One of the things I’d most like to change about myself is my tendency to cry at the drop of a hat.
It’s my automatic response to confrontation.
You yell at me? I cry. You say something kind to me when I’m having a bad day? I cry. You treat me unfairly? I cry. You cry? I cry.
It’s super annoying. But it’s automatic.
Like Saturday at the grocery store. The woman at the deli counter yelled at me for not taking a number. When I was THE ONLY ONE THERE.
Usually in these situations, I tell myself a little story to explain the person’s behavior. Maybe she was having a horrible day. Maybe there had been a crowd just minutes earlier and a customer had been rude to HER. Maybe she’d been up all night with a crying baby and she was running short on patience. Maybe her boss had yelled at her for not strictly enforcing the number system and she was simply completing the Circle of Screaming. Maybe every single person who’d come up to the deli counter that day had neglected to take a number and she’d finally reached her limit.
All reasonable explanations. Not excuses, mind you. But sometimes you have to cut other people slack.
But even as I’m standing there, mentally thumbing through pages of scenarios that would lead to her yelling at me, my face is on fire and tears are welling up behind my eyes.
A few weeks ago, I was in the airport, headed on a business trip. My car had dropped me off early, so I had plenty of time before my flight left. Plus, I’d picked the fast security line and had gone through in minutes. I was in no hurry – I was even strolling to my gate rather than speed walking as I normally do.
Walking a few paces in front of me was a mother with a middle-school-age daughter. The daughter had a roller bag. The mom paused for some reason and moved to the right, against the wall. Her kid stopped too – but in the middle of the walkway. There was a gap of about five feet between them.
I saw all this because I was far enough behind to notice. Plus, I was walking slowly enough to pay attention. So I walked between the kid and the mom… just as the mom was moving into the walkway to – I don’t know – grab her kid’s arm or something? And I grazed her arm with my elbow.
Maybe it hurt her – I don’t know. It didn’t seem hard from my perspective, but who knows how it felt on the other end. So I said, “I’m so sorry! Excuse me!” in what I thought was my cheerful voice. People don’t pay attention – she’d walked out in front of me without looking, but hey, no harm, no foul.
“God DAMN it!” she responded.
At first I didn’t even realize she was talking to me. It was such a minor encounter. But I looked behind me and she was standing there glaring at me.
It shocked me a little. Because really – I wasn’t stampeding her or plowing through the crowd or anything. It was just a little bump – totally innocuous in a crowded airport where someone walking in front of you or stopping in the middle of the aisle right in your path or running over your toes with a suitcase is not out of the ordinary.
So I did my little story construction. I’d surprised her – and she reacted to surprise with anger. Or maybe she had a big bruise on her arm and I’d hit her right in that spot and it really hurt. Or maybe she’d been up since 4:00 am, struggling to get her kid ready for their vacation and she was harried and her patience was stretched thin. Or maybe she hadn’t heard my apology and she thought I’d bumped her and moved on without a word.
Any of these things and many others could have been behind her angry response. And there was nothing I could do. I’d bumped her. I’d apologized. The end. (What was I supposed to go? Turn around and go talk to her like some crazy confrontational weirdo?)
But of course, there was the hot feeling behind my cheeks. And the prickle of tears behind my eyes.
My whole life, my mother has coached me to let things roll off of me like water off a duck’s back. It’s good advice. After all, the world throws a lot of things at you. If you’re going to keep moving forward, you have to learn how to be impervious to at least some of it.
But I’m not a duck – I’m a sponge. Insults and injustices and slights and grouchface attitudes splash on me and I soak them all up.
This is one of those things I chide myself for all the time. Fleas and mice – I’m a grown woman! I shouldn’t be bowled over into tears at the least little thing. Plus, it’s not as if I’m incapable of dealing with conflict or accepting criticism. I’m a writer – I get criticized at LEAST once a day. And years of editing people’s writing and dealing with customer emails has helped me become, I’d say, pretty adept at dealing with conflict and addressing people’s concerns and frustrations.
So what is the deal?
I wonder if this little character flaw is my fault. I mean, I work from home. So I don’t really have encounters – of the real-life, up-close-and-in-your-face variety – with people that often. And if I DO get frustrated or upset or angry or embarrassed, I can cry privately without anyone seeing me. Maybe I’ve trained myself into believing it’s okay to cry, because it IS okay when it’s just me? And I’m so used to it being acceptable that I can’t shut off the waterworks when I’m out in public?
I don’t know WHAT the deal is. But I have no idea how in the world to fix it.