Treat ’em Mean, Keep ’em Keen

Any fans of Back to the Future will be familiar with Michael J Fox’s character Marty McFly’s reaction when asked, “Are you chicken?”.

For those who have not experienced the cinematic genius of Robert Zemeckis’ epic trilogy, think red rag to a bull. Throughout the various timelines of Marty’s life, upon hearing those words, his anger is ignited and he is stopped in his tracks. It’s a sure fire way for his nemesis Biff to get under his skin and provoke a reaction.

Sometimes the provocation triggers such determination that Marty achieves what otherwise seemed impossible; but at other times, Marty’s impulsive reaction to the “chicken” question clouds his judgement, causing him to make bad choices, which ultimately lead to his self-destruction.

I was reminded of that “red rag” analogy when interviewing Sheara Abrahams for her work-life balance profile. She described her fury at a colleague’s judgement that getting married was akin to “committing career suicide”. This triggered a strong defiance and determination to prove her wrong.

I could identify with that, having myself felt enraged at various points in my career by throw-away comments or assumptions that colleagues, friends or family have made about my personal circumstances of working motherhood. It’s one of the things that prompted me to write my blog, A Fine Balance, in the first place.

Those “red rag” provocations, though hurtful to overcome initially, can often be a catalyst for change. Much as it can cloud your judgement, anger is a passionate emotion that can help crystallise your viewpoint. When it comes to work-life balance choices, it can help reaffirm the direction you do or don’t want to take. Channelling that anger constructively can be incredibly powerful in realising your ambitions.

But it can work the other way too. Absorbing and internalising your perception of people’s judgements can compound self-doubt and self-criticism, causing you to make self-destructive choices. The truth can be painful and so when a cutting remark is made, it often taps into a person’s own insecurities and can cause bitterness and resentment. It’s not easy to find the resilience to overcome it, but like Sheara demonstrated, doing so can reap its own rewards.

Some people I’ve spoken to about this seem more thick-skinned at letting people’s judgemental comments slide. We all have our Achilles heel, I suppose, and what infuriates one person can be easily shrugged off by another. It also depends on who’s delivering the message.

Looking back, I can see that, like Sheara, the career/motherhood comments that so riled me up in the past actually provided me with clarity and motivation to strive for what I wanted. On reflection, they were a gift.

I’m by no means suggesting that we should all go out and make tactless remarks at our colleagues, friends and family to fire up their determination. The sad thing is that however careful we are with our words, we are all probably guilty at some point in our lives of making a throw-away comment that touches the nerve of our interlocutor, even without us realising.

But when on the receiving end, it’s worth noting it, and recognising how powerful that rage can be if used wisely. A person cannot be responsible for what others say, only how they respond to it.

We see this in the case of Marty McFly, who, by the end of the BTTF trilogy, having witnessed how his reaction to accusations of cowardice (his Achilles heel) could derail his future dreams, is a changed man. When goaded on in one of the final scenes to participate in a dangerous car race, the usual trigger, “What’s wrong, McFly? Chicken?“, is rendered ineffective as Marty finds the clarity, confidence and motivation to focus on what he wants. He is finally in control of his temper and resilient to the judgements of others.

We don’t have the privilege of time travel that Marty McFly has to see first-hand the negative effect that reacting self-destructively to others’ provocations could have. But there’s a lot we can learn from this fictional character about our choices when something, or someone, incites an impassioned reaction.

The choice is yours whether you fall victim to your anger, or harness it constructively to write a whole new version of your future; one which may have seemed otherwise impossible. As Doc, Marty’s eccentric scientist friend, infamously says at the end of the trilogy, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one”.

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