Practice Eight for Anything that Feels Impossibly Scary
Practice Eight: How Useful is This Story?
We all have our favorite stories — about ourselves, about our partners, our siblings, our children. Some of these stories tell others who we think we are. Some stories tell about our favorite experiences with others we love. Some stories reveal our vulnerability. For me, the ones I tell over and over are about who I think I am at my core.
Here’s one. In my late 30s through my mid 40s I worked as a retail stockbroker. My boss was a big, fat Irish guy who’d come up through the Merrill Lynch ranks. He knew every manager in the business and he thought he was as smart as any of them. When he wanted to speak to you (to me in particular, it seemed), he would not get up from his chair at his big desk in his glassed in office, he would yell. “Sara, get in here,” until I did.
I hated this and it rattled me every time. I’d go in, all eyes in our bullpen style office on me. What had Sara done this time? Len, my boss’ name was Len, would say something like, “You forgot to check the unsolicited box on this order ticket” (not exactly a capital offense). Then, in a slightly more moderate tone he’d say something like, “By the way, you’re leading the office in sales this month.” Was I the worst broker in the office, or the best? I just couldn’t tell.
After one of these encounters I went back to my desk and stewed for hours. I finally got up and went home. I stewed all weekend, explaining to my husband that I couldn’t work there if Len was going to continue to yell at me. My husband said I had to speak to him.
Monday morning I came in early. Len was in his office with all the lamps turned on. I walked in, my knees shaking and my hands sweating. I said “You can’t yell at me any more. I can’t work if you’re going to yell at me.”
He looked at me. A little smile curled at the edge of his mouth. He said, “You’re so mad at me, you’re going to cry.” In fact one tear leaked out of an eye.
“I’m not going to stop yelling,” he said. “You’re going to have to learn to yell back.”
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“Yes, you can.”
I walked out of his office. I thought to myself, “OK, you just made a bad situation worse.”
But, in fact, I did learn to yell back. I did learn to say, after whatever the infraction was, that it was no big deal. At first, Len would just look at me. Then he’d laugh. “OK,” he’d say. “Try to remember next time.”
Most of the newish women brokers in my office were afraid of Len. When I started to yell back (I didn’t really yell, but I did raise my voice slightly) they looked at me in admiration. I wasn’t afraid of Len any more. In fact, we got to be friends. He’d taught me how not to be afraid. But it never would have happened had I not found all the courage I had to speak to him in the first place.
So, this story is about courage.
I tell plenty of other stories, not all of which are flattering to me. I like to tell stories in which I did something completely wrong or stupid, as long as they are funny. I like to laugh at myself.
I’m telling some new stories about my cancer and my heart condition. I wasn’t sure about my oncologist at first. He didn’t look me in the eye. He seemed withdrawn. But he suggested we needed to have a heart to heart about whether I trusted him (I don’t think I did). This confrontation took courage on his part. Now he is my biggest advocate.
I also have a cardiologist. Other medical professionals at Kaiser Permanente, where I am a member, tell me he’s God on toast (a great cardiologist). But my experience is that he’s old school male, meaning he knows best and I should just follow his advice blindly. I don’t. I’m pretty sure I frustrate the you-know-what out of him, but I’m not going to let him treat me like a little girl. He said to me last week, “You’re a very smart woman, one who is eminently capable of participating in your own diagnosis and treatment.” OK, give the guy credit; he gets that I’m not going to follow him blindly. His next sentence, though, was, “So I wish you would accept that this (additional medication)is my best advice here.” I told him I would follow it — for a month — to see if it made any difference. Then we should reassess the dosage.
Perhaps it would be easier to just follow along. That is not how I have lived my life. It’s not to say that I’m not afraid when I have to confront something or someone who, in my estimation, does not have my best interest at heart. Sometimes I drag my feet. My oncologist confronted me, after all, not the other way around. But I am “a very smart woman” and I don’t like being treated like I’m not capable of making important decisions about my life. My story depends on my self-esteem and it needs to reflect my courage and strength as well as my foibles and mistakes.