I grew up with parents who were extremely kind and encouraging to me. So it came as somewhat of a shock when I left home at 18 and realized that the rest of the world wasn’t quite so warm and fuzzy. As a young woman living in the city (Boston), some of the verbal zingers I was hit with – at school, at work, or just out in public in general – stunned me. Sometimes a hurtful remark, either directed toward me personally or simply at me because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, would take me days to get over.
Yet as I look back on my younger years, certain negative remarks or experiences actually produced a positive change, providing me with an insight that provoked a productive action in response. (Besides my learning to give a Bronx cheer or flip the bird.)
There was the co-worker who told me she didn’t want to hang around with me any more because I was so negative (which caused me to re-examine and finally cease what was then my constant gossiping, and that made me a far more contented person and sought-after companion). There was the professor who told me I would never get into graduate school (who steeled my resolve, and ultimately I earned an M.F.A. with a 3.88 G.P.A.). There was the boss who was so critical and rude that I decided to leave what was otherwise a wonderful job (which caused me to discover an entirely new and ultimately far more satisfying career in teaching).
Being criticized has even helped me with my self-confidence, if you can believe that. I have always been uncomfortable about my appearance. Even though I love clothes, I’ve often felt shy about standing out, and so I’ve tended to wear muted or dark colors and simple, body-covering styles.
All that changed when I got up the nerve to buy a hot-pink skirt about a year ago. The color just called to me, and I couldn’t resist. I was so excited to wear it! But when I did, one of my co-workers made a negative remark about how the color was too bright.
At first I thought, “She’s right, maybe it’s a little too garish.” And I contemplated taking the skirt to the Goodwill bin.
But over the course of several days, it dawned on me. The person who said this to me had no sense of style. She was NOT someone I want to look like. Why would I want to take her fashion advice? And furthermore, why would I want to assign her any credibility at all?
Since then, I’ve made it my business to find as many bright colors and mix as many prints and patterns as I can. And I’m loving it! Every day is an adventure, as I open my closet door and try to figure out what new and unexpected combinations I can come up with.
Case in point, I found this wonderful blouse (below) at a thrift store yesterday. I tried it on, and I felt like a wild bird. The brilliant colors and snazzy trimmed hem brought a smile to my face. I would never have had the nerve to wear something like this before my shrew co-worker made that ignorant remark. Now, I can’t wait to wear it! Not only because I think it’s beautiful and I want to bring beauty into the world, but also because it’s like an “f--- you” to that co-worker and any other critical, joyless people lurking out there.
I wish every lesson I learned could be like my childhood, the good old days, when my parents would tell me how well I was doing and only if absolutely necessary make gentle corrections to my behavior. But even if the world doesn’t always work like that, it’s instructive to me to realize that there are lessons even in adverse situations.