Reclaiming our essence
“I can never read your writing.” “That was awful. Maybe you should leave the athletics to your sister.” “I can’t tell what this drawing is supposed to be.” “You’ll never be any good at…”
Do any of these sound familiar? I know very few adults who grew up without at least some discouragement or negative messages as children. Whether malicious, impatient, or well-meaning— some misguided attempt at instruction or to protect us from failure or humiliation, perhaps— this information shapes our perceptions about who we are or what we were capable of accomplishing, not only as children, but as adults as well. Sure, some kids can hear “you can’t” comments and blow them off, determined to persevere, somehow drawing on an inner reserve that dismisses such criticism as inaccurate, even idiotic. But on a vulnerable day, to a sensitive soul, the impact can be devastating, imprinting limitations that can last a lifetime.
How often do you hear people say things like, “Oh, I’m no good at math” or “I can’t draw to save my life”? Where do these statements come from? Are these the words of people who were never coached beyond some early mistakes or messy first efforts? I remember a 16-year-old gang member insisting that he couldn’t do a certain type of math problem, and when I suggested that maybe he couldn’t do the problem because he hadn’t been taught correctly, he almost broke down in tears. Nobody, not once, had ever suggested that his difficulty was the result of anything beyond a lack of effort, attention, or smarts.
These messages are scars we carry with us for years. A friend in my Zumba class, a retired teacher a year or two younger than I, told me that even going to this class was a special victory for her. “My gym teacher once told me that I got an F in class because that was the lowest grade she could give me,“ she said. She is not alone. There are others in this class who have to overcome the memory of being the fat kid in class, the slowest one on the track, or the one whose PE teacher rolled her eyes in utter disgust at some clumsy attempt at something— just to actually show up in that class. (I can vouch for all three of these experiences, by the way.) But we go because for the first time for many of us, we don’t have to be good. It’s enough to simply be there, moving, doing the best we can.
And in this environment of acceptance and encouragement, a place where our efforts are appreciated and only our progress is noted, something amazing is happening. I can’t speak for everyone in the class, but I’ve seen a gradual shift in my sense of who I am and I feel like every time I simply show up, I am recovering a piece of myself that got lost over years of negative feedback and experiences (or perhaps simply a lack of encouragement in this particular area of my life, even as other skills and talents were amply praised).
It’s been a while since the thought that I’m a terrible dancer or un-athletic person really occurred to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the indifference that creeps up with age and forgetfulness. But perhaps it’s more about being in a place that feels emotionally safe, supportive, and (God help me) fun, that is allowing me to reclaim something that got lost or shut down along my journey.
So I thought I’d write about this topic for two reasons. As the year comes to a close and many of us are in a reflective space these days, I wanted to challenge us all to pay attention to the “self” we present to the world, in our words, deeds, and beliefs. To examine our sense of who we are— our strengths as well as perceived weaknesses, which may not actually be weaknesses as much as “lost pieces” of who we are or could be.
I would like to invite everyone to identify one aspect of self-concept that maybe needs an update, if not a complete overhaul. What messages did you receive about a lack of talent or potential, inadequacy, or failure? Which ones have you overcome or proved wrong? Which ones are you willing to challenge, and what types of support are available to offer you the instruction, practice, and encouragement you might need? Are you willing to go into the new year, or start a new day, ready to release the burden of messages that may have been totally inaccurate all along? Identify a first step you plan to take to move forward.
Secondly, as so much of my work (and by extension, this site) is devoted to adult-child relationships, I’d like to encourage everyone to start paying attention to what we say to the kids in our lives— students, children, even strangers we encounter. Listen for messages of discouragement, words that discount or dismiss a dream, reactions that might even remotely convey a lack of faith. Notice the negativity around you and commit to replacing a negative message a child might hear with any comment that could leave the door open for the child to not internalize the negativity: “I disagree.” “I haven’t experienced you in that way.” “That’s not true at all.”
Article reprint: “Dream Big” Ways to respect and encourage childrens’ hopes, goals and dreams, and how to avoid adult behaviors that can get in the way.
Also: I’ve been writing a good bit about the impact of discouragement and the relationship between negative messages we receive and things like achievement, engagement, intention, and self-concept. Click here for a great article (and video) to show what happens when kids get a healthy dose of encouragement and recognition, along with a little space and a few resources to explore and learn. I know few teachers who wouldn’t love to see this level of engagement, creativity, self-motivation, and dedication from our students. Thank you to Tyll Hertsens for a great blog post.
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