Live Through This

The Higher Ground

Learning to control your power over others.

Right here is that moment—the one where you have all the power, the split second where you decide whether you’re going to (a) let her have the satisfaction of having gotten to you a little bit, or (b) pull out the TRUTH BOMB you’ve been hiding up your sleeve.

If you choose option B, you can really do some damage. You could say something humiliating like “No, it’s fine, just keep copying me—everybody already knows you’re doing it. They’ve been talking about you behind your back for months. People are laughing at you. You’re so pathetic. I feel sorry for you, honestly.”

Option A means knowing that you can say that, and then…not saying it. It means not even letting on that you have this secret weapon, because you know this girl is struggling to find herself, and that what you say to her will matter more to her than it will to you. This option is less satisfying in the moment, but it can save you from moments like mine, where you’re crying in a hotel room in Quebec and wishing you could take it all back.

Meg Ryan learned this the hard way in You’ve Got Mail. All her life, she always wished she could have the perfect, most devastating comeback for mean people, and when she finally gets her wish, it’s awful. The look on Tom Hanks’s face when she tells him that “no one will ever remember” him kills us as much as it obviously does her. It’s almost as heartbreaking as the look on Cher’s face when Tai delivers this immortal blow:

See? Movies and I are in agreement, so it’s obviously true: It’s almost never worth it to break out the big guns, verbally.

Notice that I said almost never. I’m not saying, “Zen and peace and serenity now, never fight,” and I’m sure not telling you to be submissive. I am actually 100 percent against your backing down just because you don’t want to be controversial, or because it’s easier to go along with everyone else. I’m saying, “Stay in control of your power to wield words like weapons. You have the ability to do real damage and to hurt; it can be hugely powerful not to.” I shouldn’t have told my dad that I hated him, but I have no problem saying something (civil) when he starts to talk about immigration control or gay rights or feminism. (My dad is ultra conservative; I am the opposite.) Likewise, if a friend is doing something that is really bothering you, like, say, openly flirting with your boyfriend/girlfriend or spreading rumors about you, it’s a good idea to speak up. And, of course, if a friend is doing damage to herself, if she maybe has a secret drinking problem or is cutting herself, speaking up is a good idea. You know a secret about someone that is actually hurting them? That’s not a truth bomb you’re dropping on someone, it’s a serious situation where you can try to get them help. Save your verbal bombs for a good cause.

That’s learning to control your own power. “What?” you might say. “I live with my parents and don’t even have a driver’s license. I don’t have any power!” It’s true that teenage girls are not very powerful at all in our dumb world. Most of you don’t have the same rights as adults and your opinions are largely ignored or even MOCKED; you’re constantly being told, by your teachers, your friends, your boyfriend/girlfriend, your church, the media, etc.—that you’re supposed to look and act a certain way; your parents/guardians are ON YOUR ASS ALL THE TIME. It feels like a LOT—way too much!—and there’s not much you can do to change it in the short term. I think maybe the reason we say nasty things to one another as teenage girls is that it’s one of the rare opportunities we have to wield any power at all. It can be hard to resist.

Socially, in school and among your friends and peers, you actually have lots of power. You can hurt someone at will. You can utterly destroy someone with words. You can also, if you choose to, spare others this kind of pain. You might feel like not retaliating against an attack is wimpy, but it’s the opposite. You don’t gain power by hurting someone; you had it all along. You wouldn’t have been able to hurt them if you didn’t. It’s how you choose to use that power that matters. It’s like in Harry Potter: Both Harry and Voldemort had power, but they wielded it in very different ways. Not stooping to someone else’s level, refusing to hurt others as they’ve hurt you, is a huge victory. It means you’re strong enough to be gentle. It takes real bravery to lay down your arms.

The good news about getting older is that you tend to become more confident, and with confidence comes a better grip on how to own your badassery and channel it into stuff that’s important to you. But it’s worth it to start now, because some people never learn how to handle power and they become adults who either underestimate how much they are constantly hurting people around them or, worse, they use it to express their anger and pain. Don’t become one of those people.

