Strong Legs, Open Heart

The Barbie doll was blond, just like Jacqui (not her real name) who had been our friend.  And blond like the girl in Heathers who died after being tricked into drinking Drano. In the movie, that blond girl is found lying on her bed with blue lips, her hair spread out on a pillow. We’d all watched the movie obsessively at a sleepover and started styling ourselves as thirteen-year-old versions of the various Heathers. They were popular, beautiful and cruel; the villains. And yet, they were the ones we wanted to be like.

On the morning of that same sleepover while Jacqui did her paper route, we decided she wasn’t our friend anymore and started a campaign to expel her from our group. It started with little passive-aggressive hints designed to let her know we didn’t want to hang out with her anymore and grew into something else entirely. In our last, worst act, we painted the lips of a Barbie doll blue, put a noose around the doll’s neck and coerced a boy we knew into breaking into Jacqui’s locker and hanging the doll there. I can’t quite remember what happened after that. I vaguely remember hearing that she’d left classes crying, and rumours about her wanting to change schools. By that time, we all knew it had gone too far and ended it there.

I am ashamed of this particular page in my story. I don’t like to think of this memory and I rarely talk about it. The experience taught me how quickly a group of insecure, afraid people can become vicious and I didn’t like what I saw in myself then. Yet, this all happened a long time ago. I apologized to Jacqui and have worked to forgive myself for it, so when the memory resurfaced and seem to set up camp in my mind a couple of weeks ago, it seemed odd to me that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

In my life, in fact, starting from the age of about thirteen, you could say I have had difficulty asserting myself. I haven’t always stood up when I should and have tried too hard to mold myself into the image I saw reflected in other people’s eyes. Over the years I have worked to change this. I am better now than I was, but a part of me is still afraid to share an unpopular opinion or do something I think others might disapprove of. In the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about this in myself, trying to sort out why I might be this way. At the same time, the memory of Jacqui kept whispering in my ear, and I think I’ve figured out why.

I wanted to be like the Heathers because they had a kind of power that I longed for in a life lived at the mercy of my divorcing parents and teachers. I knew that bullying Jacqui was wrong, but I did it because it gave me a sense of strength that I didn’t feel in other aspects of my life. Yet this strength was polluted since it was gained at someone else’s expense. And so strength and cruelty became inextricably linked in my mind. Then since I so deeply regretted what we did to Jacqui, I tried as hard as I could to distance myself from any aspect of my personality that had contributed to the situation; including strength.

Of course real strength isn’t cruel. Assertion is not the same as aggression and in my conscious mind I know that. I don’t want power over others, I simply want to be able to stand firmly in my best self. Yet a small, wounded part of me (perhaps born in that earlier experience) couldn’t imagine having strength without believing that other people might lose something as a consequence. That part of me had seen what power used badly can do, and it was afraid.

So there I was with a conundrum. Knowing that in order to move forward, I’d need to embrace strength, but being afraid to do so. I was wondering how to resolve this when a little, wise voice inside me said, “Strong legs, open heart”. Now, when I say a voice, I don’t mean that I heard it outside my head. But at the same time, it didn’t seem to come from me either because it was so much wiser than my normal thoughts. Call it what you will – a higher self, perhaps, or a wiser self that I can only hear when the regular babble is drowned out. But there it was, this strange phrase “strong legs, open heart”, and it made absolute sense.

The phrase may seem awkward to you, but to me, it’s poetry. A perfect, simple image of the best kind of strength. Legs rooted to the earth, lending their support no matter how fierce the storm; able to withstand anything. But tempered with an open, loving heart; as willing to give as to receive, knowing it has nothing to lose. A heart that can listen. Strength accountable to and in service of compassion. In that context, power can be used only for good, and there is nothing more to fear from it.

I can’t say that gaining this insight has completely solved the problem. That fear is still there. But I have held this image close to me over the last little while, drawing on it when I need to speak up and don’t know how. It has given me a little map, something to move towards. Maybe over time it will get easier and I won’t even think about all this anymore. Or maybe it’ll always take conscious effort, I don’t know. But this little thing, this tiny little thing has helped immeasurably, and I’m grateful for it having found me.

