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. ♦