After my mom told me my father had been crying, I apologized to him for saying “I hate you,” and he accepted my apology, but things between us were strained for the rest of the week. I felt horrible every time I looked at him, and so I tried to make up for it showering him with unnaturally timed “I love yous.” My dad tried very hard not to tease me at all for the next few days, which was highly unnatural for him. It was a tense vacation.

I’ve said “I hate you” exactly twice since then—once to my mom, and once to a friend, and both times I have sincerely, instantly, and utterly regretted it. Using my power that way didn’t make me feel powerful. It made me feel like shit. Well, to be more precise, it made me feel good for a split second—I felt like I had won the argument by slaying my opponent with a formidable verbal weapon. Then the very next second, and ever after, it made me feel like shit, because I saw how much I had hurt the people I said it to.

When you drop a verbal bomb, there is that brief moment of victory. But bombs destroy things—feelings, friendships, your own self-respect—and after that moment of self-congratulation you have to witness all this carnage. All the cleanup and rebuilding you have to do afterward can take weeks or months or years.

Sometimes the best thing to do in these situations is to feel for your worst weapons, now they’re there, know their effects, and decide to come up empty-handed. Choosing not to take the easy road by needlessly hurting someone is just as powerful—even more so—than using your power to make someone else feel powerless. ♦

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28 Comments

  • Lolly September 2nd, 2013 7:35 PM

    Sometimes a truth bomb needs to get through to someone. Your dad was teasing you. You told him to stop, and he didn’t. As a kid, you have very little power over that situation and it could go on and on. Saying to your dad that you hated him was hurtful, but also maybe made him think about how he treated you.

    • FlaG September 2nd, 2013 11:32 PM

      I agree with Lolly on this. It was harsh, perhaps, but his persistent teasing was quite cruel and it’s not your fault for having lashed out like that. It doesn’t take a genius to realise someone doesn’t enjoy being relentlessly teased.

      • soviet_kitsch September 3rd, 2013 12:20 PM

        yeah, i agree with this. if he kept teasing you even though he saw how obviously upset you were by it, then lashing out is an expected response. frankly, for him to feel upset after YOU got upset is pretty silly. it wasn’t the best response and i do 100% agree with the rest of the article but sometimes you just have to snap or else it’s never gonna stop, you know?

        • mack September 3rd, 2013 4:53 PM

          I agree. It’s your dad’s job to be the adult in this scenario. If his child is upset, he needs to deal with that situation. You were not at fault. If he was reduced to tears it says a lot about his own emotional insecurity which he may need to work on. It’s not a child’s job to take care of their parent’s emotional needs.

        • periwinkle_dreams September 8th, 2013 10:04 PM

          I understand where you’re all coming from, but I don’t think I agree that she handled it the best possible way. Her dad thought he was making harmless jokes. And maybe he was being VERY oblivious and unthinking to not notice that she was seriously upset by this, but she could’ve said something like, “Dad, please stop teasing me about my mistakes, it’s hurtful and it really upsets me.” I don’t think he was being truly mean-spirited, so once she seriously said this, that’s his cue to listen, stop teasing her, and apologize. She never wrote that she actually told him to stop, just that she became more and more agitated and upset before telling him she hated him. So, yeah, he should’ve been paying attention and seen how it affected her, but dads can be oblivious sometimes. I just don’t think lashing out in anger was the best possible way to respond.

          • Tavi September 8th, 2013 11:25 PM

            This is an article about how to AVOID lashing out, whether you think her 14 year-old reaction was justified or not.

    • Lolly September 10th, 2013 4:13 PM

      @periwinkle_dreams:

      “He was teasing me! You both were! And I told him to stop! And he wouldn’t! And and—”

      According to that, she did tell him to stop first. She didn’t handle it in the best possible way, but that doesn’t mean her reaction was the worst possible result. The worst thing would have been for her dad (the responsible adult, who can’t afford to be oblivious) to continue the teasing that was humiliating her.

      There’s a big middle ground between that example and going around slinging hate bombs. Like I said, saying you hate someone is indeed hurtful, but in this case it was the last resort.

