On the playground, things are simple. If another kid ever says anything critical (like complain to the other children that you take enough sips at the water fountain to drain an ocean) you just retort “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” with singsongy vengeance and keep right on holding up the line. Problem solved. Their self-esteem still intact, both kids just go right back to playing with one another. But off the playground, at least for me, criticism never struck the same way twice. It didn’t just hurt—it was lethal.

If only I’d kept my big mouth shut! Admittedly, it was my own fault. At the time, it seemed like such a good idea. I had an all girl staff and everyone held a leadership position. Logically, I would teach them Girls Leadership Institute stuff. Duh! Then my colleagues would know—or at least have some sort of familiarity—with giving and receiving constructive criticism, active listening, and “I statements”; what it takes to be an effective leader, pushing and avoiding scripts, and positive ways to manage conflict. So maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when one of the girls used what she learned from me, on me.

I never was any good at playing the Good Girl game. Sure, I had the right parts and pieces. I came with the required two X chromosomes, two ovaries, and two breasts. And my mom paid the extra money for the gear: a helmet of insecurity, knee pads of perfectionism, and a quieted mouthpiece. On the first day of practice, I showed up prepared—physically, at least.

Even with all the right equipment, I could not wrap my head around the game’s objective. And I struggled immensely with the regulations—there were so many and you had to know them all to win. On top of that, every new opponent came with their own set of house rules. You never played good girl the same way twice.

I just couldn’t keep up and the other girls on the team took notice. At first, they helped me out. Girls pulled me to the side after practice. They spent one-on-one time teaching me moves. I picked up some things better that way but when game time rolled around, I contributed more to our losses than anything else.