Words that won’t let go

Why do we remember the things we do? I don’t mean the facts that might come in handy one night at the pub quiz, I mean those fractions of time when we’re interacting with people and you or someone else says something that sticks with you forever. It rings in your ears in the early hours of the morning when you can’t get back to sleep. It comes back to haunt you whenever that trigger is touched.

For me, often these things were hurtful, intentionally or not, and even when I’ve let them go, they still come back to haunt me which means I haven’t really let them go. I’ve just buried them with a very shallow layer of earth. I wonder if the other party privy to these words remembers them. I often think that maybe if I kept a log of what these words are, and when they come up, I might be able to finally defeat them and stop relieving those moments, rolling the words over and over in my head trying to extract any further meaning.

As an example, in my late-twenties I was working in an office job and it was approaching Christmas. The office was decorated with things associated with Christmastime that are non-denominational — mistletoe, snowmen and poinsettia. I don’t know how it came up or who said what first, but someone pronounced poinsettia in a way I’d never heard it before — poin-sett-ee-uh. I immediately questioned if I’d been pronouncing it wrong all my life — poin-sett-uh — and no one had ever pointed it out to me. I don’t recall if the other person told me I was wrong or not, I only recall what followed.

I looked up the word in a dictionary and discovered that in fact both pronunciations were deemed correct. I said this to the other person, more as a point of relief for me and to highlight that I’d learnt something new. I have always been a curious, and skeptical, person so when I have a question about something, I try to find the answer. The response I got when I shared the information about both pronunciations being correct is what took me by surprise, and what I often relive in my mind.

I can picture the scene like it happened only hours ago. I can see where the person was standing in relation to me, I can see the expression on their face and that they had their hair pulled back that day and they were holding a glass of water. Their words were ‘you can’t ever let anything go, can you? You always have to be right.’ I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me for a brief moment. It’s not the response I expected. I thought I was sharing an interesting piece of trivia, that both pronunciations of the word poinsettia were correct.

Why did this person react so negatively to the information? She clearly thought I was accusing her of being wrong and me right based on her words, but I hadn’t said that. I may have said ‘we’re both right!’ but I definitely didn’t say I was right seeing that I was no more right than her.

And now, every time I doubt my knowledge, every time I feel a bit of an impostor, every time I question something, I replay this scene. Maybe something else was going on for her that day with her partner or at work and I was the one that iced the cake so got the biting overreaction. I doubt she remembers that scene, so why do I? I wasn’t wrong, I wasn’t telling someone else they were wrong when they weren’t, I was just sharing information.

I think for me, this moment in time reflected what I had experienced through much of my life at that point, a crippling self-doubt about my abilities and general intelligence. Perhaps I had thought I had finally overcome that particular self-doubt, but this interaction brought it right back into sharp focus.

This moment isn’t like others where I precisely recall an instance that sticks with me, though there are others similar to this poinsettia-moment. Other moments stick with me because they taught me a lesson in that very moment, one I didn’t need to reflect on. Like the time I was speaking to my father on the phone and he was telling me about how he enjoyed reading my latest blog post, but he really didn’t think I should swear, it wasn’t necessary and it was unladylike. I wanted to rebel, but I knew he was right. The use of the f-word in my blog post was gratuitous and despite the incredibly rare use I made of that word, or other ‘foul language’ on my blog, someone down the line might see it and decide it was a reflection of my character, a reflection that I didn’t want. The lesson was black-and-white. I edited the post and have remembered that conversation every time I consider using foul language on a public or semi-public forum.

So even though I am now in my forties and more than a decade has passed since that interaction, I still think of it. I know my curiosity to learn and expand my knowledge, to question myself and others, has had important impacts on my life in very positive ways. I know that to ask questions is OK. I know there are times when I doubt myself, and that’s OK too, because I can’t know everything, even if I spend hours researching it and trying to understand, some things there really aren’t answers for until we put ourselves to the test. So why can’t I let this moment go? I have learnt the lesson I was meant to learn from that moment, but it stays with me. Reminding me of where I came from, where I got to, and back again.

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