Bullied as a kid
I think many of us have the experience of being a misfit or an outcast as a child. I certainly do not have the corner on this. But with all the talk of bullying right now, it got me thinking about my childhood bullies and the ultimate impact that being bullied had on my life.
When I was a child, I was fat, smart, super-enthusiastic about school and bad at gym class. If I had to pick a Simpsons character, it probably would have to be Martin.
I was a misfit to begin with, so I had a fair amount of in-your-face, teasing and emotional torture — but I also had a bully. My bully was the cute, popular girl who had all the social power. And for years, she used her power primarily to persuade people to hate Patty — I don’t know all the reasons why.
But the result was that I spent from age 5-12 with people calling me aside, looking over their shoulder to make sure they were not seen talking to me, to tell me, “I really don’t hate you, it’s just that I have to pretend to hate you, because D told me to — You understand, right?”…
Bullied as a teen ager
By the time I went to high school, I had a year or two where I had lost the extra weight, and had broken free of my bullie’s power over me. Other kids were finally making their own decisions, and I was very practiced at deflecting the bullying anyway. So by the time I got to high school I was fairly confident and hopeful.
But alas, in high school I encountered a different set of issues that again made me a social outcast. I was on an advanced curriculum (though such a thing did not officially exist). So as freshmen, I basically was just shoved into math and science classes with juniors and seniors. I also got the lead in the school play — which freshmen were not supposed to do — So once again, I was an outcast.
As an example, When the four of us leads in the play were photographed to be featured in the local newspaper, we got stacks of that issue, cut out the article/picture, and hung them all over the school to advertise the play.
It didn’t take more than about 2 days for my face to be either scribbled out, scratched out, have gum stuck on it, or have, shall we say “unflattering” things drawn on it.
All throughout high school I had the experience of approaching a circle of people having a conversation, walking up to it, hoping the circle would open and they would let me in, and it would just tighten up leaving me on the outside to eventually walk away.
Then after freshman year, I developed a thyroid problem and got fat again, which only added to the pointing, mean comments, and laughter when I walked by.
Why I bring this up now
This week I am working with a group of women executives from all over the world on building career success on purpose (in a male-dominated company). So I got to thinking about what I had experienced as a woman.
I think you know from reading this blog, that most of what I have to say has nothing to do with being female. The things I typically talk about are useful things that work for everybody.
But I’ve spent a lot of time (as a female), in male dominated environments, so I do have some perspective.
As an engineering student, an engineer, and later a technology business manager there were mostly men around. But somehow, I personally never found that to be an obstacle or a difficulty. I only recently realized why…
The big AHA
A few weeks ago, the connection between being bullied, being female, and ultimately being successful at work occurred to me.
I was listening to a group of women talk about the challenges of working in a male-dominated environment and heard:
A big reason women drop out of male dominated college programs and careers is that they feel socially uncomfortable and unwelcome amongst all the men behaving like men.
Here’s the thing…
By the time I got to the male dominated college curriculum in engineering, and later went on to work in male dominated technology and business organizations, the reason it was not an issue for me was because…here is the big Aha…
I had no expectation that the social environment should be comfortable, welcoming or pleasant.
It never occurred to me even for a moment that I should expect to feel social acceptance. It never occurred to me that social acceptance was even a thing!
The workplace was just yet another environment where I was an misfit or an outcast — in other words, completely normal to me.
So the social discomfort I faced in male environments of sometimes being dismissed, shut out, or put down, or treated unfairly because I was a woman – these things did not even register as anything of note on my radar. In my life up to that point — that’s just how life worked.
People often ask me where I get my drive, my assertiveness or my self confidence.
A big part of that came from enduring my childhood bullies.
I learned two very important lessons early on, from my mother, that helped me survive my childhood bullies and ultimately thrive despite the social discomfort.
1. Bullying is always about them. It’s never about you. So you need to learn not to take it personally.
2. Be excellent at the things you can control and everything else will sort itself out.
Excellence vs. Acceptance
So, instead of seeking social acceptance, which wasn’t to be had anyway, I pursued excellence.
In school I focused on learning. I did more than was asked of me. I achieved things. I created things. I became proud of myself even if no one else gave a damn. If someone tried to belittle my accomplishments or make fun of me for being so earnest, I just ignored them, because that was only about them, not about me.
So when I later faced corporate bullying, or was dismissed or put down, my reaction was “been there, done that. You got nothin’ on little D!” Being bullied on the job didn’t hurt me because I had years of practice ignoring it and rising above it.
So as I built my career, despite whatever social or sexist obstacles I might have been facing, I just kept focused on doing excellent work on things that would have an inarguable, positive impact on the business.
Excellence removes all the power from personal attacks.
My approach to success was something like this: It doesn’t matter if you don’t like me, or think I don’t belong here because I’m not like you. I think you’ll agree this outcome was necessary, important and added real value…SO THERE!
Respect & Friendship
I want to note that I always had a couple of good friends through my childhood and college years. I don’t want to give the impression that I was totally alone.
Also, in the workplace, if I was treated wrongly because I was a woman, it was certainly not by all men all the time. There were always men who treated me with respect and kindness, cared about my success and helped me.
And as my own career grew, I shared success and brought people with me. I always try to treat all people with respect. I would like to think that I was never myself a bully, or a credit-stealer, or dismissive of anyone. So I ultimately found social acceptance along with success.
As they say, “It gets better”.
Lessons from being bullied
I am certainly not advocating childhood bullying as a development approach! And these days with the internet, the level of cruelty has been amplified to an extent I can not possibly even relate to.
My bullies had to be mean in person — that has a tremendous dampening effect on the level of pain they could inflict.
But I think there are a few important lessons to take away from what I learned from being bullied.
1. Never let bullies impact your self-confidence, because it is always about them — not you.
2. You shouldn’t expect every work environment to be socially comfortable. When it is, that’s great. But when it’s not, that doesn’t automatically mean you don’t belong there. When you judge a work environment or opportunity, always think, what can I get done here? If it has a value to the business, and it has a value to you personally, because the experience is helping you build your career — even if it is socially uncomfortable, you may want to hang in there – but only if it’s worth it.
3. If it’s not worth it, get out. If the environment is super-painful, if your boss is a bully, AND working there has no value to you, get out. It’s not worth it!
4. Don’t ever think you need to change who you are to fit in. Stay true to yourself, and just be excellent at the things you can control.
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)