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We all have our childhood struggles…
When I was a child, I was nerd. I was fat, smart, super-enthusiastic about school, and bad at gym class. As a result, I was a natural magnet for the haters and became a classic victim of childhood bullying.
It was not the sort of bullying, where I feared for my physical safety. My bully (I’ll call her “D”) instead worked the social system to ensure that I was an outcast whom everyone despised. Sadly, the “Everyone needs to hate Patty or else…” program worked pretty well. This began at age five and continued for a long time.
Many years later, as I entered High School, I elevated my nerdiness to a more advanced status: taking 3rd year math classes, joining the marching band, and winning the lead in the school musical—as a freshman. This drew an entirely new set of mean-girl haters and social pressures. Once again, I was being bullied as the weird person that the popular crowd treated with disdain.
One of my strongest memories of High School was repeatedly walking up to a group of people who were standing and talking in a circle. Although time and time again I’d wait patiently outside the circle hoping for an invitation to join the conversation, the circle never once opened up to let me in.
Fast forward. Ultimately, I went on to college, got a degree in engineering, entered the workforce, and went on to advance my career to become a general manager and CEO more quickly than anyone around me.
In retrospect, it’s the haters I encountered along the way who played a big part in my ability to accomplish so much against the odds. Here’s what I mean…
From Being Bullied to CEO: The Big AHA
I recently figured out that I had a secret weapon. I learned this because I get invited to work with many women’s leadership and networking groups.
It’s not because my professional development and strategy execution work is specific to women, but because I myself am a woman who has broken through. In my own career, I never focused on the woman part. But a few years ago, in working with one of my clients, I learned something that was a big aha for me:
A big reason women drop out of male dominated college programs and careers is that they feel socially uncomfortable and unwelcome among 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 I had no expectation that the social environment should be comfortable, welcoming, or pleasant. THAT was my secret weapon.
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 simply another environment where I was a 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. After years of being bullied up to that point — that’s just how life worked.
Excellence vs. Acceptance
For my whole life, 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, and always strived to learn and improve myself, even if no one else cared or was nice to me. This built my self confidence.
Later, when I faced haters in the corporate arena, or was dismissed or put down, or told that I did not belong, my reaction was “Ha! Been there, done that. You got nothin’ on little D! Your bullying is not going to work on me. I’m fine here.” Being bullied on the job didn’t hurt me or set me back because I had so many years of practice dealing with 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.
Here are six key lessons that I learned from being bullied that can help you in any situation where you feel personally challenged:
1) Bullying is always about them.
Bullying is never about you. Haters have a need to hurt someone (anyone) else. You need to learn NOT to take it personally and NOT let it affect your self-confidence. It’s always THEIR issue. It’s literally never about you.
2) Haters need a victim.
A hater can’t be a bully without a target. If you find that you are the target, get out of the way! Even if it’s your boss who’s the bully, you can say something like, “I understand you are not satisfied with this, I’ll come back” (Get out of there!).
3) Be Excellent.
Strive for excellence at the things you can control and everything else will sort itself out. Get your self esteem from your own accomplishments. Don’t try to reform your hater thinking they will come around to appreciating you.
4) Don’t expect social comfort.
Some work environments will be socially uncomfortable. When it is comfortable, that’s great. But when it’s not, that doesn’t automatically mean you don’t belong there.
Make a place for yourself there. Step up, add value, share knowledge. Don’t give up because the circle doesn’t open of for you. Push your way in with excellence.
5) Focus on the payoff.
When you judge an uncomfortable work environment or opportunity, always think, what can I accomplish here? If 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.
6) If it’s not worth it, get out.
If the environment is super-painful, if your boss is a bully or a narcissist, AND working there has no value to you, get out. It’s not worth it!
Being Bullied? Don’t Change Yourself
One last thing I want to say is that you don’t need to change yourself to fit in. Changing yourself to fit in will NOT make you feel more comfortable. It will make you feel less comfortable. The more you stay true to yourself, the more confidence and energy you will have to do excellent work.
If you feel unwelcome, confront that discomfort with adding value to the business. The people around you will lose their motivation to put you down or push you out if you are creating inarguable business value. You will have tapped into a level of excellence within yourself to combat the haters and fuel your own success.