She said, “save yourself.”

“Save Yourself.”

With those two little words, my wise, straight-dealing grandmother was telling me that pretending to have no needs, no hurts, and no complaints, wasn’t worth the trouble.

I’m not used to that idea, especially when it comes to me.

What I AM used to is appearing under control at all times. Partly a product of my introverted personality and overly analytical brain, I choose to try to understand a situation before I allow it to engage my emotions.

But truth be told, I have often skipped emotions altogether. More than the result of a deeply analytical personality, it is mainly a maladaptive coping mechanism. It’s something I do to avoid the emotional intensity that often comes with conflict. I had let my emotions take the lead before and the momentary loss of control scared me.

A simple school yard fight, that wasn’t really a fight, is what started it. It was just a little pushing and tussling before it was broken up. Though hot and intense in the moment, when the rage I felt had faded, all I was left with was embarrassment. I had completely lost it and in front of everyone.

I’ve heard it said that depression is rage turned inward and I believe it’s true. Because after that singular experience, I decided that I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone take me there again. I was going to always keep myself completely under control. And because of that decision, my anger, no matter who or what caused it, had nowhere else to go, but back in my direction.

Fast forward to adulthood and the world of work. At work, my need to not lose my cool in difficult situations turned into a warped display of strength. Somehow, not letting other people get under my skin, or even think that they had, became a victory for me. It became a twisted (and prideful) signal of professionalism and “being the bigger person.”

As I found myself increasingly in mostly white spaces, I felt my coolness during conflict stand out in sharp contrast to what I could see was expected…the angry Black woman. I saw the widened eyes and bated breath as people waited for the fireworks to start, complete with snappy insults and the obligatory neck roll.

Well, I wasn’t going to be anyone’s stereotype. I would skip over all the emotion and get to the heart of the matter or ignore it altogether. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was rapidly developing another maladaptive coping mechanism… unamused silence in the face of conflict.

It’s the approach I have taken when faced with micro-aggressions and even blatant racist hatred and sabotage in the workplace.

It’s something that I am realizing that people often mistake for weakness.

In saying “save yourself,” Ma was saying, “to hell with that.”  And could I blame her? Nope. But I can’t shake that this somehow feels incomplete to me. Even if I got it all out, what about the hurt part of me? How does that get healed? It’s a question I ask wondering if my grandmother would have an answer.

In her book, In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce remembers crying in the safety of her office after one too many microaggressions. She wondered why, with all that her grandmother and church mothers had taught her, hadn’t she been taught how to care for herself in these painful moments.

She would eventually learn that she needed to offer herself compassion and kindness, not just a steely resolve to push through. She would realize that it was okay to need, pursue, and receive that loving attention. But what she would also realize was that those skills could not come through her grandmother and co., because they hadn’t known how to give it to themselves. It hadn’t even been an option for them, and you can’t teach what you haven’t been taught. My guess is that it was probably true for my grandmother too.

For the me that I am now, I’m seeing that saving myself must include authentically reacting to what is happening around and to me, without the hang-ups about how others will perceive my words or actions. I must give that freedom back to myself. But I also owe myself another important and related freedom… love.

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