      • Lolly September 10th, 2013 4:58 PM

        (Excuse the double post; forgot something).

        @Tavi — could be both! There’s no point learning how to control your words if you don’t know why you should be controlling them. The article argues that lashing out is (almost always) not justified because it causes bigger problems than it solves. That’s interesting stuff.

  • Sophie ❤ September 2nd, 2013 8:12 PM

    I love this.

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • lydiamerida September 2nd, 2013 9:23 PM

    Ugh this is such a big problem for me. It sucks. Don’t get in the habit of being mean guys cause then you’ll end up like me with therapy and a family that sees you as a ticking bomb

  • dreamygirl September 2nd, 2013 9:29 PM

    This month is going to be SO good.

    IT’S LIKE MORIARTY AND SHERLOCK TOO JUST CUZ I THINK ROOKIE WOULD LOVE SHERLOCK IF THEY WATCHED

    • TessaTheTeenageWitch September 2nd, 2013 10:29 PM

      HELL YES!!!

  • jaded September 2nd, 2013 11:03 PM

    i’ve said the entire list of unforgivable things……..

  • Rue September 2nd, 2013 11:11 PM

    I love this article! I can really relate to this and take advice from it, although I do think that, if you really dislike someone, saying something hurtful will give you satisfaction for a longer period of time before you start to feel like crap. But I’m not much of a fighter, and I can’t remember the last time I said something hurtful to somebody besides my sister, although I do admit to talking about people behind their backs.
    Overall, a very promising start to the month!

  • secondtolastunicorn September 3rd, 2013 12:06 AM

    at first i was laughing because my parents are the EXACT same way with teasing my pronunciations of things… then i started to notice how relevant the rest of the article is to some conflicts going on in my life right now! i’m really going to take all of it to heart. thank you so much krista!!!

  • pendulous-threads September 3rd, 2013 12:50 AM

    Thank you for this. My parents have been getting upset with one another very frequently, and it even rubs off on me to the point where everyone’s being very, very hurtful. This gives me great perspective, and next time my mom or dad picks a fight, I’m going to shed some of your profound wisdom.

  • Aithy Palfreyman September 3rd, 2013 2:19 AM

    I’m so glad I’ve never said “I hate you” to either of my parents (though I’ve wanted to, oh so many times, just knowing how much it would hurt them makes me realise I can’t hate people who love me that much). I have had the hideously awful experience of seeing my dad cry though, and it was actually because I said an unforgivable thing – not to him, to his wife – and while I didn’t regret hurting her, mostly because she used it as an excuse to physically attack me, I still count seeing my poor dear father trying to keep in his tears as one of the very worst experiences of my life.

  • Isobelley September 3rd, 2013 3:28 AM

    I rarely say hurtful things like that, but my mother does it so often. She said that she doesn’t care about me or my sisters last night, but the worst things is that when everyone had calmed down and we could talk about it calmly she kept denying it and blamed me for misinterpretting her, and provoking her. Sometimes I feel like I’m the parent and she’s the child.

  • elliecp September 3rd, 2013 3:52 AM

    this is so powerful. I personally have never told my parents I hated them but I’ve definitely said or done things that I’ve later regretted…as children we don’t realise how much our parents have done for us and how much we can upset them even without thinking. My mum, for example, always used to be really overprotective and we would have screaming rows about it…but looking back I see that of course, letting a child you’ve never had out of your sight go to a movie on the other side of town at night with strangers WOULD be scary for her. It’s a typical case of you have to look at things from the other person’s perspective before you can really argue with or judge them.
    Thankyou for this piece…really made me think about what I say <3

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • still_dreaming September 3rd, 2013 6:15 AM

    I was looking through the list of unforgivable things and trying to remember whether I had ever said any of them to someone and the only thing that came in mind was saying “go to hell” to my father.We were fighting over something as usual and things were starting to heat up dangerously and that’s when it came out…he didn’t cry or anything, though I could see it got to him.He went silent for a moment and then he said something that really hurt me: “you have a friend who’s an orphan!go ask her how she likes it not having a father and then tell me to go to hell again!” that same night we talked about it and now we are back to normal but I don’t think I’ll be saying anything like that ever again..

