Belligerence has long been my M.O. for dealing with the fact that way too many things in life are beyond my control. But I’m starting to realise that being a badass might not be working for me anymore.
Browsing through old family albums, I came across photos of myself as a seven-year-old. In most of them I am scowling. I have my hand on my hip and I’m staring intently at the camera with fierce brows, the top left corner of my lip raised in what looks like the beginning of a hoodlum’s snarl. If a kid with that face came up to me today, I’d probably kick it. That demeanor, together with the frightening pageboy haircut my mother had given me, made me look like Damien from “The Omen” — a thuggish little demon child ready to unleash the wrath of hell on anyone who messed with her.
I haven’t changed much since then. Unfortunately for me, those childhood photos capture my personality as a grown-up. I’m a badass — the type of person that the Oxford’s Lexico dictionary describes as “tough, uncompromising, or intimidating”
As I grew up, I learnt enough manners (from my very gracious parents) to blend in with non-demonic types. I learnt how to speak and act appropriately so I could associate with those with gentler natures, those who walk in the light. I adopted all the right facial expressions so I could be part of civilized society. Under the right circumstances, if you met me and we engaged in polite chitchat over a cuppa tea, you’d think I was a right sweetheart, you might even think me good-natured and kindhearted.
But boy is it hard work keeping up the charade!
Being a badass served me well as a teenager when I needed to break ranks with my parents and other authority figures. In my twenties, being a badass helped me gain dominance within the party pack, and enabled me to have as much uncomplicated sex as I wanted without suffering heartbreak. In my thirties, it gave me an edge in my professional life because I could chase goals like a rabid dog, never let go and chomp on anyone who got in my way. Somewhere down the road, I figured that if I were badass, people wouldn’t give me as much shit as they would if I were Miss Goody Two-shoes.
My younger, less evolved self saw badassed folks as the straight-talkers and sharp shooters who spoke their mind and always got what they wanted. The way I saw it then, being a badass meant being self-sufficient and hardier than the rest. Badasses were to me, the alpha dogs, the go-getters, the leaders, the dream-chasers, the players, the fighters, the survivors, the movers and the shakers…the legends. I saw individuals with combative, tough-as-nails, ultra-agro personalities as the champions and winners in a world full of wimpy losers, who, as Thoreau puts it “lead lives of quiet desperation”.
And so I had been proud of my badassedness. My “don’t f*ck with me” persona kept me safe, made me feel invincible, kept me well fed. It served as a prophylactic against potential physical, emotional or psychological harm. It was like a super power that protected me from the fangs and claws of all them dark and threatening creatures in the big bad world. Being a badass helped me hang on to the illusion that I had some control in this chancy game of life.
Used informally, “badass” (in America at least) refers to “someone or something that is admired or impressive.” “That was a badass guitar solo!” or “You looked badass in those heels!” But “badass” has other less-cool connotations too. It is also a term used to describe “a bad or slightly frightening person”, “a belligerent or mean person”, or “a person with an unpleasantly extreme appearance, attitude, or behavior”.
Now that I’ve entered my forties, I’m starting to wonder if all those years of defensive living have made me borderline sociopathic, or maybe just a really shitty person. I’m beginning to think that badasses are nothing more than maladjusted schoolyard bullies. As a more emotionally mature, middle-aged woman, I’m seeing cracks in my armor.
When I was in kindergarten, kids would congregate in small groups of three or five in the playground playing hopscotch or acting out make-belief scenarios together. But there was one boy named Ivan who always hung out alone in the sandbox. Ivan invented a game that terrified me, and most of the other kids. His idea of fun involved demanding that nobody entered “his” sandbox. If they did, he would take them “prisoner” and boss them into staying put inside one of the plastic tubular structures in the sandbox. He would then make them his “slave” and they would not be able to leave Ivan’s designated prison until someone reported the kidnapping to a teacher.
As much as I was afraid of Ivan, I also admired his imperiousness. This was a boy who knew that compromise and cooperation were not really his thing. He understood that life was less of a hassle if you could just be lord of your own domain. The ideas of equality and give-and-take were out of the question for him. The only relationship Ivan would entertain was that of master and subject. There’s no “I” in “Team”, but Ivan knew there was no “U” in “King”.
