When my grade school science teacher placed me in front of the class, the first word to come out of my classmates’ mouths was “Asian.” We were learning about taxonomy, the system of categorizing living things. To answer my science teacher’s question of what was special about me, “Asian” was the only word they had to say. After a few moments of silence, my teacher put his arm around me and said to them, “She demands respect.”
My teacher was wrong though. I had never demanded respect from anyone, and I remember thinking, “What does demanding respect have anything to do with classifying me? What kind of experiment is this?!” Then I recalled from my years of being an “Asian” girl that I was labeled as quiet, obedient, and strictly studious. Determined to prove myself as more than a stereotype, I overworked myself in school and sports, which harmed my health. At twelve years old, I was hospitalized for anorexia.
While in the hospital, I received cards from my classmates. Rather than the word, “Asian,” my classmates came up with words, like “the kindest girl, intelligent, a role model, trustworthy, genuine, [and] a leader.” What astounded me was the word, “leader.” To uncover what my classmates meant, I decided to seek out leadership positions in high school and in college.
In college, I received a campus wide acknowledgement for excellent leadership from one person on a leadership student council with me. This person became my “best friend.” My personal statement for the graduate program I am in now for organizational psychology, the psychology of the workplace, centered on my position in that council with him.
My friend was the first guy I ever really talked to in my entire life. I mean I went to an all-girls, Catholic school. Anyways, this friend was gay, and I was sensitive to the stereotype that comes with having a gay best friend, or its more commonly known acronym, GBF, from Queer Eye and teen magazines.
I dislike how GBFs seemed to be labeled as an accessory. I knew how it felt to be labeled as pretty much the only visibly “Asian” person growing up. Consequently, I made a conscious effort not to treat my friend as this sassy boy who would help me shop and listen to me vent, which to me, is frankly dehumanizing. The ironic thing was I became his GBF, although I identify as heterosexual. I was the one waiting for him while he tried on skinny jeans and listening to him vent for hours.
However, I didn’t mind at the time because to me being a leader is all about putting others ahead of yourself. I didn’t have your typical “Asian” childhood. With my dad as a basketball coach, I learned, as a leader, you love others as your children. You don’t give up on people. Unfortunately, this would prove to be my downfall.
My awareness of how damaging labels could be with my experience growing up Asian and developing anorexia prevented me from seeing the damage from my relationship with my friend. To me, others labeling anorexia as a disease made me feel powerless to overcome it, and others labeling me as just “Asian” drove me to seek perfection. Consequently, I paid no mind to people’s two cents that he was using me until years later when someone mentioned the word, “narcissist,” to describe my friend. As a result, I did some research, drawing from Dr. Greenberg’s book on narcissism.
Typically, narcissists are attracted to empathetic people. A narcissist possesses a pattern of behavior where they first shower an empathetic person with praise, but once they get that person to love them, they exploit them. It is called the “chasing the unicorn” phase. I really am an honorary GBF, considering the unicorn is a symbol for the LGBTQ community, and the unicorn also functions as a term used to refer to a special person with which to form a lasting relationship. The second phase is when a narcissist starts giving slight comments. Finally, the third phase is the discarding phase in which a narcissist leaves an empathetic person feeling empty and confused because the empathetic person thought that they were loved.
When I told my friend that the relationship was unequal unlike he was telling me he wanted it to be, suddenly, because I didn’t think the relationship was perfect, I was just “too perfect.” I didn’t want to be in the role of a nagging mother, but he kept urging me to tell him when I felt my time was disrespected, which was a lot. I didn’t realize it was pushing him away until it was too late.
Some might think, “Why spend your time with this guy?” To that I say, imagine a person who says the most loving things to you, then who says the most hurtful possible things to you. It was confusing because he said such hurtful remarks in response to the feedback he asked to hear from me no matter how much I cushioned it.
