The theme of rejection towers over denial, grief and anger in my life. That is not to say that the three musketeers were bit parts. They loomed large for decades, but rejection was the mighty overlord of the kingdom. Looking back on it, I wonder what microscopic life force propelled me forward. I was once asked why I hadn’t considered suicide by a professional who should have known better than to plant the idea. Cowardice was the answer, I thought, but never bothered to say.
I was never normal, whatever that is, and never fit in. Even as I write this, I am tempted to limit that rejection to socio-economics. But that’s untrue. I was “unfit” and defective in every human sense. Too small at four pounds. Too weak and requiring C-section birth. Too high maintenance; needing goat’s milk. Too slow to learn how to tie my shoes or tell time. Too sensitive; never smiling, yet reacting to colors I disliked long before words were present. Too female, since my brother was a large, firstborn male and much beloved for it. Too unemotional and unable to partake in the family hysteria. Too introverted and unable to make friends in school. Too bright for regular classes and skipped often, making me unfit for older classmates. Too bright, again, and removed to a school for gifted girls where I was a pariah because I was unsophisticated, did no homework and was Bronx instead of Manhattan, with all that implied. Too insecure to have hobbies, instinctively aware that no one would support my interests anyway, and way too uncoordinated for sports. Too gullible and people-pleasing to play with land sharks and come away whole. Too annoying to be told the truth that the tickling I felt at my feet while watching television belly-down on the carpet was actually a mouse and not my mother’s knitting yarn. Too vexatious to receive dental care.
With so much reinforcement, “too-ting” my own horn became natural. Competent intellectually. Invisibly disabled emotionally. No crutches. No wheelchair. Just apprehension and a unanimous thumbs down. It was so familiar by the time I reached adulthood that I whitewashed any knowledge of my few inherent strengths with a recurring explanatory myth that “they were wrong.” Any facts that ran contrary to my belief in my defectiveness were abruptly dismissed as errors by those who just didn’t know me well enough.
It happened again, recently. After 30+ years in recovery. I was working at a local business. There was one other person in the office, a girl likely half my age. I was given a mindless chore and evidently did it quicker than expected. She commented that since I was done, she had nothing else to give me. I let the remark go, but heard it as a negative. She was all giggling personality when others were present but could barely eke out a good morning when she saw me. How could working efficiently be a bad thing on day one? Were my defects trumpeting their presence already, within the first eight hours? Dear God, no!
After a few days I noticed that she pushed mechanical, tedious tasks and provided incomplete direction, putting me in an awkward position. She knew that I had no experience in the particular industry we served, but brought other competence. The more I asked questions to flesh out the missing information and gain some mastery, the less she explained. Questions which were ignored when we were alone were gleefully answered when another was present. I was being used for her ego gratification and set up to fail. The pushing was distinctly unfriendly and threatening – hallmarks of bad management in my experience. I knew enough about the world to know that much for sure. But what could I do with that knowledge?
I saw distinct traces of narcissism as well. What little conversation we had was about her diet, her upcoming trip, her boyfriend, her cat. There was nothing mutual about it. Every person who entered provided a new opportunity to replay the infomercial about her life. By the day before her trip I could have recited the details of her itinerary by rote. In between there was a constant drone of self-talk on her part. I could never be 100% sure if and when she might be imparting useful information in my direction, and the drone was distracting so I started to tune her out. When she realized what I was doing, she spoke louder, like blaring Gaussian noise, sensing that it was annoying to me. It was, in short, a poster for passive aggression.
There it was, an instant replay from childhood. This time it played out at work. I saw myself retreating to my childhood stance – emotionally distancing, freezing up, staying silent, feeling inadequate, making myself invisible. I was unable to learn because I felt under attack. Just like telling time. Or tying shoes. Amazingly, I tried even harder to figure things out on my own, devising tools and check lists and cheat sheets to identify the undisclosed process. Just like childhood, when confronted with rejection, I tried to find creative ways through the maze. I desperately didn’t want to be a victim of this evil. But I was failing repeatedly in slow motion. Errors abounded. Simple screw-ups. Dumb mistakes which, when identified and remediated, were repeated the very next day. I was out of control and watched from above as I spiraled downward, less able to engage.
I was taking a running leap at failure, like a track and field runner taking hurdles, lifting one leg at a time. I watched it unfold day after day, and felt powerless to stop it. Usually a quick study with a good memory, I felt surprisingly stupid and incapable of retaining any information at all. I showed up early every day, hands like ice, and mouth as dry as the Mojave. Damn it all! How could I know better and still get caught in this self-hating loop? Wasn’t my recovery fully integrated by now?
After a few weeks like this, I remembered. I came to. I think my body knew first, and my mind caught up later. I was in another dysfunctional and toxic environment where egos were running the show, lies ran rampant and no one would risk a new person gaining ground. It was childhood redux. There was nothing I could do to make her want me to succeed or help me get the routine down pat. As a matter of fact, I realized that my very presence would eventually limit the amount she earned in overtime.
With renewed clarity, and efforts to adapt, speak up and seek aid, all of which were blocked, I knew that I was more than capable of the work. I remembered that I learn easily and well, and that I usually perform assiduously, like an ever-busy bee. I am generally happy to support the larger whole and am not a lazy diva. That is the kind of acceptance of self that is the by-product of years of self-examination, honesty, trial-and-error, and program work. This department had a history of high turnover. While my performance was poor, in my opinion, there was a plausible reason for it.
Fixing the core issue wasn’t my job. I was a witness and a temporary victim – until I chose to resign. I had no guilt at all about going for many reasons, and wondered when the company would address the problem. But I didn’t carry it around in my head for one extra minute after clarity. Not my responsibility. I took the next right action after scoping the problem, seeing my role in it, understanding why I felt rejected, attempting fixes in my own lane, and finally turning it over. I turned an external rejection into an acceptance and appreciation of self. I was reparenting myself with love. I was never able to do this before the program. I would have stayed on, clinging, anxious, hoping for a lifesaver that would prevent my drowning.
Will I come across narcissists at work again? Probably. And when I do, disappointment will be inevitable. Suffering, however, is optional. I don’t have to swallow rejection like a modern milkshake of childhood abuse. I accept that I am capable, hard-working, cooperative, and more than enough. I deserve to work with others who are, at least, capable of sharing knowledge.
Within two days of leaving I was working with a new, appreciative client.