Discover more from A Lady on Fire
How to Lose
Anger is not the answer.
I. Calibrating to Humanity
The first company I ever started was with my partner who’s also a software engineer. We had spoken to a longtime friend of my partner’s and he had agreed to be our first customer. About 8 months into the life of our company, we had finished building the first version of the website and were getting ready to launch it. The weekend before we were scheduled to launch, my partner received a private message from his friend. The friend said he was shocked that he was not listed as a founder on any of the official company documents. This came as a surprise to us since we had been very clear from the start that this was our company and he would be our first customer. For over half a year when we were building the product, he never said anything that would suggest otherwise. He was the sole representative of his company in price negotiations against our company, which is another reason why we were confused that he thought he was a founder of our company.
Anyway, we got on a call with him and told him that we had always tried to make the arrangement very clear, and if he was confused then we were sorry but that didn’t change the reality of the situation. This made him incredibly angry and he expressed as much on the phone. Later he refused to continue communicating with us, told us that he might have to get his company’s lawyers involved, and sent my partner a long private message detailing his feelings. In this message he said that my partner and him had been friends for a long time, that *they* had decided to start this company together and that I was just some woman who was duplicitous and had manipulated my partner into changing the dynamics of their friendship.
I think for a long time he didn’t believe that our company could be real. In his mind we were just kids his age and the idea that we could start an entire company seemed a little far-fetched to him. But when he saw that it had started to work out, that we were capable of building the product and setting up the legal and financial structure of the organization, that it was a legitimate venture that we had created from scratch and turned into a functioning business, he suddenly felt like being a part of it too.
So he constructed a narrative in his head about how none of this would have been possible without him and how he had always been part of the company from the start despite us never having had any conversations that would suggest this. And that his name was not on the paperwork was due entirely to the fact that *I* was a secretive, manipulative woman who had come between him and his friend and somehow taken over their company.
For about a year after this happened I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. I wracked my brain for any signs I might have missed and poured over our communications with him to see what could possibly have suggested the reality that he had constructed. Because the truth was that I had started a company with my husband and we had agreed that his friend would be our first customer. For the entire life of the company I was the sole full-time employee, and my partner was helping me out part-time. From my perspective we had never done anything that would suggest that the friend would be our third co-founder.
It would have been one thing if the friend had said that now he realized that the company might actually work out, he wanted to be included in the team. But it was completely another to suggest that *I* had duped him and manipulated my husband into cutting him out of the company.
After I spent that year trying to look for answers that would corroborate his version of events and not finding any, I started to feel angry. Very, very angry. By this time we had cut ties with him and shut down the company. We didn’t need any legal troubles so we decided to go find another idea and build another website. Even if it was a confusing situation, the better way to work it out would have been to clarify instead of attack. Why was I being made the scapegoat here? It didn’t make sense and that only made me more angry.
I think the real reason I was angry had nothing to do with the other person, it was more that I was taken completely by surprise. I had not expected it to turn out like this and I felt on some level that if I had done something differently then I would have been able to somehow prevent all this from happening. But I wasn’t acting any differently in this situation than I had in other situations which had not turned out this way, which meant it was not my behavior that had caused this to happen. It was not my fault no matter how much this person wanted it to be.
I realized that the reason I was surprised was because I was not properly calibrated to humanity. People are emotional and sometimes not good at communicating their feelings. They can be unkind and not rigorous about uncovering the truth. They might frame things in a way that only benefits them and try to aggressively push that framing onto other people. They might choose to selectively look at the parts of reality that serve their narrative while conveniently leaving out parts that show the complete picture.
I’m not suggesting that all people are like this, but that some people might be. Before this happened to me I think I believed that everyone who was my “friend” would be kind and rigorous in their assessment of reality, just like I was. I think this is a common realization that many of us have as we’re coming of age - we realize that other people don’t view situations in the same way we do. People have different mental and emotional bandwidths which results in other people’s realities sometimes not being compatible with our own.
And realizing this made me angry at first because I felt trapped in the other person’s framing of the situation. I felt like I could not *prove* that they were wrong and I was right. I did not view *walking away* as an option because I thought if I just let it go then that meant the other person had *won*. I think I may have been using my continued anger and obsession as a way to signal to myself and to others that I was *doing something about it*.
I think in reality I did not have a good mental model of who this person really was. So now, having been through it all, I’m actually glad that it happened. It was a fairly innocuous incident, although at the time I did not view it as such. I got out before the company ever launched and before we got in too deep with a shady person we could not trust. I learned that I needed to do some work on myself so I could move through these kinds of situations with more ease. And I got a really valuable lesson that allowed me to properly calibrate my view of humanity.
