One of my most shaming moments, in my whole entire library of shaming interactions, happened over a Thanksgiving meal during my Senior year of high school. I had this boyfriend, and he had a family that was extremely different than mine. His mother had passed away, his father traveled a ton for work, his older brother was off at UVA, and he had a younger sister who was a junior at our high school. I was often outraged by the lack of adult supervision he and his sister had when his dad traveled. I felt sorry for the whole lot of them, even the oldest brother who seemed like such a frat boy and pain in the neck. I in no way felt inferior to these suffering people, so it came as quite a shock to find out that they viewed me as beneath them.
Here’s what happened. The older brother was rip roaring drunk by the time dinner started. We were barely through the gourmet appetizers when he began teasing me. The teasing quickly devolved into taunting. He called me names. He disparaged the neighborhood I lived in. He suggested I was a social climber. And just let me tell you, when I was in high school, I owned “social” and this guy I was dating? He was new to the school and did NOT. Just to be clear.
The father in this family of sufferers said not one word. My boyfriend said not one word. I realized I had no one to defend me and from somewhere deep inside me I realized that I may literally live on the other side of the railroad tracks, but I was better than this.
I stood up.
I walked to the kitchen and called my mom and said, “Come get me.”
I returned to the dining room and said something along these lines, “Let me tell you guys something. In my house, this guy here,” I pointed to my boyfriend, “is treated with respect. And just so you understand this point, no one really likes him that much. And guests in our house? They are treated with respect. You do not deserve to have a guest at your table.” And I walked out with what I hope was regal and righteous indignation.
Hold the clapping. I ended up dating that boy with the bad family for three more years. I should have called it quits that very day.
But I had a moment when I belonged to myself and it was good. I felt no resentment for my treatment afterwards, just continued sadness and not too much admiration for the family that would behave like that. When you do the next right thing, there is less room for resentment or other hard feelings to fester. Unfortunately, I did not use my good sense to break up with the boy or the family. You win some; you lose some. But here is something I am trying to remember every day: if I do not belong to myself, respect myself by being respectable, and stand up for myself when others treat me with disdain - I need to first and foremost give myself a kick in the pants. It is awful when people treat us as unworthy or less than but it is worse when we treat ourselves that way. We, above all others, can choose to live in a way that confirms for us that we deserve to be treated well and require that as a condition of relationship.