  • lauraviitanen September 3rd, 2013 6:22 AM

    This was very, very good

  • JadeTayla September 3rd, 2013 8:06 AM

    This is a really moving article Krista. “Hate” is such a strong and hurtful word and I often catch myself saying it, whether it’s something small like “I hate this song!”, or telling someone I hate them after they have done something hurtful to me.

    Although in the moment it feels good to release all the anger and frustration, I almost always regret it. We need to remember how important loved ones are! My family and friends mean everything to me and it’s just plain silly to ruin relationships with hurtful words!

    http://daftpunkisplayingatmahouse.tumblr.com

  • Saana V September 3rd, 2013 8:15 AM

    But, you know, i think that everything depends on how you say it.
    I’ve said “I hate you.” Thousands of times but i remember only two times when i’ve actually hurt someone with it. And when it has hurt i’ve said it with a straight face. It doesn’t feel that bad when you are in a middle of a row and scream “i hate you” while slamming the door shut, because your parent’s wouldn’t let you go to that one super cool party. It stings, of course, but it doesn’t hurt them deeply.

    But i’m not actually a big believer in words anyway.
    i know that people lie and twitch their words and words mean different things to others. Like, i never say “i love you” i’ve said it, like 3 times in last 2 years. To me, it’s such a big thing to say, but i know people who tell they love them on the firs time they’ve ever met.

  • Fee September 3rd, 2013 9:12 AM

    Thank you for this. It resonates a lot with me because I used to get teased a lot, and still do by certain people, and it gets to the stage sometimes where I know that there are things I could say that would be true and cutting and awful, but I don’t want to be that person who validates the shitty feelings they probably have about themselves. I think this article really gets at the importance of not retaliating in the harshest way possible just because you can.

    http://contraluna.blogspot.com/

  • rahima September 3rd, 2013 11:12 AM

    one time my dad saw me crying and when he asked why i was, i told him it was because he was always taking care of me not my other siblings and i told him to just leave me alone. i was going through some stuff at the moment and idk why i blamed it on him. i felt so terrrible i immediately said sorry and thanked him through text bc it felt awkward to say it to him in person. i don’t say bad things to my parents anymore and i hope in the future i don’t bc i feel stupid every time. thanks for this article. rock on \m/ ♥

  • Erin. September 3rd, 2013 11:45 AM

    Funny, just the other day my sister told me to kill myself because I was getting itchy because everyone was making fun of what I was wearing. It’s always like this at my house. We always say we are gonna kill each other. It’s much much easier for us to insult one another than anything else. It’s a habit as much as a personalty fault. Most of those “unforgivable phrases” get said on a weekly basis at my house. But’s it’s as funny as it is sad. It’s not, like, an abusive atmosphere. Just a stupid one.

  • cryingflowers September 4th, 2013 4:45 PM

    This is so true. I’ve had recent fights with my best friend (because she was annoyed at me that I didn’t log on to facebook that day- I know. Petty right?) And so I told her why I hadnt gone on (homework, my panic attacks, needed a break) and she simply said “Bullshit lets all feel sorry for you.” This comment hurt like hell, but I replied with “That was low.” and she said sorry. Just like that. She (I hope lol) felt remorseful about her horrible comment and I didnt need to say anything back. This is where I totally agree with you Krista, as I found that I had the power by not stooping to her level. This was exremely awesome.

  • Lauren September 9th, 2013 1:31 PM

    That list was full of things I wanted to say to my ex. I think I did the most hurtful thing though when I publicly announced a secret he was really ashamed about(he seriously cried whenever it was brought up) and now the whole school knows and laughs at him.
    I did some damage.
    I’m only starting to regret it, especially after reading this article and realizing how hurtful it must be and he’s just a kid.
    Being dumped for sex definitely hurt me and further destroyed the trust it had taken me months to build up, but I should have been the adult and burned him in a LESS damaging way.