I’m Not Sorry


A billion years ago in another lifetime, I used to work for someone we’ll call The Boss. Some who worked for her or with her might call her a dictator, or invoke, with liberal hyperbole, the name of Hitler, but to be fair The Boss never committed genocide.

She just killed hopes, dreams, and often the will to live. Fortunately for all of us who worked for her, these things could be (and hopefully have been) resurrected.

She was one of those bosses that by Friday night, you’re already dreading Monday morning.

When I first started work for The Boss, there were no other people on the payroll. I bore the full brunt of her bad attitude on a fairly regular basis. And I can’t even vilify her fully for her behavior, as she demonstrated these qualities in the interview and I ignored every single red flag. I needed a job that didn’t involve the phrase, “Do you want fries with that?” So even when she implied that I, as a welfare recipient at the time, with two young kids and a husband on disability, posed a threat to her expensive belongings, I earnestly promised that I, in fact, was not a thief. I was willing to work – hard – for my own living despite my lowly circumstances, which was why I was interviewing with her in the first place (and got a second job the first few weeks I worked for her.)

But apparently for her, people on welfare = thieves.

This never changed, even when more and more people joined the payroll. If anything came up missing, I was the Number One suspect. And maybe not even completely unfairly. In the sake of full disclosure, I did sometimes make poor decisions that literally could be considered theft. I guess this kind of happens the longer you accuse someone of being a thief. If someone holds a poor opinion of you, then you have nothing to lose by crossing the line, proving once again it’s hard to rise above low expectations.

The first of such decisions was taking cans of soda from her fridge. She had filled the fridge with soda for the staff after a birthday party for a coworker, and I assumed, wrongly, they were free for us to drink after the party ended. I should have asked, but I had been working for her for about two years by this point and fairly browbeaten. I barely wanted contact with her based on work stuff, much less something frilly and unimportant, which is how it translated to me.

Unfortunately it translated to her in a much different way. It was a violation of her own personal space/belongings, no matter if she had set down the rules or not. I should have shown her the respect and asked. After she confronted me on it, I didn’t take any more, but the damage by then was done.

The other, more significant, transgression happened about a year later. It became a kind of office habit to order breakfast once a week, and if we didn’t have the funds between the four of us office workers, we’d take money from petty cash to pay for it. It was an entitled, bullshit move and I own that. Maybe we were all resentful over her piss-poor treatment of us and felt like she didn’t deserve the privilege of being asked. Not a one of us jumped to answer the phone when she called. We avoided her whenever it was possible, simply to avoid the inevitable ass-chewing or critical lectures.

I think we all excused it in our minds as no big deal because we’d always replace the money on payday, as such figuring it was a “victimless” crime. But she deserved to be asked, since it was her money, and she had every right in the world to be upset with us when she found out. And I owned up to it when she asked, just like the sodas. But it didn’t necessarily help my “thieving poor person” image, even though the other coworkers had been equally responsible.

So when she couldn’t find something, it was my fault. And she wasted no time at all telling my coworkers this, which is how I found out about it. I knew everything that went on because people found me approachable and agreeable. In fact, she was the only one in that office that didn’t like me. Sometimes I felt like she wanted to punish me for this. I was an easy whipping post when she was in a sour mood. She told me once that I was “too happy,” as if there could ever be such a thing.

That was when I first started working for her. She spent the next four years beating that outta me.

I was behind the eight-ball from the moment I started the job. I was in a new industry and scared as shit to make a mistake, especially when it came with such clear contempt. She wanted things the way she wanted them, and woe to the underling who got in her way.

This is the kind of person who would order from McDonald’s in the drive thru, telling the poor wage slave at the window she only wanted TWO packages of ketchup. If there were more, those extra, unwanted packages were THROWN back at that person who doesn’t have the time during a lunch rush to count out her precious packages of condiments. She’d run up the clock as she rustled through the bag to ensure her directions were followed to the letter.

As someone who had been on the other side of that window, I was mortified.

It got to the point whenever she’d offer to take the staff out to dinner, we’d recommend ordering in just so we wouldn’t be embarrassed by how poorly she treated the waitstaff. It wasn’t ALL the time, but it was a gamble none of us felt like risking just for a free meal.

Despite her biting personality, she was also the kind of person who would go to great lengths to be overly generous. From the time I started to the time I quit four years later, I saw my pay per hour almost double. She paid for classes to teach me this new trade, virtually ensuring I’d never have to go back to fast food. She gave me bags and bags of clothes and even paid for my entire family to go to Disneyland.

Just when I was set to hate her, she’d do something unexpected and wonderful. This kept me questioning whether she was the true problem or I was. Maybe I WAS this huge screw-up she took mercy upon by hiring me when I was so clearly inept.

If I dared voice the question of whether it was her or it was me, she was quick to point out that it was me. She came from a management background and had never had problems like she had with me, or so she said. Yet she was the first real boss I had ever had that didn’t love me and value the work that I did.

