Not everything is what it seems. People share the most upsetting thing they’ve accidentally overheard about themselves. And worst of all, it was said by their close friends and family. Yikes! Content has been edited for clarity purposes.
“I was 13 and had just woken up. I was in my bedroom, but as there was no door between my room and the living room, the blanket hung in the doorway didn’t do anything to block out voices coming from the other room. My mother had a friend over, and they were talking about something. I don’t know what, because, honestly, I hadn’t been paying attention. But something was said that caught my attention, and that’s when I heard my mom’s remark.
She said, ‘Don’t tell Melody, but she’s got an enlarged heart.’
I came into the room and demanded to know what was going on. If there was something wrong with me, I deserved to know.
It turned out that I had caught chicken pox when I was less than a year old. I had known that story. I had nearly died three times. What I didn’t know was that the ‘harmless childhood illness’ had damaged my heart.
To say that it scared me would be an understatement. This was in the early 80s, and there had been a story in the news recently. A teenage girl with an enlarged heart had been told that she needed a transplant. A boy at her school told his family that when he died, he wanted the girl to get his heart. He died soon after, although how he died was never revealed. His heart turned out to be a match for the girl and she did, indeed, receive his heart. This lead me to the assumption that I may need a transplant or could die at any time.
Years later, I had to have surgery for an unrelated complaint and the pre-surgical testing included cardiac tests, which showed that my heart was actually fine. So either my heart had been fine all along, or the condition reversed itself over the years.”
A Disappointed Father
“My parents never forgave me for not getting my degree. I wrote papers in my field in my very early 20s for international conferences that got me invited to sit on committees of professional organizations. I was recognized as an ‘MIT engineer’ by my peers who’d gotten their sheepskins rather than sitting in on classes while working a second shift programming job (queue the Good Will Hunting references).
I was the youngest female Chief Software Engineer working at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) in the early 80s. I made twice the money my dad had made as a rural minister in Vermont. And as a polymath/autodidact, I had reasonable expertise in a variety of fields.
None of it mattered, because my dad was the first one in his family to get past fourth grade, and he had two degrees. I was the black sheep.
At one point, I did the obligatory ‘You can’t go home again’ journey to Vermont to see if I could make it there. Everything I knew was a decade ahead of what was going on in my little town of 8,000. It lasted about a year, and I went back to Boston.
My dad — who was about 40 when I was born — had retired, and a newly ordained minister was at his church. I made friends with him and told him as the minister’s kid, I knew where bodies were buried, and could be trusted for peer counseling when things would invariably run up on the rocks. We started to have coffee pretty regularly.
A friend of mine had described my career as a ‘headlong retreat from the ministry.’ I actually had a notion of becoming the first Unitarian Universalist academic theologian at Harvard, but they only had scholarships for ministers because no one had ever asked for one to do theology.
I loved my ‘coffee dates’ with the minister. We talked about everything, including UU theology.
My dad was mostly staying away from the church, in part to embrace retirement and to give the ‘young fellow’ a chance to be the real minister.
One day, I was helping my mom with gardening when the young minister and my dad were chatting on the back porch and didn’t know I was there around the corner of the house, weeding the borders.
The young guy told my dad, ‘Your daughter is so deeply literate in religious history and theology, and she’s given me such good advice getting established here. What theology school did she graduate from?’
At first, all I felt was a warm glow that the young man thought so highly of me. It was really affirming.
And then I heard my dad mumble, and the young minister said, ‘What?’
He said, ‘She doesn’t have any degree at all. She’s a drop-out.’
The young guy laughed and said, ‘That’s amazing! Do you mean she’s competent in multiple fields and she picked it all up on her own? You must be so proud of her!’
And my dad just mumbled something and changed the subject.
That one snippet of eavesdropped conversation changed my life. I stopped worrying about pleasing my dad (but I still tried to impress him, with frustrating results). I really owned that it was ok to be ME, in a certain sense, in that moment and the days that followed as I rearranged my thoughts on the topic.
