Instinct Is Imperative
Among the most important lessons I have learned throughout my career is the importance of trusting my instincts. Once you establish that trust, you then need to stay strong and hold your ground when your instincts are challenged. It was in my very first job that I felt the full impact of doing something I knew was wrong, just because a person with authority told me to do it.
I was 15, and I was hired as a swim instructor for toddlers and kids. The pay hardly covered the cost of getting myself to the pool, but I was so proud to have a real job. I loved telling people that I could “meet up after work”, it made me feel sophisticated and important.
One day, a little girl came in who was absolutely terrified of the water. She was screaming for her parents and refused to get in the pool. My boss told me to hold her and wade in the water with her so she could get used to it. I did as she said, and waded in waist-deep with the tiny girl on my hip as big crocodile tears rolled down her cheeks and she pleaded for her mom. She screamed at full capacity with every step we took into deeper water. I held her so the water just covered her ankles, I tried to talk to her in a soothing tone, assuring her that she was safe, that her mom would be back soon, and that if she wiggled her toes she could make fun splashes. Nothing calmed her down. After 20 minutes or so, my boss told me to threaten to dunk her underwater if she didn’t stop crying.
I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine a more traumatizing way to be introduced to something new. I wanted her to feel heard and understood so that she felt safe to push the limits of her comfort zone. I didn’t think it was at all appropriate and told my boss that I wasn’t comfortable doing that. She stood on the edge of the pool hovering over me, insisting that I say it. Intimidated and naive, I thought to myself, “this woman is my boss, I have to do what she says.” I looked into the little girl’s watery brown eyes, wiped some tears from her little cheeks and said in a very soft tone, “you need to stop crying, okay?”
My boss continued to hover and said “tell her.”
The little girl whimpered and wriggled in my arms. My stomach twisted in knots as a discontenting conflict of morals took place in my mind. Hesitantly, I nearly whispered, “you need to stop crying, or we’re going to go all the way underwater.”
Her eyes grew huge with terror. The way she looked at me, I could tell that any trust we had started to develop between us was broken. She screamed the loudest scream yet, thrashing and reaching toward dry land.
“Dunk her.” my boss demanded from the side of the pool.
“I don’t think…” I stammered
“She’s screaming so much, what if she inhales water?” I worried.
“She’ll be fine. Do it.” My boss said cooly.
I said in my calmest voice, “okay, we’re going to go underwater now, it’s going to be fun! Just hold your breath and we’ll go really quick!” She didn’t stop screaming. “Here we go, are you ready?”
I bent my knees and lowered the little girl down until water just covered her nose and cheeks, careful not to splash her eyes, and popped her back up again as quickly as I could. She gasped and coughed and began screaming again. I realized immediately that my boss had been wrong about this method. I also realized that I could have, and should have, said no to her. I felt sad, angry, and remorseful. I knew that even though I was acting under my boss’s instruction, it would still be me that this little girl would remember as the awful person who made her go underwater when she was scared.
“Do it again, all the way.” My boss demanded.
“No. We’re done.” I was disgusted at the lack of empathy, and could feel any respect I once had for my superior dwindling away. Despite my boss’s objections, I walked the little girl out of the pool, wrapped her in a towel, and brought her back to her parents. She wouldn’t even look at me, and I felt so ashamed of myself that I had let us both be bullied.
It was then that I realized that people with authority aren’t always right. They’re not always kind or just. And sometimes, they take advantage of those younger and less experienced than they are, just to exert power and control. It is so important that we hold our ground, stay true to our own morals, and trust our instincts to guide the way. No matter how intimidating it can feel, we always have the option to say no when something feels wrong. When we go against our own better judgement and do something that feels wrong, we always pay the price for it.
Trust your gut, and be strong enough to listen to it.