I never knew which way was up.

Since I regrettably came from a background of abuse, I found all this very intimidating, to the point I was petrified to find myself in her crosshairs for any reason… hence why the above mistakes were made.

Going to her and asking for input historically blew up in my face.

She bought an expensive fax machine that was a vital part of our office communication. In my first year of working for her, this $400 piece of equipment started printing an annoying black line right down the center of the page. I noticed it right away, of course. Who wouldn’t? But it was mostly inconvenient than problematic. I let it go for a few days, maybe a week, because honestly I didn’t know what to do about it. The last thing I wanted to do was mess it up and owe her a freaking fax machine. She never made mention of the black line, which I was kind of waiting on so she could take responsibility for fixing it and I wouldn’t have to. It ended up being a huge game of chicken to see how long it would take me to fix a problem without the explicit directive to do so.

I had never worked with fax machines so I hadn’t a clue where to start. But as days passed, I knew that I would have to figure it out somehow. Finally I dug out the manual and read the instructions on how to clean it. It stated to use “rubbing” alcohol on the screen, to clean off the offending smudge causing the black line. I went to her bathroom, where I found “isopropryl” alcohol in her medicine cabinet. I read that label no less than five times, and didn’t see the words “rubbing alcohol” on it anywhere.

In these days before Google, I had but one choice before I used this product on her expensive fax machine. I had to ask her if it was OK.

So I go to her and tell her that the manual said to use rubbing alcohol, and I wanted to know if Isopropryl was OK to use. After a dramatic exhale of breath and roll of her eyes, she confirmed that they were one in the same and added, just for good measure, “I can’t believe you have gotten to the age you are without knowing that.”

Months and months of this went on. The job itself was great. It put me right in the middle of an exciting industry where I got to do things I never thought in a million years I’d ever get to do. I could even be creative, which was invaluable. Best of all, she was usually never around. Her job kept her out of the house much of the time, so I was delegated to doing all the “personal assistant” stuff, which was usually fine. I can’t stand a micro-manager who hovers over my shoulder to oversee each one of my choices. I don’t see this as helpful, I see this as a lack of trust and faith in me to get the job done. Tell me what you want done and I’ll do it. If I need you, I’ll let you know.

For the most part, The Boss and I worked well this way.

So it wasn’t all bad, otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did. She really wasn’t a bad person. She was just an unhappy person, there’s a difference. It wasn’t easy for her to build her business in an industry dominated by men, yet she did it. Much like Peyton from The Undisciplined Bride, she adopted the role of Queen Bitch to own her power. She came from another generation, where women had to balance assertiveness and aggression to be taken seriously. But she did everything she set out to do, and worked very hard to do it. If I met her now, I’d probably even like her. (It’s taken me writing this blog to kind of release her from my own lingering resentment. Beware falling epiphanies… the Year of Muchness has already been chock-full of them.)

Back then, though… it was a much different story because I was a much, MUCH different person. Within a year, I was scared to answer the phone or dreaded her coming in the front door, because I suspected an ego-bashing was afoot. Saying, “I’m sorry,” became an instant reflex, so much so that when a new employee came into the fold – someone who had worked with The Boss before and knew exactly what kind of person she was – would call me on it every time those two words slipped out of my mouth.

God bless this angel, she so tried to mitigate the damage. Right after she was hired, there was some sort of billing error that I took immediate action to fix, which I did successfully. My angel made sure she hollered through the whole house that, “Ginger ROCKS!”

To which the Boss replied, “If she rocked, she wouldn’t have made the mistake in the first place.”

:/

In fact, the entire cast of coworkers who came into the company as it grew were the main reason I stayed for so long. They made a fun job even more fun. The Boss even worked with me so I could work four ten-hour days as opposed to five eight-hour days, so I could take Dan to his many doctor’s appointments, etc., and where was I going to find that again?

But when it came time to promote to different positions within the company that, by the way, I helped grow, she overlooked me for another employee who had a college education. When I suggested that I would start college classes, she told me not to bother, that she didn’t use her college diploma, and I might want to think twice about incurring that kind of debt.

At the time it felt like she was shoving me back in the welfare/underling box where she thought I belonged. Now I might agree with her, simply because I know people who will NEVER pay off their college debt, despite how much money they make.

It’s a sad reality that is killing the American dream.

As much as I would want to vilify her for all this, the reality is that I was complacent in my abuse. I stayed for the money. I stayed for the work. I stayed for the people that I loved. But in staying, I said it was OK for her to treat me this way. She was one of three driving (female, critical) voices I had in my head, all of whom thought I owed it to them to be complacent whenever they tread all over me. Like I owed them this because of what they gave to me. It took me years to realize that there is nothing anyone could ever give me that would match the the worth of my own self-esteem, though I have often given it up for much, much less than a free trip to Disneyland.

This was emotional abuse at its most insidious. After my years with Dan, where physical and emotional abuse were so overt, I often doubted myself whenever I questioned how abusive this other, more subtle behavior was.