In some ways, I became a full adult — no longer just seeking parental approval and reacting when I didn’t get it. I was 24, which in my experience is pretty young for this epiphany.
“I had a close group of friends in college. There were about eight of us that did almost everything together. For some reason, a couple of the members of our group thought I should be dating one of the guys and they tried really hard to ‘match-make’ to get us together. We enjoyed each other for company, but there was absolutely NO attraction. We went on a few dates. On one of the last ‘Let’s try this’ dates, he met one of my roommates. They had instant chemistry. She was gorgeous and perfect. She was sociable, smart, and beautiful.
He was around at my place frequently, but since he and my roomie had a relationship I gave them their space. So one night this guy friend and my roommate were talking and she asked him why things didn’t work out with us.
He told her, ‘She tried too hard. She would turn herself into anyone I wanted her to be, but she’s so sad when she loses herself. ‘
I have always been a people pleaser. I did develop a stronger sense of self for many years and found a wonderful man.
So the guy friend and my roommate got married. They have been married for 25 years. We see each other almost every summer as they have a condo at the beach. I was having a really difficult time with something this past summer and my guy friend sat me down and reminded me of all of the ‘bad luck’ I had in college that was a result of me trying to be someone I am not. It has not been easy but I am working my way back to being true to myself again.”
“My mother-in-law stayed with us for a few months last year to try and get herself back together after a divorce.
She was going through a difficult time and my husband being such a lovely son, offered to help her and bring her to live with us until she got herself sorted out. He thought our positive and hopeful approach to life might be a good influence on her.
I have never had a deep friendship with my mother-in-law because we live in different countries and only visit once a year, and when that does happen, I’ll naturally spend more time with my family (whom I miss deeply) than with my husband’s family. So I didn’t really mind her coming to live with us for a while. I thought it would be good for my husband and me to spend some time with his mother and for her to get to know our son a bit more.
I always tried to be pleasant and polite. I’m a stay-at-home mom so when my husband was at work I did my best to cook and keep things in order so she wouldn’t have to worry about anything other than relaxing and enjoying herself in a new country. I should also add that while she was here we found out I was pregnant with our second child. She decided to stay with us until the baby was born so she could help me with her.
One time, she had asked to use my computer to go online to talk with people back home because her phone wasn’t working, so I set it up for her and that was that.
A few months later we needed to use the computer and, by accident, she had left her messages opened and I saw my name there. You can judge all you want, but if you see your name on a text in someone else’s messages, you’ll want to know what it is about. So my husband and I read them.
It turns out that, for the longest time since she’d come to live with us (she lived with us for 11 months) she was talking to her ex-husband and begging to get back together. Also, she had said so many awful things about me. That I was the devil, I only slept all day, and my unborn child was overdue (daughter was born 10 days past her due date) because I was lazy. Also, I was annoying and spoiled. I was so hurt. I had no idea but she closely watched and criticized everything I did from what I ate to how I gave my son a bath, all the while pretending to be a very nice person.
She told her ex-husband they should come and jump on my bump so the baby would come already so she could go back to him.
When I gave birth, she came to visit me in the hospital and I told her about how labor had been and that I was a bit hoarse from screaming during the last leg of delivery. She had then gone ahead and told her ex all I had told her, she said I screamed because I was weak and a wimp.
She turned out to be such a toxic person to our family (which wasn’t really a surprise since she was a horrible and abusive mother to my husband) that my husband decided to get her back home and step away from the toxicity she brought for a while.
I don’t know what it was. I really tried to be good to her, I’m not a mean person or unpleasant. I always try my best to accommodate everyone who comes to visit us but she pretended to be a nice person while being very nasty against her own son and his family.
Almost like she didn’t like the fact that he grew from being a problematic child and teen to being a good man and a great parent. Something she never was.”
Why Would His Coach Say That?
