Unwinding the power of hateful, hurtful comments so that we can move on
For six years, my social media guru, JC, has been haranguing me to get started on podcasts. Develop a presence on YouTube.
For six years I've pushed back hard, my recalcitrance a mystery to him, and clearly to myself, until yesterday. We had a talk about why. It wasn't until then that I realized how a crass comment from someone I trusted as my coach had eviscerated my confidence in this area.
First, look. I'm not without a sense of humor. In 2010, I wrote a prize-winning book on the power of words, but in that perfect way that we write what we most need to learn, I somehow overlooked this particular exchange. Here's what happened.
I'd been working with a coach and trusted friend for a few years. As a professional speaker, part of what we sell is how we look, although the message is far more important. They can clash, however, such as a person discussing health and wellness who is obese and clearly in physical distress. That said, the speaking industry is full of folks who aren't beauty queens or models. They can be immensely impactful without looking like movie stars. Most of us don't.
In fact, much of the National Speaker's Association royalty, if you will, are in their sixties and beyond. They are masters of their craft, and their aging selves are part of their agency. Gravitas comes closer to the grave, if you'll forgive the pun.
But not many of us age gracefully.
This particular person and I are a year apart. I'm now 69, and this incident happened about ten years ago. During a coaching session on storytelling, this coach ripped into me about my aging face and the wrinkles forming on my throat.
As if I could suddenly, overnight, do something about either. As if.
While I am well aware that such an ugly personal attack has nothing to do with me and everything to do with this coach's deepening discomfort with his own aging face and body, you and I might find it a bit hard to give that kind of scathing idiocy a balanced response. Particularly when, as in this case, the comment came from someone who had long been a close friend and whom I admired.
Those whom we love have a particular pathway to those parts of us most vulnerable to personal attacks.
As it was, I grew up with a father who regularly berated me about my body, so such comments tend to cut deeply into wounds that have already been part of my psyche for decades. Learning to rewire that conditioning takes a lot of work. I have done a lot of work. That progress can get derailed when those close to us take out their verbal scalpels and lay waste to our self-esteem.
I internalized the cut, and that was that. I left the speaking industry not long afterwards, and focused on adventure travel. Said travel has carved far more road maps, valleys and gullies on my face and neck since, proof positive of summits reached, oceans kayaked, horses ridden and adventures had all over the world.
A smooth face is the gift of youth. A beautiful young face is an accident of Nature.
A wrinkled face is proof of life and a work of art.
I have a beautifully interesting face. I am no longer burdened by the compulsions of youth, the desperate, clawing need to preserve what cannot possibly be preserved. My youth left the building of my outer skin a long time ago, and moved into the hallways of my heart as youthfulness.
What was aging me, and I didn't know it, were my coach's horrible, hateful words. They have been festering, especially as I age towards seventy, and the creeping grays in my hair are matched by deepening laugh lines.
JC's been pushing, and I've been avoiding, moving to the screen. For me to be competitive in my market I MUST move to YouTube and podcasts. My face needs to be out there. I am in my own way. Until yesterday I didn't understand why.
All JC saw was my resistance. All I could identify was that I didn't want a camera trained on my face. I told him this story yesterday and the situation became almost dizzyingly clear.
Here's how I'm handling this
First, my coach wasn't speaking to or about me. Sometimes we take others out along the way, most particularly our children, when we flail around in in deep distress. We can't possibly understand how much damage we're doing to others when we are stabbing ourselves.
In fact, because this man cannot countenance the fact that he is sometimes incredibly cruel, if I called him out or reminded him about this incident, he'd be horrified. And, he would deny it to his dying day, committing instead to gaslighting me that I remembered incorrectly. As would many others more invested in being a good guy than in owning what hurts they sow out of carelessness.
He is a good man in many ways but these are serious flaws, and they undermine his agency as a coach. If we have the conceit to coach, we must also have the courage to accept our mistakes. When we model such personal power, we teach it. That's why good coaches are so rare.
Second, there is no way I'm going to get an apology from this man. The responsibility is on me to separate my sacred self from his self-hate. I'm not the author of that, nor did I deserve to be the recipient of that lava. I must let go of any need for someone else to fix what only lives inside me. The blood in my ledger, as it were, I put there, because I accepted my coach's words as gospel. It's up to me to erase it.
Finally, I take my power back by calling out the lie. The beauty that lives in me is not dictated by my looks. And, what wrinkles I may or may not have also have nothing to do with the value of my message. For if I worry compulsively about my aging face, then the message I send to those who read my articles or listen to my podcasts only perpetuates the lie that our value lies in our relative youth and beauty, and nowhere else.
My coach's behavior was unfortunate, but it also speaks to how widespread and endemic ageism and age-hate is in our culture. The problem is when we set ourselves up to be professional advisors and guides to others, and this kind of evil slime slithers through and wreaks terrible damage on those whom we claim to be helping.
We are always and forever doing such Deep Work, if we have vowed to develop self-awareness. There is never a time when we're fixed, as there is inevitably some nerve laid bare by someone else's hurtful comments. So many of those hurts are held inside us, hidden in dark corners, acting as cancers on our "I can". When we feel damaged by another's words, that in many ways allows us the gift of facing where an internal lie about our intrinsic value may be hiding.
JC reminded me that if ever I needed to be reinforced or required a cheering squad to rewrite a lie, he's right there. Just as I would be and am for him, should he doubt his own value. In such ways as a community we can unravel the Gordian knot of past hurts, present damage, and the cacophony of doubts we all face as we go grey.
Freedom lies in calling out the lies. Ultimately youth doesn't determine beauty. And no one can rob us of the gift of beautiful aging without our full permission.