I Saw The World From A Different Face: We All Have A Story
This topic resonates deeply for me because for many years- from preteen to young adulthood- I had to walk in ever-changing and very painful “shoes,” and as a result had to recognize, assess, and manage threats that my peers didn’t see. It’s a story that I kept to myself for a long time. But over the past few years I’ve allowed myself to tell my story and I’ve encouraged my clients to share theirs. We all have stories to tell, and when we share them we enable others to understand who we are, why we do what we do, and how we see the world.
Dealing with new threats
Up to the age of 10 I was a skinny, gawky, amusing and unassuming kid. Then out of nowhere, I became very ill, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and put on massive doses of prednisone to control the inflammation. The drug helped me heal, but it came with rotten side effects, most noticeably massive fluid retention. Over a period of a few months I was transformed into a squat, chubby kid with freakishly swollen cheeks. And that transformation occurred during the summer before I was to start seventh grade at an all-boys school.
The abuse started pretty quickly. Any time I was alone in a hallway near two or more older boys I was pushed into a corner or locker, laughed at, insulted, and had my backpack stolen. All this was new to me. Inside I was the same kid, but when I saw my new face in the mirror I tried to suck my cheeks in or comb my hair around my face to try to avoid looking like a freak.
I was confronted with new challenges daily and eventually found ways to diffuse embarrassment before it happened. The easiest way was to be on the lookout for threatening types or find a way to take another route to my destination. Sometimes I’d avoid going to events altogether. Why put myself in a situation that would ultimately lead to more emotional or perhaps even physical hurt?
More rotten side effects like delayed puberty followed. When I entered college I hadn’t yet had a growth spurt and my voice still hadn’t changed, so I’d have to answer the “How old are you?” question countless times. The prednisone had softened my hairless face, making it hard for some people to guess my age and gender. I pretended not to hear comments: “Who’s that girl?” “Maybe he’s like a boy genius or something.” “Pretty weird looking.” Again, I adapted by assessing every situation and protected myself to avoid the inevitable hurt.
Not being afraid to ask questions
Many years later I built a consulting practice based on helping my clients craft messages that solve their clients’ problems. Although my audience analysis work was strategic and focused, I felt something might be missing.
In my late 40s I started working with a Black personal trainer. We developed a wonderful sense of trust, and as we became closer started to interrogate each other about our life experiences, especially as they related to race.
I told him about a situation from many years earlier when a Black woman I worked with asked me what the safest street was in the very tony neighborhood we worked in. I blew her off by saying not to worry since it was a safe area, even though she said she was scared to walk anywhere in the neighborhood. My trainer’s answer was so simple that I felt embarrassed asking: Black people see different threats than white people.
He told me he avoids any situation where he may be alone, no matter how nice the block. He said that since he was young he learned to assess potential threats that I wouldn’t even notice. If there’s a policeman on a street- don’t go down it because he may pull you over and interrogate you. If there’s a white mother with a child on that street — don’t go down it because the mother could start to scream. If there’s a gang of kids on that street- don’t go down it because a brawl could start any second.
In other words: observe a situation, assess the threats, act accordingly.
It didn’t hit me until about a month after that conversation. I had been doing the same thing since I was a kid but I didn’t tell anyone because I was still partially embarrassed and thought I’d be showing weakness.
And that recognition made me see what was missing in how I helped my clients. They needed to tell their stories just as I needed to tell mine. Strategic messages are great, but audiences will pay attention and remember you more when they hear a personal story about how you faced a challenging situation and what lessons they should take away from it.
Nothing is at face value
It took a few years of therapy for me to acknowledge and accept the long-term effects of growing up with a chronic illness and dealing with its many side effects. In sharing parts of my story I’m not looking to make people uncomfortable and I’m certainly not looking for pity.
I’ve sat through scores of speeches where executives offer “three takeaways for effective leadership.” If I go to five of those speeches in a row I’ll hear and probably forget 15 ways to be a great leader. The best public speakers talk about how they struggled with and solved a difficult problem that affected different groups, each with specific needs. When the stories are honest, emotional, and authentic we may be able to see ourselves in a similar situation, recognize the high stakes involved and appreciate what led to the ultimate decision.
So don’t be afraid to share your stories. I’m listening.