Empathy and Consistency in the face of assholery

My parents like to talk about how easy I was as a baby. Apparently, I was always happy, smiling, slept seven hours the first night they brought me home, etc. Little did they know it was all a ruse to force them to love me unconditionally before the tides shifted. Emotional consistency in the face of assholery isn’t easy. 

I was this many years old when I thought Listerine would double as vomit.

I remember thinking it would totally work, this Listerine concoction. I poured it on the carpet at the top of the stairs, and then put on my best sick face. I slowly drifted down the stairs to tell my Mom that I had thrown up and clearly couldn’t go to school. I will never forget that, trying so hard to convince my Mom that this blue, minty fresh puddle on the carpet was obviously vomit. I was dedicated when it came to getting out of school.

The scheming hit new levels when the testing started. I was sitting in weird conference rooms with strangers asking me all kinds of questions and making me do activity after activity while she jotted down notes I was not allowed to see. Those rooms smelled like fresh paper and pencil shavings. My Mom tried to explain that all off this was just so we could find ways to help me learn better, ways to help the school better understand me. I would rest my head against her shoulder, soft and hard all at once, and try to believe her. My burgeoning identity, which was still so little, so pliable, felt exposed in ways that felt dangerous. Kids are constantly making choices about who they are and how they are going to react to challenge, struggle, and discomfort. The emotional lives of children are far more complex than we think or remember.

Children are growing into the people they will become every single day. At a very young age, I decided that vulnerability was not an option. It was not a single event, one person, or one class. It was more like small layers of paint added to cover each slight, each fear, each shame, each insecurity. Like windows that are so coated in old, shitty paint you have to fight them open. I spent so much time trying to be funny to ensure people would want to hang out with me and to assure the outside world I was fucking bullet proof, nothing bothered me. I was constantly looking to assess the vulnerabilities of others so I had a point of attack should they make me feel exposed. I choose aggressive sarcasm and dominance over making space for others or just admitting I didn’t know something. Defense mechanisms take years to create. You’re barely aware and too young to fully understand that these habits, these reactions, are becoming your hard wiring. 

My Mom likes to joke that, from about the ages of 10 to 15, she would get nauseous when she knew I was on my way home. Only now do I realize that my Mom and Dad were dodging a lot of shrapnel as I blew through adolescence. I know some of it wounded them, but they never gave up and they never stopped. My parents knew full well the pain I was in. They held me when I cried, they motivated me when I needed it. They also went out of their way to find experiences for me to excel in that had nothing to do with school to counter my beliefs that I couldn’t be good at anything. When I was at my worst, they loved me, and more importantly, they fought for me. Meeting with teachers, advocating for me in IEP meetings, challenging me to be my better self even in moments of pain. Doing all of this despite the fact that I was taking all of my pain out on them with careless words, sarcasm, rudeness, and distance. 

While they chose to lead with empathy at every turn, which at times had to be incredibly difficult, there was also no room for bullshit. I called my Mom a bitch to her face, and rightfully so, she paused for about 2 seconds and then slapped me. I remember this so vividly because I am 6′ tall and have been since I was young and my Mom is about 5’7″. She had to lean back and wind up to get the reach. When I overstepped and said something shitty to someone I was quickly reminded that shit would not fly, no matter how upset I was. My parents loved me unconditionally, I always knew that, but I also needed consistent consequences. Truly, I must have been exhausting. My parents were not perfect, nor are they now, no one is. What they are, that has made all the difference, is consistent. 

Assholery is learned behavior, and how those around us respond to it predicts so much of our future selves. My road to realizing there was a better path, that vulnerability was actually a virtue was long and winding. My parents traveled that road right along side me, never letting me stray too far. Their consistency paved a parallel path that I didn’t really even know existed until I was ready to change lanes. I can trace a line right from sitting in that weird, scary room getting tested for my learning differences to my divorce at an early age. So much time spent fighting, avoiding vulnerability, always wanting to be right. Desperate to prove to myself that I was worthy, that I was smart. It was that divorce actually, that was a game changer. The first time I realized that stakes were too high to avoid admitting I had fucked up. I am thankful for that relationship because it finally forced me to pivot. If I wanted to move on, I had to figure out all these maladaptive coping strategies I had built up. I had to sand some of that paint off that window.

I fought through many years of struggle with my identity and sense of self. I am also fully aware that my struggle pales in comparison to many. I know that even though I had many struggles, I also had ridiculous amounts of privilege.

I share this to call everyone who spends time with children to remember, as best they can, to choose empathy and consistency. We are so much further along on our journeys than our young people, and they need us, whether they admit it or not. Every moment where you may want to throttle their sweet little necks is also a moment where they are telling you that they need something, that they feel something. They are also asking you to tell them where the line is. They are on their own paths, and need to make mistakes and have hard moments where they stew in discomfort, but they also need someone beside them.

Be nice to young folks please and thank you. Also, Bill and Pam, you are the fucking best.