The minute you question if you are responsible for someone else making you feel bad, it’s a problem.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was preparing myself for a huge shift away from my lifelong status quo. That’s the thing about boxes that other people try to put you in: they don’t fit for a reason. They hurt so you’ll claw your way out of them. They’re uncomfortable. They’re dissatisfying.

And every single one of them lock from the INSIDE.

“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains. And we never even know we have the key.” – “Already Gone“, Eagles

Suffice it to say, this period of my life was fraught with growing pains. I ultimately disengaged, but I did so sloppily, making things worse because I simply couldn’t face her. There was a time I couldn’t see her name or image without that same stark terror chilling me down to the bone. I had panic attacks where I couldn’t even breathe. I felt paralyzed to the point I couldn’t even answer my own phone. So I buried my head in the sand to avoid dealing with it, and paid a HEFTY price for it. She no doubt assumed I was being dishonest and crafty.

I wish. The more shameful truth was that I was just weak and cowardly.

Her parting words to me were, “You’re a joke and you always will be.” For a long time I believed it.

(Fun fact: Pilar says this VERBATIM to Jordi in Fierce. It takes poor Jordi two more books to convince herself otherwise. This is no coincidence.)

(Even funner fact, my random playlist just landed on this song:)

So why am I revisiting this fairly traumatic era of my past? In my Year of Muchness I have two major objectives, and one of those is to stop apologizing for everything. My son Tim busts my chops for this almost every single day. “I’m sorry” is my kneejerk response that begs the hearer for permission to exist, and that’s tremendous bullshit. So it’s gotta stop, and I need to dig this weed out at the root.

Near as I can tell, this first became an issue whilst working for The Boss.

When I started work for her, I left my value at the front door. I didn’t feel I “deserved” the shot she gave me, which stemmed from my piss-poor self-esteem. This allowed her to railroad me in ways she wasn’t able to railroad others who came after me. I accepted that treatment because, in some way deep, deep down, I bought into this lie that I had nothing of value to offer the world… that my existence truly demanded my own regret.

And I reinforce that negative mindset with every unconscious, “I’m sorry,” for things that are a.) not my responsibility b.) not my failure c.) not my problem.

We’ll use the fax machine scenario above to illustrate this.

When The Boss chastised me for not knowing the difference between rubbing alcohol and Isopropryl, I probably felt the need to apologize for this “failure.”

Why do I need to apologize for not knowing that rubbing alcohol and Isopropryl alcohol are the same thing? It was simply a thing I didn’t know. Guess what? There are billions of things I don’t know. This isn’t a failure, it’s simply a fact of life. No one knows every single thing there is to know, nor will we. If we need to apologize every time we figure out something new, we’d all be apologizing ten times a day.

aint-nobody-got-time-for-that

Life IS learning. That means it is our responsibility to learn, NOT to know.

And since I didn’t know, I took the responsibility to ask to make sure. This was not a failure on my part. A failure would have been to assume and bullshit my way through it, rather than admit I needed more information.

And most importantly, it’s not my responsibility to impress her. She hired me because she trusted me to do the job she gave me, which I did. Any value statement she wishes to place on such a minor incident is her responsibility alone to carry. It’s not my baggage.

I’m not sorry I didn’t know a nugget of information that my twenty-five years beforehand had never offered the opportunity to learn. I’m not sorry I asked for clarification prior to doing a task I had never before done, to make sure that it would be done without error.

Mostly I’m not sorry that she felt I was lesser because of it. That speaks way more about her character than it would ever speak about mine. If she wanted to be mad about it, more power to her. It has nothing to do with me.

If I HAD gone ahead and used something I wasn’t clear was OK and it damaged the machine, THEN I would have something for which to apologize, like the soda and petty cash incidents.

Everything else? Not so much. I never needed to apologize to her for her hiring me. That was her choice. If she didn’t fire me, and in fact promoted me and gave me raises, that was all the permission I needed to be in that position and do my job to the best of my ability.

If anything, I owe myself a ginormous, tremendous, emphatic, heartfelt apology for not standing up for myself way back then. But clearly this was knowledge I had yet to learn, and this incident was part of the process.

So before I whip out, “I’m sorry,” like some kind of self-loathing Tourettes, I need to ask myself:

1.) Was it my responsibility? Did I have a job to do and fail to do it?
2.) Was it my error? Did I hurt someone or something by making a mistake?
3.) Is it my problem? How much responsibility do I need to take for the standards/moods of another?

While we’re at it, let’s just dump “I’m sorry” entirely. Literally it translates to:

I’m {in a poor or pitiful state or condition}.

In the Year of Muchness, this is a label I must reject entirely.

If I make a mistake, I will apologize and do my best to correct it. Otherwise, I will fill my mind and my mouth with more positive words.

I’m not sorry I exist. I’m here for a reason. It’s up to me to figure out what that is, not prove my worth to anyone else.

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