I am petty. There are big things happening in the world right now, but two days ago I got so angry at something that seems so small. You see, I was trying to look up something that I’d written for a past job and I saw that my former boss had simply republished my work under his name. Again.
YOU didn’t write that, motherfucker. I did.
I shot off a quick email:
“Dude. You didn’t write this. Stop stealing my writing. It’s not right. This is how I make a living.” But then just after I pressed “Send,” I hit the undo button.
Is it strange that the worse things get, the more petty I feel? Like, the coronavirus might not be something we can control, but what about just not being an asshole? What about that?
I wonder if I am actually being petty right now, or if I’m using that word to downplay my own worth, my own value. Because truthfully, the plagiarism is just part of a pattern of emotional abuse and manipulation that I experienced with this boss, a pattern that still affects me today.
I don’t want to admit to how much it affected me. After all, one of the synonyms for “petty” is “trivial.” And this was not trivial. It was traumatic.
Speaking of petty, I once wrote a profile for my job about two friends who had started their own design-build firm together. They sent over a picture of the two of them posed like Instagram models or teen heartthrobs from the 90s because this is LA.
I posted the profile via WordPress. My boss loved it. Later, when I went to pull it up, I saw that he had made a single change: He had subbed out the color version of the photo for the black and white version.
I felt a wave of anger and disgust. It was such small change. But it felt like a violation.
It’s hard to talk about disgust, but it’s even harder to feel. It’s the smell of rancid meat, the taste of curdled milk, It makes me want to get as far away from the source as possible.
And I think this is the function of disgust: To signal that something is unsafe, unhealthy, toxic. Disgust communicates something beyond words, thought and rationality. If I discover a rotten bag of potatoes swarming with tiny flying insects and liquefied to mush hidden in a corner by my roommate who has forgotten she put it there, I do not need to know the scientific process of decay.
But at the time, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I even tried to convince myself at one point that it was a mistake, that he hadn’t changed it, that somehow the photos had gotten mixed-up in WordPress.
Nope. He just thought the black and white photo looked better. It was petty. A small gesture of control, at having his fingerprints on my work, a small harbinger of things to come, of his name, his face on my writing.
But I loved my job. I told a friend, “I just need a sandbox. The size of the sandbox doesn’t matter. I just want the freedom to play.”
This was all well and good, but I had a boss who—not all the time, but enough to count—would knock my sand castles over, just so he could feel better. Until finally, even that wasn’t enough and he knocked me over instead. My talent and competence both awed and threatened him, and the only way that he could feel okay was to chip away at my work, and to chip away at me in the process.
Have you ever been both punished and praised for being good at your job? It’s confusing as fuck.
Trauma is so petty. It will make you account for every last thing, it will hold your feet to the fire of memory until you finally scream out in pain. Trauma is petty because you are not. And what happens to you matters and is in no way trivial or insignificant.
All this happened at a tiny lighting company that no one has ever heard of. This was work that I was too good for, and I knew it.
Just because something is small doesn’t make it safe. The stakes were incredibly low. I was way, way too good for my job (and I don’t say that just to brag). When the business or organization or project is small, sometimes the person running the show is even smaller. I don’t mean in stature—though I suppose that could be the case too—I mean on the inside. They are very, very, very, very, very small on the inside (and I don’t say that just to be mean). They don’t have the emotional capacity to treat you like a human being.
They are so small that your primary job becomes protecting their fragile ego. All this just to say: petty tyrants are everywhere (*cough* Writers Blok *cough*). Playing it small in your professional or personal life won’t keep you safe.
So why not shoot for the biggest sandbox possible. Or why not build your own fucking sandbox. It’s okay to need emotional safety in order to create. It’s okay to not want to be erased. That doesn’t make you petty. That makes you so human, so worthy, so huge that not even the worst kind of emotional abuse can keep you from bursting at the seams of life.