We’re taught to be polite. We’re taught to be respectful. But what happens when being polite and respectful is killing you?
I mentioned to some friends recently that I didn’t used to be loud and pushy. In fact, I was quiet and rather meek for a long time. They were shocked. If you’re a long time reader, you might be surprised, too. They couldn’t imagine me ever being shy about speaking my mind. But they didn’t know me before.
I was a shy child. When an adult, even a well known friend of my parents, spoke to me, I would hide behind my mother’s legs. I got past that, as children do, but I was always shy about expressing my opinions. I hated raising my hand in class, even when I knew I had the right answer. Bit by bit I started raising my hand and volunteering thoughts and ideas. Still, I was never pushy about it. I would tell my boss what I thought, then go with whatever he decided.
There was no one moment when that changed. It was a gradual thing that snuck up on me over time. Then one day, someone else brought up the need to be pushy with doctors, and I had a sudden flash back to the days when I was timid, and I realized I wasn’t like that any more.
I was a child when I had my first symptoms, so I did what my parents and my doctors said to do. It was always some combination of Advil, heat, ice, support braces, etc. None of it worked. Still, complaining made things worse. I learned early on that if I was too insistent about things, I’d be ignored. I was lucky that my parents never ignored me, but certain doctors and teachers did. Several openly suggested I was making the whole thing up.
As I became an adult, I still wasn’t taken seriously. And even when the doctors took me seriously, I still received poor care. I got shuttled between doctors within an insurance-induced maze and continued to get worse and worse. I was told not to come in any more. I learned to speak up for myself in college, where the disability support services were horribly lacking. I pushed for what I needed to succeed in class, but only within the strict bounds of cultural politeness.
In my early 20s I had an unusual ability to see a doctor of my choosing for a short time. I won’t get into the insurance loophole, but I found it and used it. For the first time, I took things into my own hands against the advice of my doctors. And for the first time in 11 years, I got a diagnosis. That was my first taste of how going against the grain could help me.
Somewhere in my late 20s or early 30s, I started to stand up for myself more. When doctors would bend my hand and ask, “Does this hurt?” and I said yes, they would still try to do it again, but unlike a decade before, I pulled away. I argued with insurance representatives, even when it did no good. I tried to get better care. I was still being polite most of the time, but I was pushing that boundary more and more.
Around this time, my health took a dive. The doctors said they couldn’t do anything. I knew I had to take over. If I didn’t, what would become of me? If that wasn’t enough, I was fighting with a disability insurance company and with social security for benefits that I knew I deserved. It felt like my life was falling apart. It was do or die, probably literally. So I did. In an effort for self-preservation, I stood up for myself. When a doctor didn’t want to run a test, I asked why. When they gave a reason, I debated, using the facts I had learned through my own research. When my primary care physician didn’t want to give me a referral to a specialist I suspected could help (and he later did!), I switched doctors. I interviewed doctors at the first appointment to see if I would stay with them. I asked for more tests, more treatments, more of everything that I thought could possibly help me. I was polite when that seemed to be the most likely way to get what I wanted, and I was rude when that seemed the better way to get what I wanted. I argued, pleaded, and even yelled. I stopped short of becoming abusive, but otherwise, I pushed hard.
Pushiness has carried over into other parts of my life. I’m sure some people find it annoying. Others find my forthrightness refreshing. I find it necessary.
I don’t know when being pushy became my default setting, but it did. And it probably saved my life. It’s not the best route for everyone, but for me it was the only way I could find.