Kit Steinkellner
June 14, 2014 9:47 am

I embarrassed myself so hard the other day. I was at a bookstore getting my book-buying on, and I didn’t love the attitude of the clerk ringing me up. Let me say right here that the clerk was completely professional and absolutely did nothing wrong. He was just kind of chilly and not particularly friendly. He reminded me of when I was a bookseller (my first job in college) and some of my fellow booksellers threw out the same chilly and unfriendly vibe, usually straight into my face. So on my way out of the bookstore I started talking trash to my husband about this clerk, and then I feel this tap on my shoulder and I turn around and it’s the clerk, who’s followed me to return my credit card I accidentally left at the cash register. He, of course, has heard my entire stupid rant.

This incident was a.) so embarrassing I’m surprised I survived it and b.) a huge wake-up call for me. I like to think of myself as mature and sophisticated and worldly and all that jazz, but when someone hurts my feelings or makes me feel judged or excluded, I immediately snap back to my junior high self and start trash-talking the person in question to whoever will listen like I’m in eighth grade again and running off my mouth because another girl gave me the side-eye.

The thing is, I don’t just trash strangers. I also trash people I like, even people I love. Family, friends, strangers, the smack talk comes from the same basic place. I’m feeling hurt, pushed around, judged, excluded, whatever, and rather than be upfront with the person who I’m having problems with, I just run my mouth off behind their back.

Gossip is a bad choice, it’s a messed up thing to do, especially when the person you’re talking about is someone you actually care about. I can’t defend myself but I can explain myself. Sometimes the scariest thing in the world is being honest about what really bothers you with someone you really care about. What if that person hates you for the truth? What if you completely mess up that relationship? Or what if it’s not that dramatic, but you still get yelled at a lot which is still really bad! Rather than be brave and confront the person in question about what’s bothering me, I often take the coward’s route and spill all my feelings to a third party.

This always seems like a safer move at the time, but once I’ve cooled down, I always feel pretty gross about my gossip. I haven’t fixed the problem between myself and my mom/sister/friend/whoever. The problem is still there, because rather than really work on my relationship with the person in question, I took the shortcut route to feeling better by vomiting up all my pukey feelings all over a third party. If I was upfront with the person I was having problems with, I would feel worse in the short run (I’m the most conflict-averse person in human history) but probably a lot better in the long run.

So I’ve been trying to change things up. Recently, I got into a bit of a brawl with my mom. Ordinarily I would have backed off way earlier, not made a big deal about the things that bugged me, and then shortly after called my brother and vented or texted my sister and gossiped my butt off. Instead I really had it out with my mom about the various things that were bothering me, and we argued and listened and figured things out and MADE PROGRESS. And it was tough going (I swear on my life, I really am the most conflict-averse person to ever walk the Earth) but our relationship was better for it. And I feel AWESOME about our fight now.

Of course you can’t be honest and upfront about every problem with every person. What, was I going to tell that random book clerk that he reminded me of my mean former co-workers? That would be crazy times. But rather than talk trash every time I feel bad, I’m really trying to be aware of this messed up habit, and when I feel the impulse to gossip hard. I’m trying to figure out if there’s something more productive I can do with my feelings. Sometimes that means confronting the person I’m having a problem with. And sometimes that means taking a bunch of deep breaths, shaking it out, and letting it go.

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