II. Hopeless Romantic
When I was in 8th grade and researching colleges, I told a friend that I wanted to go to Harvard. My dad heard that conversation and later pulled me aside and got really angry. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong, so he explained. He said that I shouldn’t say things when I have no idea how to make them happen, that people will start thinking I like to brag, and that I was clearly not working on achieving this dream so I should just shut up about it.
It was the first time a little girl had expressed her dream and it was shut down with such force that it did exactly what it was designed to do, ensure that she never dared to dream that dream again. So after his excessive and uncalled-for reaction, I accepted his framing and his message and never even considered going to Harvard again.
A few years later when my brother was also in his early teens, he started becoming interested in cooking. He said that he wanted to be a chef or a baker and go to culinary school when he was older. Guess what happened next. In response to his dreams my dad set up a meeting with the executive chef at a hotel we were staying at, asking the chef to talk to his son about what his career had been like. He wanted my brother to learn early all the things he would need to do in order to succeed in this business.
In response to my brother’s dreams, my father wanted to set him up for success. In response to my dreams, my father wanted me to fall back in line.
At the time I didn’t understand the cause or purpose of his harsh reaction, but I now know that it was driven by fear. Many women in India aren’t supposed to say their dreams out loud, they’re not really even supposed to have them. His plan for my life was that I would be married after college and cease to be a part of his family anymore.
He didn’t come up with this plan alone in a vacuum, this is just what Indian society expects most women to do. In fact, the day I graduated with 2 degrees in Software Engineering and a big-tech job lined up in Silicon Valley, he called his family and said that he wouldn’t even have come to America to attend my graduation had it not been for the fact that he was also going to be meeting my boyfriend’s parents and discussing the prospect of my marriage.
These are just a few choice examples from a long, rich, colorful history of oppression that was my childhood. And yet I grew up believing that my parents loved me and had my best interests at heart. I trusted them and included them in important decisions of my life. I sought their advice and kept in touch with them regularly. I was a good daughter, the best you could’ve asked for. Until one day they asked for too much. And then the whole charade came crashing down. I realized that they didn’t really understand who I was or what I really wanted. I learned that they took issue with me even expressing my desires if those were different from what they had planned for me.
And when our paths diverged I felt guilty for years. I spent so much time looking for signs that I was wrong and they were right just so I could accept their framing and we could go back to being a “happy family” again. But that didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t fool myself into believing their empty declarations of equality anymore. I was angry that I was being treated differently than my brother. And my response to that anger was to spend years trying to convince my parents to take me seriously and give me the respect I deserved.
During that entire period of my life, I never realized that it was not my responsibility to teach them how to change their mind. I never once considered that the best option for me might be to simply walk away from this situation and go live my life however I wanted. I didn’t need their permission or their blessing, and if they didn’t want to be a part of my life then that was their loss. I viewed walking away as a failure. I thought it meant that I was accepting their version of reality, that they had succeeded in oppressing me and that I had lost the fight to win their approval. I thought that if I accepted that they would never truly know or understand the real me, then I had failed.
And to this day, I feel like a romantic who’s still holding out hope that perhaps one day her parents will come around to her point of view. Still wishing that she will get her happy ending after all.
III. Spontaneous Combustion
One day I came home from school and my mom asked me why I didn’t have many friends. The way she phrased it made it sound like something was wrong with me. Like somehow it was my fault for being different because she had had close friends since she was in 5th grade and I didn’t have anyone I was close to even though I was now in 8th grade.
It’s true that I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I don’t think I ever related to anybody’s life and I felt like I couldn’t tell them about mine. I now know that this is a common experience for kids who grow up with trauma - they feel isolated, like nobody could understand them or what they’re going through, and that keeps them from ever even trying.
I suspect one of the main reasons I didn’t participate in social interaction with my peers was because I didn’t know how to handle embarrassment very well. In my house everything was always serious and important, never lighthearted and funny. Often my father would tell me that if I did things that could be construed as *dumb* when taken out of context, then other people would not like me. They would not tell me that they didn’t like me, but it would be true and I would be shunned. So, according to him, it was my responsibility to make sure that nothing I ever did could be seen as silly or inappropriate or dumb or else bad things would happen.
So whenever I found myself in embarrassing situations I would panic and feel like I was about to spontaneously combust. I would take everything literally and become extremely self-conscious and self-critical. I would feel an automatic and immediate need to explain myself to the other person. To try and make them understand that I wasn’t weird or different, just confused. At the time I viewed embarrassing yourself as the worst thing you could possibly do to yourself, a cardinal sin that would mean you would be socially shunned forever, a place you could never come back from.
