It was later in the evening and I was little at the time, maybe 7 or 8. My parents were having friends over for dinner. I don’t remember the names or the faces. I don’t even remember specifically what I was doing, but I do remember one single comment that was said to me that shaped my life in very profound ways, ways that I’m just now beginning to understand.
As the party was winding down, I was dancing in the living room, perhaps seeking the attention of the adults in the room as they gathered their things. A gentleman, who I wouldn’t know to this day, looked at me and said “You are being a show-off, and no one, my dear, likes a show-off”.
I can still feel the sting and the emotional sock to the face that was for me. No one else in the room said anything. The adults continued to gather their things and the evening progressed. I, however, did not. I was shocked, stung, embarrassed, confused, and hurt. What had I done wrong? Why was no one going to like me? How was I showing off and why was it bad? How could I correct it to make sure people still liked me?
It was there, in that moment, that I learned some very profound messages that have impacted me for 40+ years. I learned to pay more attention to the opinions and approval of others. I learned to unplug from the parts of me that were innocent, playful, attention-seeking, and fun. I learned to fit-in, keep the attention off myself, and play small so that people wouldn’t think I was showing off. I learned to pay closer attention to the feedback and reactions of others rather than honor myself and my spirit. I capped myself off so that I would never feel those feelings again.
I don’t remember anything after that, but the wave of shame and humiliation were as impactful it was as if he had physically struck me. I was confused, hurt, humiliated, and so, the shut down began right there in that very moment. The problem is that I didn’t really understand what I needed to shut down. I just shut it down. I shut me down.
I wonder how often children, and even adults, have those kinds of defining moments. The moments when they are innocent, playful, naive, and joyous and someone or something happens that strikes them, intentionally or unintentionally. ‘The point of impact’ I often call it. It is a defining moment that shapes us, often leaving scars no one can see.
So who was this guy and why in the world would he say something like that to a child who was doing absolutely nothing wrong? A show-off?? Was this an awful man? Probably not. He might have been kidding. He obviously had his own issues with showing-off. Who knows?? I only know the power of words and the messages we send.
Words hold power. Words matter, the ones we speak and even the ones we don’t. Did this man intend to dash the spirit of a little girl? I sure hope not. Did he or the others have any idea what he was saying and how it would imprint a sweet little soul like mine? I’m sure not.
What if he had said the opposite? What if he and the others had encouraged, supported, and nurtured that little show-off and given her the spotlight for 5 minutes? What would that have been like for a sweet little innocent soul? Oh, the difference one comment can make. One statement holds enough power to shape and define. Choose your words and choose carefully. They matter.