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About 12 years ago, as I was rocking a crying baby back to sleep, I witnessed a scene that changed my life.
I was managing the front desk of a gym at the time and the childcare center teacher would sometimes call me in to soothe crying babies. As the baby settled back to sleep, I overheard a couple of the crèche mums complaining to the childcare teacher about smelly patrons not using deodorant in the gym. They were saying it in a superior, gossipy manner and even sounded racist.
I watched from a distance as one of the mums bravely spoke up and said, “If you have something to say, you should say it to their face!”
It really hit me because I had never felt right about gossip and talking behind people’s backs. But I never had the courage to truly speak up for the other person. Sometimes I’d try to, but never in the direct, straight-forward way this woman did.
Particularly when I was younger, I even participated in it at times for a fear of being excluded from the group. Sometimes I’d get roped into thinking that the person being talked about was the villain, but later find out that the person demonizing someone else was exaggerating, lying, and/or manipulating.
Over the years, the dynamics from high school were still prevalent in adulthood (kids learn it from adults after all). I witnessed things like bullying in the workplace and pack mentality. Sometimes it was the boss being demonized; sometimes it was one vulnerable staff member. Whichever way it went, there may have been an element of truth to what people were saying, but it was never as bad as it was blown out to be and could’ve easily been resolved with honest, loving communication.
For so many years it had eaten away at me. For so many years I wanted to speak up. I wanted to be like that lady at the gym. But I was too scared that I would be abandoned or attacked if I truly stood up for the person who was being picked on.
So, I learnt to navigate these situations by rushing to the bathroom to avoid being pulled into it, pretending I didn’t understand what someone was saying (I’m just a dumb blonde after all), saying nice things about the person being bad-mouthed to counteract the bullying, or freezing and simply saying nothing, then stewing in guilt afterwards—which are all beautiful protective responses of the nervous system by the way.
I felt like I was a negligent witness who never reported crimes, like I was an accessory to gossip and bullying. I was getting so frustrated with not saying anything that finally it was enough to make a change.
Not long after I saw this scene at the gym play out, I promised myself that I would speak up in my next workplace situation.
As the usual drama started to play out around me and a coworker tried to vent to me, I gently but firmly said, “I don’t vent or talk about people behind their back.” Because I said it lovingly, with no judgement—I drew my boundary that I didn’t want to be part of it and said it made me feel bad—they didn’t feel judged. They totally respected me for it.
I was still able to hang out with my colleagues and have fun. When they wanted to vent, they would respectfully laugh and say, “Sarah, we know you’re not into this,” and I’d do my own thing.
Most of my communities and friends now know I don’t gossip and talk about people behind their back. I haven’t been able to consistently implement this in all the communities I’ve joined, but when I have, it has made such a huge difference to my relationship with the people I spend time with.
It’s different if we’re genuinely trying to find a solution and bouncing a situation off someone without blame. (We can feel the difference in our heart and soul.)
Or sometimes if we’re really upset or having a bad day we might burst in a moment of overwhelmed emotion and say something about someone, and it’s okay; it’s about the intention. If we’ve been practicing communicating honestly with people, ideally, we’ve already said the thing that bursts out of us to the other person’s face.
We’ve been conditioned to avoid speaking to people directly for fear of making them feel bad, but it feels much worse to be talked about behind our back. So often it creates a problem where there is no problem, based on incorrect assumptions and judgements.
It’s not just that it’s unkind to say mean things about other people. Yes, it’s hurtful to them, but it also hurts us. It eats away inside us and creates health problems and illness (not to mention issues in relationships that could be easily resolved with love and honesty).
Gossiping is not always malicious, but it is always harmful, and it is almost always a trauma response. When people lash out, it’s a reflection of their own fears and insecurities.
If we find ourselves gossiping, there’s no need to blame ourselves, as guilt only perpetuates the cycle. The way out of these patterns and habits is to forgive and have compassion for ourselves. After all, if we’re hurting others, it means we are hurting. Do our trauma work and practices that help us be more present and self-loving.
When we speak to people honestly and directly about things in a loving way, we clear up any miscommunication and it actually strengthens our relationships.
Integrity is not just about keeping our word to others; it’s about being true to ourselves. It’s actually more about keeping our own mind free of judgement and hate. This allows us to be connected to our true selves more often—to the essence of who we really are. And in that space, we have no desire to criticize, judge, or bad-mouth others.
So next time you’re a witness to gossip or bullying, I encourage you to be brave and either remove yourself, or lovingly speak your truth. Sometimes it means being left out of certain groups, but that’s okay.
True friendship isn’t built on judging and condemning others.
True friendship is built on being vulnerable and sharing, laughing and crying about our own flaws and insecurities, and celebrating our beautifully imperfect human selves.
We are all worthy of true love and connection. No matter what.
(Disclaimer: I realize an area I have been out of integrity with at times in the past is complaining about dodgy dating disasters. I’ve been working on it. Although I definitely always said it to their face.)