“I was a normal high school kid, but a comment I overheard led me to question everything I thought I knew about myself.
My grades were OK (B’s) and I was a very good athlete. I had a girlfriend, took photos for the yearbook, and acted in two school plays. I enjoyed science and was a bit of a science nerd. I was even in the gifted program because I had tested with a high IQ. My biggest school activity was the swim team and I was a team Co-Captain for both my Junior and Senior years. I had a pretty good sense of myself and certainly saw myself as average to above average all around.
One day, I came into the pool and my coach was talking to my two other co-captains about the event lineup for an upcoming meet. I do not remember the details of the conversation, other than to hear the coach say to my co-captains ‘That Rishel, he’s a little slow, isn’t he?’
I was dumbfounded.
Why had he said that? What had I done to make him think that? Had someone told him something? Was it something I said or how I had acted?
I had a mini-crisis over that comment. I wracked my brain to understand where that had come from and why. Fortunately, my sense of self was strong enough that it did not crush me, but it really hurt. He never knew I overheard him, so there was never an opportunity to explore it further with him. It also made me think about how I acted, what I said, and how it was possible that how people saw me was different from how I saw myself.
I never figured out what that was about, but it did change me. I think I might have started trying a bit harder to not be lazy or to seem dumb to others. Of course, since I don’t know why he ever thought that about me, I will never know if I addressed why he thought it.”
“I’ve always struggled with parsing how others view me, and whether I’m appreciated or valued in a role, etc. I’d been in my role with the employer for about four to five months, and thought I was doing quite well. The response from them seemed to be positive, and I was enjoying the job.
In this company, they used a program that ‘filed’ all communications with clients, so all letters were scanned in, and e-mails were copied in, so you could look through a list of communication history. One of the ‘clients’ on there was the recruitment agency who had placed me, and whilst filing some unrelated communications in there, I saw further down the list an e-mail titled ‘another Rebecca, please’.
Curiosity got the best of me, and feeling a little pleased I clicked on the email.
It read as per the title, ‘Can we have another Rebecca, please? Cheap, hard-working, and no backchat.’
Well, that wasn’t quite the ego boost I was expected. It didn’t make a difference to how I approached the role; it wasn’t really negative, and I was enjoying the role itself.
But, firstly it taught me that nosing doesn’t do any good. And it’s something I’ve kept in the back of my mind since then, particularly when I’m trying to evaluate my role objectively when deciding on career moves. At the end of the day, I’m not naive enough to think that a job role isn’t transactional. You’re there because you’re of use to the company. But I’d like to be able to evaluate whether I’m valued in a role for the quality of the work I can do, or just seen as someone who will put up and shut up without asking for anything in return.”
“When I was in primary school, I heard one of my teachers attempting to give us a lecture on the planets, a subject I have always had a keen interrest in. His information was all wrong so I kept on correcting him, eventually, furiously, he suggested that if I was so smart I should be the one lecturing the class.
So I told him to have a seat, very politely. You would not believe the look on his face, so I proceeded to teach my fellow students about their solar system and gave them some insight into some of the wonders and mysteries of the universe. Very furiously after the period was over, he stormed out to the teachers lounge where he knew he would find my mum, who was an art and music teacher at the same school. He angrily told her the series of events, to which she responded with laughter, knowing me as well as a mother knows her own son.
So meanwhile I was packing up my suitcase back in the classroom, taking a little longer than usual as I was ordered to pack all the lecture ‘props’ and books afterward. I saw the teacher come in with two other teachers, so I hid behind a book cabinet in the classroom where they could not see me.
I heard my teacher say to the other two (one being the school principal), ‘That kid is a walking bloody encyclopedia! How do you teach books with more pages than your own?’
The principal at this time chuckled and then said something a kid should probably not overhear, ‘Did you know his IQ is extraordinarily high?’
The other two both almost simultaneously proclaimed loudly, ‘What?!’
There was a bit of silence followed.
