The Cringe Is Real
It’s summertime and surf camp pick up. My pre-teen daughter, Evie, is being chased around our car by a boy in a superhero cape and swim trunks. She runs clockwise, the boy, the opposite direction, ready to catch her. They nearly collide and then she quickly pivots, sprinting away for a rear door. She whips it open, jumps in, slams it shut. “Ha!” she exclaims to the boy through the open window. His face falls. “See you tomorrow,” she says, grinning. “What was that?” I ask as we drive away.
“Ugh! The cringe is real!” Evie exclaims.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that he’s totally cringy. He wanted to give me a hug.”
“So what did you do?” I ask.
“I ran away.”
I let the prior scene sink in for a second. “So…you didn’t want to just tell him ‘no’?”
“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” she answers, as though running like hell is the most logical response to unwanted contact.
“What if you simply stood your ground and nicely said, “‘No, thank you’?”
“I couldn’t, Mom.”
I try to brush aside my nagging thought of parenting fail. Evie and I have almost daily discussions about kindness, but we also talk a lot about self-esteem, sexual harassment and personal safety, too. Suddenly my confident girl on the brink of puberty now feels she cannot say ‘no’ to a boy?
On the drive home we talk. I tell Evie that I understand it can be difficult to hold your ground, but it’s absolutely essential, and that setting boundaries with boys, anyone, doesn’t make you mean, or unkind, it makes you strong, autonomous, safe. No one has the right to touch you simply by asking for it, I tell my daughter. “Someday soon boys will be asking you for a lot more than a hug,” I say, and she laughs and agrees.
My mind jumps to my newly written memoir and a particular situation with a man named Bernie, who’d taken me out on a first date to a really fancy restaurant. To use Evie’s word, the entire date with Bernie was cringy. In fact, Bernie may even be a little unhinged. Like Evie’s boy in the superhero cape, Bernie has special powers, too:
Over dessert Bernie tells me he knows when people are thinking of him. E.S.P. I nod politely.
The waiter presents a silver platter of petit fours and places it in the center of the table. We are never getting out of here.
“Holly, there’s something I would like to ask you now.”
Bernie looks into my eyes. And I, in to his. His are small and brown. “After dinner is over, and we leave the restaurant, I’m wondering if I might be able to kiss you good night.”
“Yes,” he says, nodding.
“You want to know now? Alright. Sure. I guess that would be O.K.”
Oh my God! Why did I just agree to that?
I don’t know, I just want to get this whole thing over with!
Why is it so difficult for me to speak up for myself?
Outside the restaurant I’m standing in the street, looking for a cab. Get. Me. Out. Of. Here! Bernie steps up on to the curb next to me. We’re closer in height now. But I’m still taller. He leans in for the kiss and I pinch my lips together.
In the car home I receive a text. “Thanks for a wonderful evening, Sugar.”
Not unlike my daughter, I too, mishandled a situation involving unwanted contact. Running from Bernie would’ve actually been preferable, versus agreeing to kiss a batshit near-stranger. Sure, I was thrown off guard by the unexpected move to lock in a lip lock before dinner was even over. (Who does that?!) Why didn’t I just respond to Bernie with a simple ‘No, thank you’?
What’s also revealing about my behavior is that my knee-jerk reaction was to immediately say ‘yes’ to something that wasn’t good for me. I’m looking very carefully at that tendency within myself. Why is my first instinct to simply please others? What does this behavior cost me personally? And what especially concerns me, is my behavior somehow influencing my daughter, setting a poor example for her? I’m not a psychologist, but this seems rather messed up, avoidant behavior, among other things.
A few days later, I’m reading the news and see a story about Taylor Swift, a musician Evie admires. “Look at this,” I say to Evie, handing her the article. “Taylor Swift faced sexual assault, harassment and she fought back. Not only did she fight back, she won.”
Evie reads the article and says, “I love that she only sued for $1. Because it’s not about the money.”
Exactly – this isn’t about the money, nor is it about whether Bernie just bought me dinner and felt I owed him something, it’s about so much more than that.
Another lesson from Evie’s car chase scene is the realization that the cringe will always be real. Throughout our lives, there will always be uncomfortable situations, and not just in the context of unwanted touch. Situations will inevitably arise that have the potential to make us squirm and maybe even want to run. People will ask things of us that we don’t want to give, they might put us on the spot and ask us to give our time or money for things we don’t support; there’s a myriad of ways that we can be made to feel uncomfortable, especially if we’re sensitive, caring people, who want to be kind, who want to help others. But in those cringy moments we always have choices – do we avoid, do we run, or do we find the calm within ourselves and meet the challenge with courage?
These days I’m changing my expectations. Instead of expecting or hoping that life will mostly be comfortable, polite, civil, roses and sunshine, I actually am coming to expect its opposite. Now I anticipate great numbers of cringe-worthy situations. Situations that much of the time, not only will they catch me off guard, I couldn’t have prevented them anyway, partly because I can’t read other people’s minds. Except Bernie, of course. He’s got super powers. I’m still working on mine.