She was maybe six years old when she said it. Young enough to not necessarily know what "suck" meant, but old enough to know that it fit the bill. The age at which I ought to have called her out for her language. But her eyes... her eyes were so filled with hurt and confusion and pain that I let the PG-rated near-curse slide and made a silent prayer to take all the pain and hurt and confusion from her so she wouldn't have to feel it. But more importantly, that she wouldn't have to know the truth that she already knew:
Mean people suck.
In truth, I can't recall how what happened next. If I offered any advice or simply a soft place to land. (I hope the latter.)
I was thinking about this last Thursday night when I went to see Amy Cuddy speak here in Toronto. You've likely seen her TED talk on power poses and the body-mind connection.
Her new book speaks to what lives on the other side of the coin of power. If powerlessness is HERE, we would surmise, powerfulness (why is this not a word?) is THERE. Not so. She says it's presence, which is quite appropriately the name of her book.
I respect and admire her work (and HER presence) and reference both in my work on the Impostor Complex, so I was delighted when asked to hear her speak and then join her party for dinner afterward.
My date, a talented and big-hearted columnist who has received more than her share of vitriol, and I often talk about handling snark and trolls and she was curious to hear what Amy had to say on the matter.
Similarly, during speaking gigs where I walk people through my Step into Your Starring Role process (and we "meet the critics"), I usually get asked about how to handle everything on the wide spectrum from critics to asshat bosses to haters. (Happened again on Saturday when I spoke at an event for 70 women in engineering - and a couple of brave dudes.)
So when Amy was asked a question from the audience about how to deal with people in power who try to subjugate you and make you feel powerless, we both leaned in. (Get it? Impostor Complex humour.)
"Don't try to out-alpha the alpha dog," was Amy's response. AND:
"Stand your ground (literally and figuratively). Try to stay open. And above all, if at all possible, try to find a touch of compassion for them."
Simple, smart, sane, and challenging. Of course. How could it not be challenging?
There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all approach. But I have yet to come across another way. It's generally a feel-your-way-into-it variation on:
- Feel what you feel.
- Know who you are.
- Try to imagine why they do what they do. (They generally know not what they say, nor do, nor their impact.)
- Integrate what you need (from their criticism - assuming we're not talking about trolls - and release the rest.
- Surround yourself with the best and brightest and love your lovers.
- Try to find a bout of gratitude for the teachings they have offered in their own inimitable, asshat-esque way. (You know, like, I'll NEVER manage anyone like that.)
A day or so after my then six year old's declaration about mean people, I circled back and asked her how things were working out with that grade school meanie.
"Fine," she said, entirely unruffled. "She is still calling me names, but I'm not going to let it bother me."
"How are you managing to do that, love?" I asked.
Well, you can imagine how my heart swelled when she responded with:
"My power is my happiness and no one can take that away from me."
You heard that, right?
For more, I recommend Maria Popova of Brainpickings curated this wellspring of resources on managing haters. Specifically: Benjamin Franklin’s trick for handling haters, Vi Hart on how to tame the trolls, and Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.