What was worse than the words he said to me was that he ignored my messages for months as I lovingly reached out. He ghosted me, or in research terms, ostracized me. This is “proven” to be the most painful way to hurt someone versus words, registering as physical pain, according to neuroscience. On top of that, he reported me to the cops. He claimed I had ignored his repeated requests, although there were none, not to contact. He literally copped out of the relationship and gave another meaning to narc-ing!
What comes to mind is my psychology professors’ saying of, “You can’t prove anything” in science. All we can do is theorize to process experiences. There are variables we can’t control, and people are going to choose to disrespect us. I have come to understand that with anything in psychology, the answer is always, “It depends.” Labels can be harmful, but helpful at times to address patterns of behavior as in the case of narcissists.
Labels are a way that we form meaning. We work to uphold the labels we want and get rid of those we don’t. Humans are meaning-making creatures. What distinguishes leaders are those who live courageously to see people for more than the labels, according to Grace Cormier, positive psychology graduate. They respect people enough to take the time to understand them and not settle for the label, or for the fantastical unicorn, in their heads.
Proving people’s perceptions wrong is misleading in that people can feel so pressured to prove people wrong to the point of petrification, where they fear of even trying, or to the point of perfectionism, where people overwork themselves. My friend represents the former, and me, the latter. Trying to prove people wrong got me in trouble when I wanted to prove to my friend that I wasn’t going to be “too nice.”
He would tell me to stand up for myself and be “assertive,” blaming me for why people disrespect me. However, one definition of assertiveness from Scott Arbeitman, Product Analytics Lead at Culture Amp, is “affirmation of a statement without need of proof.” You don’t need proof, meaning strong evidence, to be assertive. I would rather think before passing judgment on people and making decisions.
To me, leadership is not simply believing that there is light at the end of the tunnel for someone. It is not passing by and saying, “You got this!” It is standing by a person and saying, “I got you,” while they are in the tunnel, on their journey. I believe that one day my friend will find the words. For my sake, I am not going to hold my breath anymore in the tunnel with him and catch my breath.
As Dr. Grant, esteemed organizational psychology professor, states, “The only thing we have to prove is that we are willing to improve.” And, if my friend prefers tunnel vision, then it is time to step into the light. In the case of my friend, maybe the best option as a leader is not to stand up to them, or to stand behind them no matter what, and let them stand alone.
Though, I envisioned a bright future where my friend and I could make fun of one another, offering feedback to improve, but have each other’s best interests at heart. That is what a best friend means to me. The most common phrase to describe an effective leader is possessing a sense of humor, according to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. To me, that means you are able to laugh at yourself. You don’t take yourself or others too seriously. It saddens me that my friend thought there was nothing he could do to improve or to help me improve when I asked.
My friend would say that I was only one who understood him, a symptom of narcissism, but still rather endearing that he would share so much about his life with me. As a leader and as a friend, I have learned that empathy is all about making another person feel understood. I couldn’t just ghost him. My friend had no problem because I don’t think he ever learned what being a “best friend” and “empathy” mean.
Granted, buzzwords like “empathy” can be a buzzkill. However, there are nuances, or should I say, new-uances, that provide new meaning in what may seem old and tired. We have become a Society of Skimmers, according to the Society of Human Resources Management, in which we look at lists of articles and read without regard to the meaning. Let’s rectify the meaning of the word, “prove.” It means “to convince,” implying a clear winner and loser, according to Director of Organizational Design, Linda Quarles. “Prove them wrong” is often meant to be a positive phrase. However, nothing is ever a catchall.
We have options and seeing potential options for people makes us leaders. I don’t think I will ever come to terms with how terrible of a falling out I had with my friend. For so long, I refused to believe we were these psych terms that reduced us to “villain” and “victim.” Nevertheless, I am proud to be part of a branch of psychology where I get to power studies that “prove” ways to empower people. I want to spark conversation about ways in which we can all shine, so no one is a villain, and we all are victors.
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(G. Cormier, personal communication, July, 2018).
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