How I Developed Self-Worth After Being Sexually Harassed and Fired

“Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.” ~Unknown

In my early twenties, I was a food and beverage manager at a nice hotel in Portland, Maine. About a month after I started working there, they hired our department director, a man twice my age whom I would report to.

At the end of his first week, we went out for a “get to know each other” drink at a loud and busy bar. As we drank and chatted, he was physically very close to me. I told myself it was because of the noise.

His knees were against mine as we chatted facing each other on barstools. It made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t do anything about it. He put his hand on my thigh as we talked. I pretended it didn’t bother me.

He leaned in very close to my face and ear as he talked about himself and told me how attractive I was. He led me through doorways with his hand gently on the small of my back.

There was more of this over the next few months. More of him stepping on and just over that invisible line. More of me acting as though I was okay with it and convincing myself that I was.

A few months after that night, he and I were in a position to fire a male employee who had several complaints against him for not doing his work.

The morning before the firing, Human Resources pulled me into their office to tell me that this employee had lodged a complaint about my boss and me. He had said that he knew we were going to fire him, and he believed it was because my boss and I were having an affair. His “proof” was that he saw us at the bar that Friday night and saw us “kissing.” There was even a line cook who backed up his story.

A few days later, both of these employees admitted that they didn’t exactly see us kissing, they just saw us talking very closely together, and it looked intimate.

HR dropped the complaint but no longer felt comfortable with firing this employee, so he stayed on. A few weeks later after a busy event that went poorly due to being understaffed, I was taken into the CEO’s office, and I was fired.

The male employee continued working there. My male boss continued working there. The male employee was promoted to take my now vacant position. My male boss was promoted to work at a larger resort at a tropical destination.

These two events—being accused of having an affair with my married older boss, and subsequently being fired for an event that I wasn’t even in charge of staffing—were the two lowest points of my professional career.

I honestly rarely think back to this time in my life, but I also recently realized that I never talk about this experience because of my embarrassment that I let this happen without objection.

What This Story is Really About

I didn’t think that my boss would hurt me. I wasn’t even worried that I would lose my job if I pushed back. I was afraid that if I acted like someone who was bothered by his comments, I would be seen as a lame, no fun, boring, stuck-up prude.

I subconsciously believed that my worthiness as a person was determined by people who were cooler than me, more successful than me, smarter than me, or more liked than me.

I believe that had I told my boss “no,” he would have listened. I’d gotten to know him over several months, and while he was egotistical, dim-witted, and selfish, I think he would have respected my boundaries had I set them. I just never did.

There are a lot of layers to this story. Far too many to cover in one post.

But the reason for writing this today is to share what I was so ashamed of. I was ashamed that young, twenty-something me was so insecure and so afraid of rejection that her people-pleasing led to allowing this man to touch her and act inappropriately.

She was so afraid that if she set a boundary and said “no” she would be seen as too emotional, weak, and a complainer. She would become “less than.”

I’ll restate that there are a lot of layers to this; from the patriarchal system at this business (and society as a whole), to the abuse of men in power, to mixed messages at high school where girls were not allowed to wear certain clothes because the boys would get distracted, to a lack of examples through the 90s/early 2000’s of what it looks like for a young woman to stand up for herself in a situation like this, and far beyond.

But the part of the story I want to focus on right now is my insecurity. This is the part of the story that I had the most shame and regret about, because this was not an isolated incident for me.

Insecurity was a Trend Throughout My Life

People-pleasing was a huge problem for me in several areas of my life for many years. It’s something that held me back from so much.

  • I didn’t leave a long relationship that I’d dreamt of ending for fear that I would disappoint our families.
  • I let people walk all over me, interrupt me while I spoke, and tell me what I should think.
  • In my late twenties I remember being home alone, again, crying that I had no one who would want to spend time with me or go somewhere with me, feeling sad and lonely, when in reality I was just too scared and embarrassed to pick up the phone and ask, for fear of rejection.

I wasted so many years and felt a lot of pain, and a whole lot of nothing happened as I was stuck. Stuck feeling worthless, unlikable, and unknowing how to “please” my way out of it.

I spent years numbing how uncomfortable my insecurity made me feel by smoking a lot of pot. I avoided what I came to realize were my triggers by staying home or finding excuses to leave early if I did go out. I blamed everyone else for how they made me feel. I compared myself to everyone and constantly fell short.

Until eventually, I realized the cause for all this pain and discomfort was believing my worth was based on what other people thought of me.

The Emotional Toolbox That Saved Me

If I could go back in time to give myself one thing, it would be the emotional toolbox that I’ve collected over the years so that I could stop living to please other people, because I know now that I am inherently worthy.