Then finally the third teacher, quite silent until now said in a mocking thick German accent, ‘We must take care of him. HE KNOWS TO MUCH!’
They all burst out laughing, but I had a very hard time doing the same. Even though it was very flattering, it made me realize to actually start using this gift instead of abusing it. That moment led to too many academic achievements over the years as I wanted to see how far I could really push it; the answer was dangerously far.
So as my loving sister one day told me, as I became a bit anti-social and could not figure out why she very sweetly came to me one day and said. ‘You need to learn to dumb things down for us, we don’t understand what you are talking about 90% of the time.’
I could still just kiss her for doing that, it reevaluated my entire way of approaching people.”
“When I was in fifth and sixth grades, I lived with my grandparents while my mother, Susan, was on her around-the-world trip. My grandparents were well-to-do but not rich. However, my grandmother was very smart, highly educated, socially adept, and in touch with what was current in the world. In short, she was the perfect guest, and so she was included in the goings-on of ‘high society’. My grandfather was no slouch either.
One day my grandmother was putting on a party for some of her rich friends, and she asked me to carry some hors d’oeuvres around to her guests, so I did. I was the only child present. There was a woman there, Dorothy, who was an heiress to a lot of Upjohn money. I’d met her on several occasions and I thought of her as a friend.
Dorothy was chatting with another woman as I walked up behind them with my tray of goodies.
Just before I got to them I heard the other woman ask, ‘Who is the little boy?’
And Dorothy replied, ‘Oh he’s Suzy’s little mistake.’
There are times when thoughts come so fast that they all become a blur.”
“At the age of 27 in my second job, I was told to present at a City Council meeting for a project I was managing. I was technically competent to manage that project but had never presented in public before, let alone for elected officials in a televised session. All public speaking at my previous employer, the City of Los Angeles, was reserved for well-respected staff probably ages the late 30s and up. I was really inexperienced at public speaking and was scared to say anything wrong since I was on probation.
As the council meeting neared, I kept reviewing the council agenda and my staff report. That night, the others presented really well. I did the best I could with all the courage I mustered up barely making eye contact with the council. The details of the project were in the presentation but definitely weren’t a ‘WOW’ performance. The big boss quickly took the council’s questions instead of leaving them to my possible fumbling. My supervisor was kind enough and assured me I did well to make me feel better.
However, as I zigzagged my way back to my cubicle, I overheard some of the staff giggling and saying, ‘He was just reading from his staff report.’
That ‘he’ was obviously ‘me’ giving this rigid and soulless performance.
I hated them for making fun of people less skilled than them. Their arrogance really upset me. But deep down, I hated them for being right. I did suck at public speaking. I then realized that leadership was not just technical ability. Technical ability was technical competence but leadership required skills in persuading others to see and believe in your vision. I used those giggles as motivation to argue more persuasively and develop oratory skills by gauging the audience and switching delivery when I feel I’m not connecting.”
“I have always been a quiet person, the kind of quiet where people forget I’m there. In high school, I had a frenemy who really messed up my self-esteem.
While chatting in the parking lot with several girls after a basketball game, this ‘friend’ said something like, ‘Oh, everyone thinks Amanda is boring.’
There was a pause, then as if she just realized I was standing there, she tacked on, ‘But she’s fun once you get to know her.’
I spent quite a few years worrying that I was the most boring girl in the world. I obsessed over being ‘fun.’ I read up on interesting things to talk about.
Sometime in college, I gave it up. It wasn’t me and people didn’t like me, understandably because I was fake. After almost 25 years of pondering, I think we just weren’t on the same level intellectually. To her, quiet and deep thought was boring. To me and many other lovely people, I have met since it is definitely not. At 16 and caught up in fitting in and popularity, it’s hard to wrap your head around that concept.
I still haven’t decided if it was an accident that I heard her say this about me or if she was being nasty. No matter, we haven’t talked in over 10 years and will never be ‘friends’ again.”