Intellectually, I know that if you make a fool of yourself and you do not automatically jump to explain yourself, then you will not spontaneously combust. You will be fine. You will go on existing and everything will be fine.
But the emotions rising up in my body would beg to differ. Whenever I feel embarrassed, I think that the best thing for me and for everyone else would be if a giant hole opened up in the ground and swallowed me whole. My skin starts to tingle as a way to signal to me that I am way too exposed. I feel a fire rising inside me that is ready to consume me from the inside out in a spontaneous combustion reaction of epic proportions. I feel like the moment of embarrassment will be etched forever in their memories, that it will leave a permanent scar that will never be forgotten for as long as I shall live. I feel a burning sensation in my esophagus and a knot in my stomach that refuses to loosen, and in these moments I feel like relaxation was a concept invented by aliens to torture humans into feeling *more* anxious.
Sometimes this fear would play a tape in my head, showing me in vivid technicolor all the times I behaved less than perfectly. All the times I was mean to someone, all the times I intentionally or unintentionally hurt them, all the times I didn’t go out of my way to help them. The tape plays over and over, like a video stuck on repeat with no way to turn the recorder off. For years this was the way I expressed to myself that I was feeling bad about something. It’s what self-deprecating had always meant to me. It’s the guilt loop, the shame spiral that I could never get out of .. and sometimes I didn’t even want to.
For a long time I tried to suppress this fear of spontaneous combustion. I thought that suppressing it was the best way to stop it from being so debilitating because there was no other way I could control its effects on me. But by now it should come as no surprise that suppressing it didn’t work. It would surface its ugly head every single time I found myself in an embarrassing situation and make me feel worse and worse every single time.
The antidote, it turns out, is a single four-letter word - oops.
If I actually think about what was happening in my mind and body, I realize that I was perhaps reacting to a threat that wasn’t there. Reacting with intense shame and hatred towards yourself when faced with a normal, common trait of human behavior, meant that I was responding with a conditioned response and not with a response appropriate to the situation. Feeling angry at myself for doing something that could be perceived as “wrong”, instead of laughing it off as a silly quirk of the human mind, meant that I needed to calibrate to humanity better, not feel like I needed to spontaneously combust and disappear off the face of the earth.
IV. Status Games
For as long as I can remember, I have been on the lowest rung of the mainstream ladder. Born as a woman in an extremely patriarchal country, raised to believe that her dreams are second class citizens, got her degrees in a male dominated field, and exclusively worked in environments where she was almost always the only woman engineer. My ideas have always counted for less than their merits because they come from me. To my parents, to my siblings, to my teachers, to my bosses, to my peers and even to me, what I think and feel and say has always been less important than what they think.
For example, the other day at work my boss wanted to discuss my performance review results for the last year. After he presented them to me, he asked what I thought. Hopeless romantic as I am, I took that as an invitation to share my actual thoughts with him. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m very socially adept at presenting my arguments in a kind and professional manner. But many people just can’t stomach a little girl showing them up. I’m not very tall and I’ve always looked young for my age, and I’ve always been unusually perceptive and unafraid to say what I actually think. And historically, this combination has proven lethal for my self-esteem.
In the meeting with my boss I said I disagreed with the numbers and gave him solid, logical reasons why. I tried to show him inconsistencies in his evaluation of my performance versus the performance of people in the level above me. One of the things he said was that I couldn’t get promoted until I was able to do thing X. And I pointed out how people currently at that level don’t know how to do thing X either. Besides which if we directly compared my performance and outcomes to some people that were a level higher, it turns out that I was actually doing a better job than they were.
This made my boss really angry. And so, like always, I pretended to be the virtuous, meek supplicant to de-escalate the conflict, soothe his hurt ego and get out of that situation unscathed. There was no logical flaw in my argument and I did my best to present it to him in a calm, kind way and he still managed to take offense and decided to shut me down and I basically had to pretend to lose. And he has the power to do that because in the arbitrary hierarchy of the company he has more status than I do.
Later that week, when I had more time to think about this, I had two overarching reactions. The first was anger. I was furious that once again here was a man asking for my opinion and when I gave it to him and he disliked it, he chose not to acknowledge his faults and resolve to do better, but to get angry at the mere suggestion that he was at fault in the first place. My second reaction was to buy a lot of books on negotiation and influence and nonverbal communication to try and learn how to get even better at getting my point across without giving offense.