By my thirties I found myself on a journey to lift the veil of insecurity that hid me from my real self. This wall I’d inadvertently built to protect myself was keeping me from seeing who I really was beneath my fear and anxiety.

Once I found the courage to start tearing down that wall and opening myself to the vulnerability necessary to truly connect with the real me, I was able to discern between who I am and what I do. I learned to stop judging myself. I learned my true value. And I liked what I saw.

Finding My Core Values

I came to realize that it’s hard to feel worthy when you don’t really like yourself. And it’s even harder to genuinely like yourself if you don’t truly know yourself. Figuring out my core values was a crucial part of the puzzle.

Core values are the beliefs, principles, ideals, and traits that are most important to you. They represent what you stand for, what you’re committed to, and how you want to operate in the world.

Knowing your core values is like having a brighter flashlight to get through the woods at night. It shines a light on the path ahead—a path that aligns with your true self—so that you can show up in the world and to challenging situations as the person you want to be.

It helps you decide in any given scenario if you want to be funny or compassionate, direct or easy-going, decisive or open-minded. These aren’t easy decisions to make, but knowing how you want to be in this world helps you make the decisions that best align with your authentic self.

And when you truly know yourself and act intentionally and authentically in tune with your values (as best as you can) a magical thing happens: You connect with your own inherent worthiness.

For me, I came to realize that I am a compassionate, kind, courageous, funny, well-balanced woman constantly in pursuit of purposeful growth. I like that person. She’s cool. I’d hang out with her.

More importantly, I believe she is a good person deserving of respect. Which means I don’t need to accept situations that cross my boundaries. I have a right to speak up when something makes me uncomfortable.

So how do you want to be? Which of your principles and qualities matter most to you? And what would you do or change if you chose to let those principles and qualities guide you?

Connecting With Others About My Shame

Shame breeds in the darkness. We don’t normally speak up about the things that we feel embarrassed about. And that leads to us feeling isolated and alone with how we feel.

Whether it’s reading stories online, talking with friends, joining a support group, going to therapy, or working with a coach, share and listen. A vital component of self-compassion is learning to connect over our shared experiences. And it takes self-compassion to respect and believe in our own self-worth, especially when confronted with our inner critic.

By sharing my feelings of insecurity, I learned that a beautiful friend of mine also felt ugly. I thought, “Wow, if someone that gorgeous could think of herself as anything less than, my thinking might be wrong too.” I found out that even talented celebrities from Lady Gaga to Arianna Huffington to Maya Angelou have all felt insecure about their abilities. That somehow gave me permission to feel the way that I did, which was the first step in letting it go.

Who can you connect with? If you’re not sure, or you aren’t at a place yet in your journey to feel comfortable doing that, perhaps start by reading stories online.

Coaching Myself Through Insecurity

Alas, I am only human. Therefore, I still fall victim to moments of insecurity and feel tempted to let other people dictate my worth. Knowing that purposeful growth is important to me, I know that the work continues, and I’m willing to do it.

So I coach myself through those challenging times when I say something stupid and worry about being judged or I come across someone who is similar to me, but more successful and fear that means I’m not good enough. I’ll ask myself questions as a way of stepping out of self-judgment mode, and into an open and curious mindset. These are questions like:

  • If my good friend was experiencing this, how would I motivate her?
  • Did I do the best I could with what I had?
  • If the universe gave me this experience for a reason, what lesson am I supposed to be learning so that I can turn this into a meaningful experience?
  • What uncomfortable thing am I avoiding? Am I willing to be uncomfortable in order to go after what I want?

Or I’ll break out the motivational phrases that remind me of my capabilities or worthiness like:

  • I can do hard things.
  • My worthiness is not determined by other people’s opinions.
  • This is just one moment in time, and it will pass.
  • Even though this is difficult, I’m willing to do it.
  • I forgive myself for making a mistake. I’ve learned from it and will do better next time.

Tools like these are simple, but priceless. They gave me my life. And I can say now without hesitation, I like myself, I love myself, I love my life, I’m worthy as hell, and I’m my own best friend. That’s how I want to live my life.

Because of this, I have the confidence to speak my truth with courage, and I have the confidence to live authentically and unapologetically myself. And the number one person I’m most concerned with pleasing is myself.

About Sandy Woznicki

Sandy is your Resilience Sherpa, guiding big-hearted women leaders up Anxiety Mountain, carrying your pack and cheering you on while you climb your way to become the most Zen-Badass™ version of yourself from the boardroom to the family room using the Graceful Resilience® Method. Catch her free training on how to Trust your Empowered Action.

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