weeks, however, Mallory's words continued to sting me. They continued to hurt because they were true. I do treat people as if they were blocking the grocery aisle, pulling out in front of me, or crossing against a red light, with the intention of ruining my day. I do provide a diatribe on feminism to every grocery clerk who, following store policy, looks at the name on my check and says "Thank you, Mrs. Morrison!" I do feel the victim of ignorant technology if I miss the green light when I'm already late. I do feel a victim. Worse, I am an uppity victim. I not only feel unjustly persecuted by others' ill will and technology, I feel that everyone around me should respectfully BACK OFF whenever I feel the need to push a yellow light, pull out in front of another driver, or turn around without notice in the grocery aisle.
When had I turned myself into an uppity victim? The soul-searching that followed revealed that I hadn't always been a mean-spritied maniac. My tendencies to jump toward indignance had grown over a period of years, peaking during my tenure as one of several directors at a think tank. There I worked long hours under continuous pressure, had an often hectic travel schedule, and earned more money than I ever thought I would. High profile, high pay, and exhaustion: for me, this was the lethal combination. I began to secretly believe that I was contributing more to the planet than most of those around me. In short, I was better. I deserved special treatment, and not only was I not getting it, I was getting abused.
"How dare they!" the uppity victim cries out.
This uppitiness was a yet unexplored territory in my emotional and spiritual journey of the past year. I have explored so much since I left my high-powered job to become an independent author, supportive Mom, and usually sane person. My perspective about the importance of family, friends, and my own destiny have all been up for review during this year. While I still have miles to go before reaching the land of enlightenment, I have come to snicker at my former self-importance. Yes, I worked hard. Yes, I had pressure. But let's be honest, I didn't exactly have my finger on the record button. It took Mallory's observations, however, to make me recognize the lack of progress I had made on my behavior around strangers. While the uppity victim role was beginning to feel more uncomfortable as time passed, it had become a habit.
Once Mallory put my behavior on the table, I became self-conscious every time I got in the car, walked to the grocery store, or found myself in an environment where my uppity victim habit usually surfaced. I decided to try a radical approach: break the habit, cold turkey. Unlike other ruts and additions, I found this habit amazingly easy to abandon. After only a few attempts, I realized that it feels so much better to be tolerant than it ever did to be the first in line at the light. I feel pangs of recognition and empathy when faced with another uppity victim. I usually wave them in, let them scurry along their self-important way, and hope some day they will recognize their silliness.
Last week I sat down with Mallory and thanked her.
Ellen M. Morrison is an independent researcher and writer of novels and non-fiction. She is currently in the process of redefining success for the 21st century. Mallory's mom lives and writes in San Carlos, California.
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