But then I realized something, even though I think these are great skills for me to learn, why should I have to keep re-orienting my life around appeasing other people. Why did I feel the need to continue participating in their status games when it had become abundantly clear that I was never going to get the respect I deserved?
If I were a character in a book I would tell her that the best course of action for her was to pretend to lose, and then go back to doing things that would eventually get her out of these situations altogether. But to be honest it’s really hard to let go. Because once again, it feels like if I placate the other person and walk away from this situation, then *I* am the one who lost. And that in order “to win” I need to continue to stay with the situation, stay angry about it and continue trying to convince the other person that they’re not seeing everything clearly.
The truth is that from past experience I know that it’s not going to work. If they don’t listen to me about inconsequential things then they’re definitely not going to listen to me when I say that their whole way of viewing the situation is flawed. Besides which, it is not my responsibility to change them. No matter how much my parents tried to make me believe that it was.
When I was little my parents would essentially be mad at everything I did, saying that if only I did better then they would be happier. So that indoctrinated this idea in me that I could somehow *control* how other people are feeling. Of course it’s in your power, they would say. Making me think that if only I did everything right, if only I tried hard enough, if only I was able to anticipate their every need and change myself into the exact person that would please them, then finally a day would come when they would sit back and relax, and tell me how proud of me they were. How I was amazing and talented and loved and that nothing could stand in the way of my success. If only.
V. Letting Them Down
“What are you most afraid of?”
“Letting other people down,” Fire said.
“Because I’ve spent my whole life trying to please other people and if I stop now, I don’t know who I will be without it.”
“Perhaps you’ve spent too long living in their frame. Perhaps what you’re really afraid of is that if you stop then you’ll realize that under the guise of trying to please other people, you have actually been letting *yourself* down this whole time.”
“… yes, I think you may be right.” Fire replied, thoughtfully.
“Perhaps .. it’s time to realize that no matter what you do, you could never let yourself down. You are perfect, just as you are. You are loved, just as you are. You are you, just as you are.
You don’t need to try any harder, or do any more, or help anyone else. You don’t need to look a certain way or hide how you really feel or pretend to be someone you’re not.
If they can’t see who you really are, or love you just as you are, it doesn’t mean that you’re letting them down. Nor does it mean that you’re letting yourself down.”
“So what does it mean?” Fire asked.
“It means that you’re human and you’re alive. And it’s time we started celebrating that every single day instead of worrying about letting other people down.
Because you being you isn’t letting anyone down.
If they don’t accept you, then *they* are the ones letting *you* down.”
VI. How to Win
If you spend your life responding to others, one day you will look back and find that someone else has been in control of your story the whole time. Sometimes in order for you to grow you have to accept that other people won’t grow with you and trying to make them different is just going to waste both your time.
In every situation that I described here, I felt like I was misunderstood. That made me feel angry at the situation or the person or both. And being angry makes me feel like I’m doing something, like my actions are making an impact that will definitely change things. But if reality is any guide, I can’t change anybody else, I can only change myself.
Besides, it is not my responsibility to change anyone else. For a long time I was made to believe that *I* was the one *causing* the other person’s negative reaction, and that if only I did things differently then their reaction would change. Looking at the world through this frame, it’s no surprise that I thought it was under my control how other people behaved towards me. Like in each of these situations if only I could have done something differently then I could have changed the outcome.
But no matter how hard I tried to contort myself into being different, there would always be someone who didn’t like something I was doing. And each time that happened it made me feel like I had failed. Like I had lost the game of trying to please every single person in every single situation.
Moreover, I would feel guilty and ashamed at my loss. Not realizing that this was actually a blessing in disguise. That if I was ever going to win at the real game, the only game that mattered, then “losing” in these situations was teaching me a valuable lesson.
You can’t wait until everyone understands you and gives you their permission and blessing to go live your life how you want. You don’t need to feel guilty about moving on, letting go, losing their dumb status games, and going after your own life goals. It is ok if you’re not properly calibrated to humanity and meet some people who try to take advantage of you. It is ok if you’re a hopeless romantic and keep believing that the people you love will love you back in the way that you want them to. It’s ok that you do and say embarrassing things and that does not mean that you will spontaneously combust.
If I go around thinking that I need to have a proportional response to each thing that happens to me, then I’ll spend all my time and resources playing someone else’s game where they make the rules and they decide who’s going to win. The real game is finding out what you want and going after it with all your heart. That’s the secret to being happy and free.
Anger is not the answer, the answer is learning how to lose other people’s games so you can finally win your own.