In many ways, I relate to Ivan. I’ve never done well at team sports, not even two-player sports like badminton. I’ve never signed up for an exercise class because I think exercising in groups is weird. Team meetings at the office or anywhere else makes me want to stab my thigh with a ballpoint. I don’t even like travelling or watching movies with other people because I know what I like and what I don’t like, and I don’t want to sit around with others discussing why I should surrender what I like for what I don’t.
But not being able to play or work with others in an equitable fashion means I am alone a lot watching other people in groups. Because I am such an anti-social badass, I don’t get to experience the camaraderie that I see others enjoying. I don’t get as many opportunities to do nice things for others, and my listening and negotiation skills are underdeveloped. By default, my badassedness has made a lone wolf out of me, and the older I get, the more I find myself envying those who know how to do community.
The first time I watched Disney’s “Snow White”, I knew which character I was. On crappy days, I feel like I am walking around with a poison apple in my hand waiting for some innocent to cross me so I can shove it down his or her throat. The weight of the incessant negative talk swirling around my noggin — about both others and myself — feels like a hump on my back or horns growing out of my head.
My eyes are vicious. I’ve perfected a stabbing stare for strangers who invade my personal space in cafes or who walk too close to me on the sidewalks. When people say things I don’t agree with, I’ll roll my eyes so far back into my head I look like I’m having a seizure. If someone says something I deem stupid, my lids flash wide open and my eyeballs bulge to convey just the right amount of incredulity and contempt so said stupid person leaves feeling like a bug. My face too has a way of stilling itself and remaining expressionless for as long as is required to let someone know they do not exist and are not worth reacting to.
I’d like to be the princess with the “skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony” who sings to the birds and cleans the house for the dwarves – she looks much prettier than the crone doesn’t she? — but that’s like asking wild boars to fly.
When I stop long enough to examine my insides and observe how my actions might be construed, I feel ashamed and disgusted because I see so much hubris, selfishness and mean-spiritedness. I see a petulant child masquerading as a woman.
I’ve read and heard that our self-image is tied to our actions and behaviors, so rather than force myself to think and believe different things about myself and others, I’ve tried changing my behaviors and being more pleasant and friendly to others.
“We gain self-esteem from doing esteemable acts,” writes author and psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer. Hanging on to this idea, I’ve been making more of an effort to smile and say hello to people. I’ve been trying — very hard — to keep my mouth shut rather than blurt out the first critical thought that comes to my mind. On days when I’d feeling judgier than normal, I wear sunglasses to demilitarize my eyes. Faking it till I make it is the best I can do on most days.
Because I am such a disagreeable and antagonistic person, there is always an undercurrent of tension in my close relationships — in particular with my husband, parents, sister, and my bosses and colleagues. Everything starts out warm and fuzzy and I am usually extremely upbeat and entertaining, but one wrong word or look from them and all peace and good will is lost.
My head starts spinning and vile things spill out of my mouth. It seems I am only able to do “other people” in small doses. Whenever I spend more than five hours communicating with another person, the potential for conflict inevitably increases because I begin noticing more and more things about them that annoy me and that are incongruous with my beliefs and world view.
Those brave enough to bond with me (or those who have no choice because they are family) appreciate my feistiness and forthrightness to a point, but they know there is dark and nasty self-righteousness bubbling beneath my mask of affability.
My mother admits to walking on eggshells around me and often weighs her responses to my questions lest she proffers the wrong reply and ignites a fuse that leaves us both upset by the end of the conversation. My sister finds my presence oppressive and avoids anything beyond small talk. My father has referred to me as “a vexation to the spirit” and my husband calls me “Little Hitler” or “The Beast”. My girlfriends jokingly call me “a bitch”. The lopsided dynamics of my relationships used to make me strut and holler “I’ve Got the Power” by Snap!, but now I just think it’s sad.
Rather than being the proverbial thorn in their side, I’d much rather be a source of support, love and peace for the people who matter to me.
When I was younger and more afraid, my badass armor seemed the best possible attire for life and all its unknowns. But these days, I’m trying to ease out of that suit. Now, when I’m tempted to growl or claw someone’s eyes out– lest they get to me first — I think of what Dave Chappelle said when he received the Mark Twain Prize at The Kennedy Center: “Be nice and don’t be scared.”