Have you ever struggled with assertiveness? How did you deal with it? Have you ever been bullied or been a bully? What did the experience teach you? And don’t forget – our first Mother Sugar giveaway ends soon! Click here for more information!

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8 thoughts on “Strong Legs, Open Heart

  1. I actually had a life lesson take me down at the beginning of the year with someone I developed a friendship with at work and then this so called friend used what she knew about me to become a bully towards me at work – very scary situation – will never trust her and still have to work with her. The biggest lesson I learned was how I reacted to the situation and just tried not to play the games or feed into her drama. In looking back it was an experience I needed to go through and came out my stronger at the other end. Great Post – thanks for sharing! Have a Great Weekend:)

    • Wow, what a tough situation! It sounds like you’ve been able to navigate it well, but it must have been really trying – and must still be – to have to keep working with her. And I really sincerely think it’s great that you were able to stay away from the drama and pay attention to your reactions instead – to stay strong in yourself throughout it all. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m glad to hear you’re through the other end of it. Have a great weekend too! 🙂

  2. It took me a while to understand why this post resonated with me. I often catch myself at the verge of being an aggressor when what I really want to do is just assert myself, and I could never really articulate the difference before. After talking to a friend about a particularly ugly situation which I immediately regretted years ago, she told me that I should always remind myself that I’m a good person before I say or do something that could hurt someone else. I think “Strong Legs, Open Heart” is a great articulation of that.

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  4. BH, wow. This resonated with me so very much– and how brave of you to share. I like to think I’m a relatively empathetic and thoughtful person, but I too, in those very confusing preteen years, found myself in a couple let’s-expel-this-friend-from-our-group mobs. Thankfully, like you, I grew out of it and learned from it and wrote apologies to those girls, who are still close friends of mine (speaking of empathy). But this insight you have gained of equating assertion with aggression is so clear, and the way out you’ve found in this lovely mantra is so wise. This line in particular feels so true to me: “Yet a small, wounded part of me (perhaps born in that earlier experience) couldn’t imagine having strength without believing that other people might lose something as a consequence.” This is perhaps the weakness that comes along with the incredible strength of empathy, of being able to pay attention to others’ feelings. I’d imagine that the ‘open heart’ piece of this comes quite naturally to you, and perhaps the strong legs do as well– the trick seems to me to be in the balance between the two, the connection.

    I recently had a massage therapist tell me that my legs were very strong but that my core, though fit, felt tentative and fragile. Though I often take things said in rooms where rain music plays with a grain of salt, she did tell me that I should trust my legs a bit more, believe more that they are underneath me. Your post reminded me to do this too.

    • Thanks so much for that comment! I’m
      glad this resonated with you, thanks for sharing your experiences. I hadn’t thought of it as being weakness related to empathy before – what a great way of looking at it!

      Funny about your massage therapist – I have chronic knee problems, and I’ve been thinking of strengthening my legs literally and metaphorically these days. 🙂

  5. I know this story, told from somebody else. Given that I didn’t know you then, I found it sort of strange that you were a character in that narrative. I would have never seen that coming.
    I was bully for a year. Only because I’d been picked on the year before and by some chance, the tables got turned the following year and I exacted revenge, I suppose. The year after, we all went to junior high, changed schools, and because everyone was bigger and cooler than us, I remained firmly out of bully land form then on.
    It’s funny. This assertiveness/aggression, I have problems with it sometimes but in different ways. Sometimes, I need to be more assertive, sometimes I need to be less aggressive. It all depends on who I’m dealing with, what they’re dealing with. Sometimes aggression is the only way to make yourself even appear assertive, and sometimes even a little gentle assertiveness gets taken in great offense. Gender can really influence that- I can be downright aggressive with a man who will then see me as refreshingly assertive. But don’t try that tactic with a girlfriend- oh no! I think of these things as skills rather than some kind of core quality or characteristic. i don’t think the behavior defines me, I just have know when to yield what.
    I agree with LT that the empathy might be the cause of that ‘weakness’ to think it’s a zero sum game- your strength is another’s loss. But I wouldn’t want that to be an excuse by the same token. Knowing how much assertiveness is required for an individual is also the result of empathy. And sometimes assertiveness is just clarity on your part- no emotions whatsoever.
    Of course, I don’t profess to be a nice person, just a fair one. I guess in my case I could use a more open heart?

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